Culture: Waugh – what is he good for?

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Next Friday sees the release of Brideshead Revisited (pictured), the film version of Evelyn Waugh's famous novel. I haven't seen it and for all I know it is a masterpiece, but the reviews in America, where it came out on 25 July, have been distinctly mixed.

Waugh's novels have proved notoriously difficult to adapt for the big screen. Indeed, he appears to have reached this conclusion himself after an abortive trip to Hollywood in 1947. He went out there to work on a film version of Brideshead Revisited, but after seven weeks he withdrew the rights to the book and returned to England. This experience formed the basis of The Loved One – a book that was eventually turned into a film in 1965 after numerous screenwriters had struggled with it, including Luis Buñuel and Elaine May. Waugh tried to withdraw the rights to The Loved One as well.

Apart from that, there have been two other attempts: A Handful of Dust in 1988 and Bright Young Things in 2003, neither of which could be judged a success. To date, the only unqualified triumph has been the television adaptation of Brideshead Revisited in 1981.

Why should this be? My theory is that Waugh's novels are too nihilistic to make good films. The scenery changes but the characters don't, at least not significantly. The sinners are untroubled by conscience, virtue is more likely to be punished than rewarded, and there's very little opportunity for redemption. In Waugh's fictional universe – unlike his life – there is no God. Society may have been organised according to moral and religious principles once, but not any more. The world has gone to hell in a handbasket and the only thing to look forward to is the next life.

Such a bleak, pessimistic view of mankind makes for compelling literature, but rather unsatisfactory cinema. Movie audiences may not demand happy endings, but they require some character development over the course of 90 minutes. They want apparently weak men to discover hitherto untapped sources of inner strength. They want the villains to display a glimmer of humanity in the final reel. They want boys to become men and fallen women to redeem themselves. Such transformations are at the core of all great movies – and they are almost entirely absent from Waugh's novels.