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Back to the library...

Many years ago, a fellow who worked in television told me of a little exercise he had been given as a young trainee producer that had stood him in good stead throughout his career. The instructor, he said, had invited them all to consider the various media of books, radio and television and to imagine that they had been invented in the reverse order. They were then asked to explain what advantages each had over what had preceded it.

Television, by its very nature, leaves little to the imagination. Radio is a better medium for mystery, or for any writer who wishes to have absolute control over what is put before the audience. Television also suffers from the need to have a picture all the time, which means that things have to keep moving and one is deprived of the possibility of wallowing in delicious prose without visual distraction.

Both radio and television, however, suffer from being forced to impose their own pace on the listener or viewer. Lines are spoken and then they are gone, rushing on to something else before the audience has time to reflect, at his or her own pace, on what has been said or what just happened. The reader of a book can slow down or speed up, or spool back to an earlier part if desired with much greater ease than even the best modern electronic equipment can offer.

Therein lies the reason that so many film adaptations of great books are a disappointment. There is little room for writing that is designed to be savoured in a film script. Plot is everything - apart, sad to say, from the special effects. And if you are wondering where all this is leading, I can now confess that I have been to see Dorian Gray, the new film of, or, to be more accurate, loosely based on Oscar Wilde's brilliant novel The Picture of Dorian Gray.

I had not read the book for some 40 years, but I remember how impressed I had been at the richness of Wilde's prose as he traced the decline of poor Dorian down an ever-increasing spiral of sinfulness and indulgence, keeping his beautiful youthful looks while the painting of him in the attic grew older and older, bearing all the scars of his debauchery. The character of his mentor in sin, Sir Henry Wotton, is also deliciously and meticulously drawn by Wilde, yet all this seems to fall by the wayside in a film that luxuriates only in the visual aspects of Dorian's sinful life and the squalor of 19th century London.

The film begins as a loose adaptation of the novel, but rapidly changes style into something more reminiscent of Hammer Horror than a classic novel. And when the creature in the portrait starts wheezing and heavy breathing, and trying to burst out of the frame, it all becomes too Harrypotterish to take remotely seriously.

It is possible to turn great books into great films. Jonathan Demme did it with Silence of the Lambs; Peter Jackson did it with Lord of the Rings. But the picture of the Picture of Dorian Gray has little to recommend it unless, as in my case, it sends you fleeing to the library to read the book again.

Copyright 2009 Gulf Daily News

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Publication:Gulf Daily News (Manama, Bahrain)
Date:Oct 1, 2009
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