Saturday, November 25, 2006

The History Boys

As a devout follower of arts both theatrical and celluloid, here is one thing I know for sure: Theater to film transfers are, on the whole, preferrable to the reverse. Some of the greatest motion pictures ever made began their lives on stage: A Streetcar Named Desire, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf, West Side Story to name but three that instantly spring to mind.

But, give or take the hosannas for Julie Taymor's Disney adaptation The Lion King some years ago on Broadway, the movie-to-stage transfer does not yield such bounties. Too often it's just a matter of financials, a cheap way to fill theater seats by way of name recognition and marketability. What you see on stage, however charming --The Full Monty, among others, I'm talking to you-- is often a scene by scene transfer of what you saw in the movie. There's precious little thinking about what works in one medium versus what works in another. Take the length of scenes for starters. Moviegoers are accustomed to watching hundreds of scenes back to back with the editing giving them new angles every few seconds. This speed does not work on stage. It's supremely annoying to watch a play try to keep up with a film, changing sets every few minutes or watching actors on the boards delivering only soundbite sized dialogue.

But here come The History Boys to disprove my theory. I am sad to report that it's far from sure footed it's leap across the mediums. I did not see the hot-ticket Broadway production (recently closed) so I haven't any idea if this was a case where the stage play was wildly over praised... but as a film, it's unworthy of getting excited about.

The plot is of the familiar 'teacher inspires students' variety you've seen in many movies before it: Dead Poets Society, Dangerous Minds, Stand and Deliver etcetera until the end of time. It's a loveable genre that tends to get away with murder --who wants to dislike any story about kids discovering the power of learning? One of the standard problems is that these stories rely on the heartstring yanking and no gray matter is required. To my way of thinking that sort of defeats the purpose of said edifying journey; Don't learn to think --just feel! Thankfully The History Boys doesn't lack for a brain. This is not the problem. It just lacks skillful execution and, maybe, the common sense it needed to be a good film.

This British prep school dramedy alters the genre formula in one obvious way: It's the entire faculty that are struggling to raise the student body game. The renegade teacher who uses nontraditional methods to inspire his students? Oh don't worry, that trademark role is still there: Richard Griffiths plays Hector, said maverick, transferring his famous Tony winning role to the screen. Not for this teacher boring rote memorization. He has his students sing show tunes, act out movie scenes, and do bawdy foreign language improv: all of which provide the film with a few endearing moments.

Yes, Hector is an inspiration as a teacher but he unfortunately also likes to handle the goods. In one of the play/movies most curious gambles, the students don't seem to mind and nearly all of the teachers or future teachers share in this particular desire or tolerate his breach of ethics. One could certainly argue that the hysteria that normally greets reminders that teachers and teenagers alike are sexual beings is willful naivety, but this screenplay stacks the deck so far in favor of Hector that at times the movie reads like an elaborate apologia to pederasty. Uncomfortable.

While Richard Griffith's performance is fine, it's easy to assume his presence was more effective onstage. The other Tony honored performers Frances de la Tour (winner), who plays a fellow teacher, and Samuel Barnett (nominee), as a gay student "Posner", achieve similar results, though I should note that Barnett is adorable delivering a superb rendition of the classic song "Bewitched, Bothered, and Bewildered." That scene had me longing to have seen this on stage instead. Stephen Campbell Moore, who was not nominated at the Tonys, plays Hector's rival teacher Irwin and gives what feels like the most film specific performance, nuanced and hard to read outside of close ups. Only Clive Merrison as the Headmaster doesn't seem to have dialed back his performance for the new medium: he's still acting to the back row. Tis a pity that Nicholas Hytner, having directed three plays to film now (The History Boys, The Crucible, The Madness of King George), hasn't yet mastered the art of corralling his actors into a tonally cohesive unit. Awkward.

Another grating problem is the film's technical elements. The movie feels low budget and rushed: awkward editing transitions and jarring sound work are plentiful. The soundtrack in particular is a nightmare. It's as if the filmmaking team were so concerned with portraying the youthful spirit of teen-age boys or with opening up the fussiness of a stage play about history, that they overcompensated with endless (and very loud) 80s pop song scoring. Clumsy.

At its core, The History Boys has some good ideas about learning and some well written monologues but those are measures of its worth as a play, not as a film: the transfer falls flat. I'm not sure what was removed from the script (the Broadway version is an hour longer) but if the ecstatic critical and audience reaction is any correct measure of its merits, I'd wager that they removed the wrong things. Mostly, though, I suspect that this play needed more cinematically inclined minds to find its way on to a movie screen. Samuel Barnett may have a lovely singing voice but this transfer of The History Boys is out of tune.


Anonymous said...

I was afraid of this. I elected to see History Boys instead of Drowsy Chaperone my one night in the city last September, on the off chance the movie would become a phenomenon and I could say "I saw that on Broadway..." Anyway, I wasn't really impressed with the play, which I read on the plane to NY, or with the stage production, but I was still holding out for a decent movie.

In any case, thank you for the meaty review. The highlight of my morning, so far.

Craig Hickman said...

You are an excellent writer. Thanks for being here.

adam k. said...

Hmm. That's a shame. Now I wish I'd seen it onstage, too. But maybe the play isn't actually all that great? I should read it. It sounds super interesting.

Jason Adams said...

Nat? The new banner? Orgasm.

Anonymous said...

Couldn't really disagree more. LOVED it on stage. There were some minor changes for the film, and we could certainly have lived without the damned montages, but I mostly loved the film too. It should easily make my Top 10 at year end.


Anonymous said...

I'm the poster from a few days ago who asked for your History Boys comments, so I just wanted to say, I really loved your excellent, thoughtful review.

On Broadway the play was dazzling because of its abundant energy (intellectual and emotional), but I can understand how that could get lost in a transfer to the screen. For those of you who are thinking of reading the play, the published script doesn't really convey this energy and excitement, either.

Jason Adams said...

Nat, if you don't explain your sidebar reactions to The Fountain and Notes on a Scandal immediately, my head may explode.

Well mostly The Fountain, cuz I just got back from seeing it and LOVED it, and am afraid I'm going to be completely alone feeling this way and your "sweet jesus" is more than I can handle!