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Tuesday, November 07, 2006

 

ModFab On...The History Boys

THE HISTORY BOYS
Starring: Richard Griffiths, Frances de la Tour, Samuel Barnett, Dominic Cooper, Stephen Campbell Moore, and Clive Merrison
Written by Alan Bennett
Directed by Nicholas Hytner
Rated:
R for language and sexual content

Plays become movies only through a rough, painful midwifing -- a transformation that often, ironically, scrubs away the distinguishing features that made the piece so tantalizing in the first place. Screenwriters call this "opening up" a play, giving it added locations and connective scenes, flattening out the narrative, and losing the tethers of theatrical limitations...smearing the specificity for a wider demographic appeal. Sometimes, this works beautifully. In adapting Chicago, Bill Condon found Roxy's wondrous daydream of fame; Kenneth Branagh discovered the comic heart of Much Ado About Nothing for a new, less literary generation of Shakespeare fans. But these are the exceptions. One only has to look at the depressing string of Pulitzer winners like Proof, A Chorus Line, Dinner with Friends and Rent to see how badly Hollywood can muck it up.

Just such an "opening up" has happened to The History Boys, the Tony and Olivier Award-winning stage phenomenon. Both a charmingly amoral comedy and a serious drama, the play is a damning indictment of modern education, a Dead Poets Society with grit, steel and bite. A classroom of talented students -- including bad boy Dakin (Dominic Cooper), religious Scripps (Jamie Parker) and burgeoning homosexual Posner (Samuel Barnett) -- are preparing for the exams to Cambridge and Oxford, but the faculty is at odds. Hector (Richard Griffiths) espouses a teaching style best described as idiosyncratic, one the prizes knowledge for its own sake. But the administration has hired a 'specialist', Irwin (Stephen Campbell Moore), whose goal is to teach the kids a different skill set...how to impress the examination panel.

Sadly, the move to celluloid has defanged the piece, leaving a shaggy, smartassed and sentimental dramedy in its place. That may be plenty for those who are unfamiliar with the stage version; it does not lack in entertainment value, and certainly, the performances are still worth the trip. (The original London and Broadway cast, kept completely intact, make an effortlessly sublime transition to the screen.) Griffiths has softened his star turn, but it is no less powerful; the sad-eyed Frances de la Tour finds a weary affection in her overstressed history professor.

Ultimately, however, the film adaptation of The History Boys is missing the clarity, crispness, and construction of its stagebound cousin. There's a lugubrious shape to the difficult sexual and political themes of the tale; what once seemed breathtaking and shattering now is merely worth a raised eyebrow. It won't be surprising if moviegoers wonder what all the fuss was about, what theatregoers could have possibly seen that deserved such accolades. The answer, of course, is that despite having the same title, they aren't seeing the same work...it has been "opened up" to the point of losing its most spectacular essence.

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