Immortal Literature: Film Adaptations and Interpretations
of Oscar Wilde’s
The Picture of Dorian Gray
Literature and cinema have always been in a controversial – sometimes even contradictory – relationship and due to this ambiguous correlation they have often stirred many debates among theorists of different fields for nearly one century. However, many of them agree on the fact that both fields have their own autonomous and independent ways of expressing complex messages and in spite of this they continuosuly cross each other’s paths, mutually completing and sharing their means of expression.
“The making of film out of an earlier text is virtually as old as the machinery of cinema itself.” (Andrew 1984: 98) This statement by Dudley Andrew from his volume entitled Concepts in Film Theory supports the claim according to which the relationship between literature and cinema is held to be mutual and indispensable. The field of cinema would not and could not exist without its raw material, its inspiration, namely, written literature (Szíjártó 2006: 677), but on the other hand, owing to the appearance of filmmaking as a new artistic field, literature is being rediscovered over and over again, giving new life, new interpretations to the literary creations, and in this way their message becomes immortal independently from period, mentality or even pop-cultural fashion. In addition, these two fields are constantly developing by sharing and borrowing from each other certain specific features. In common language we often hear that a movie was too “literary”, which bears a negative connotation and mainly refers to the slow pace of a film, to the uneventful plot, or to the highly symbolic and abstract contents of a certain cinematic work. Similarly, people often say about literary works that they are very “film-like”, which usually refers to the rapid rhythm of the scenes or to the eventful plot. All these colloquial expressions show the fact that both cinema and literature do contribute to each other’s evolution.
In order to see and understand better this ambiguous and mutual relationship between cinema and literature, this paper will examine concrete examples from both fields. The analysis will take as a starting point Oscar Wilde’s only novel, called The Picture of Dorian Gray, a novel that demanded its eternity not only through the plot, through Dorian Gray’s desire to become immortal, but also through the contribution of the cinematic medium. There are plenty of film adaptations, audiobooks, musicals, theatre plays and other novels based on the original, fact that shows that Dorian and his story is still alive, giving him the immortality he was aspiring for, even if it is not manifested in the form Dorian wanted to gain it. The fact that a 19th-century novel is still popular in our days makes the original creation and its adaptations more interesting not just from a literary point of view, but also from a general, cultural point of view. This is the reason why Oscar Wilde’s famously controversial literary work will be the perfect example for proving that a literary work can truly become immortal due to film adaptations and the “magic” of cinema.
This paper will follow the structure of a comparative analysis and it will examine the relation between the following subjects: Oscar Wilde’s novel and two of its adaptations, The Picture of Dorian Gray, directed by Albert Lewin which premiered in 1945, and a newer version which bears the title Dorian Gray, directed by Oliver Parker in 2009.
The first chapter will present the birth of filmmaking by bringing several examples from the early 20th century. It will also discuss the beginnings and fundamental theories of film adaptation and film analysis, paying special attention to the questions of interpretation theory, borrowing and fidelity, mentioning such theorists as Dudley Andrew or André Bazin.
The theoretical chapter will be followed by an in-depth analysis of the novel itself, which will contain the following steps: setting the work in context, a brief presentation of the historical background, structural analysis (including symbols and characterization), a survey of 19th-century criticism, the novel’s reception in the 20th century, discussion of controversial issues and the work’s influence on the period’s mentality including its implied message for the readers.
After familiarizing with the original text, the next chapter will discuss the two film adaptations mentioned before. A brief film analysis of both cinematic works will be carried out, which will be followed by a detailed comparative analysis, during which we will try to find similarities and differences between the three works. We will also try to examine the reasons behind the changes made, using the concepts of adaptation and literature theory. There will also be a thorough examination of the messages conveyed by these works to the audience, taking a look at how this “message” has changed during all these years; if they have been influenced by cultural movements or social mentalities.
At the end of this paper, all these examinations will contribute to finding and unveiling those factors that made Wilde’s novel interesting for the cinematic world and thanks to which it gained immortality.
I. The Concept of Adaptation and the Question of Fidelity
The first movies in film history were experimental and they focused more on showing the technological developments than expressing artistic thoughts. However, the people of those times got quickly bored of short movies such as the arriving train or silent landscapes and after a short time filmmakers realized that they had to create something new and different if they wanted to keep the cinema alive and interesting. This thought led to the idea of rethinking several well-known literary works and adapting them to screen. The first film adaptations were quite rudimentary, since there did not exist any theoretical regulation on how to make a film out of a novel and because of this filmmakers often put on screen works that everyone read and knew about. The simplest example is the adaptation of Christ’s life, in the French movie called La Vie et la passion de Jésus Christ (Lucien Nonguet and Ferdinand Zecca, 1903). Every detail of the story was known by everybody, which meant a huge advantage, since filmmakers were not compelled to put on screen the whole plot, it was enough to shoot just a short sequence or chapter of it and people would still understand what the movie was about. Furthermore, filmmakers could vary these short movies much more easily depending on the mood they wanted to raise in the audience (Vajdovich 2006: 678).
By the end of 1910s filmmakers began to discover the possibilities of the artistic nature of movies and from then on they began to put on screen famous novels with the purpose of presenting a certain feeling or emotion to the audience. However, these first attempts only recognized the numerous possibilities of adapting a novel and filmmakers used these literary works to highlight or borrow a certain scene from the story and after recreating its atmosphere they built a whole new plot around that specific scene. These first attempts mainly belonged to the well-known company named “Film d’Art”. For instance, in The Hunchback of Notre Dame (Albert Capellani, 1911) Esmeralda’s highly erotic dance scene is remarkably memorable, and so is Faust’s meeting with the devil in UFA’s Faust (F. W. Murnau, 1926). In both films we find the well-known characters but they are put in another context. They are borrowed just as the main scenes form the original work, but they do not bear the same weight as they did in the novels.
“Film d’Art” was the first company to recognize the shortcomings of filmmaking as well. They noticed the possibility of depicting complex characters, and they also tried to put on screen the symbolical or abstract layers of certain literary works. These can be seen as the first “real” adaptations, since in these cases the filmmakers did not only borrow ideas from a literary work, but they tried to reconstruct it with the means of the cinematic medium. Although today a contemporary filmmaker might regard these “adaptations” as unprofessional, amusing and sometimes badly constructed creations, still they raised some fundamental questions in prospective theorists; questions that may have defined the basics of adaptation and film theory.
The first and probably one of the most important questions is what the term “adaptation” means and what its meaning implies. Many theorists, including Dudley Andrew, correlate the term with interpretation theory and by that they claim that adaptation is basically an appropriation of a meaning from a prior text (Andrew 1984). According to interpretation theory, an explanation of a text can be constructed only if we gain a global understanding of the text in the first place. This means that one can’t analyze a text without having a comprehensive concept about the analyzed text’s meaning: “Adaptation is similarly both a leap and a process. It can put into play the intricate mechanism of its signifiers only in response to a general understanding of the signified it aspires to have constructed at the end of its process.” (Andrew 1984: 97)
Therefore, according to Andrew, an adaptation implies that the filmmaker has a solid interpretation of the literary text, which will influence every detail of the process of cinematic work. Thus, it is not surprising that one literary work can have many film adaptations, since every literary text can have countless readings and every interpretation changes according to the individual reader’s view on the text.
However, if one takes as a starting point the assumption outlined above, one might find it difficult to analyze the relationship between a text and its adaptation. Therefore, Andrew advises to confine the analysis to those cases where the focus is on the adaptation process, because in these cases the original source has a significant role in the process itself. Consequently, according to the nature of adaptation the process can be classified into three important categories: borrowing, intersection, and fidelity of transformation.
Out of the three types of adaptation, borrowing has been the most frequently used one, since in this case filmmakers apply the material or the idea of a preexisting, successful text in order to create their own interpretation of it. Even before filmmaking painters and sculptors had frequently borrowed scenes from Biblical stories in order to immortalize a certain scene on their paintings or sculptures. Typical borrowed materials are Shakespeare’s plays, in which case the creators of adaptations often build their work on the prestige and reputation of the original, borrowed work. However, at the same time, these adaptations are usually created in order to gain some respectability and artistic value as a bonus award in the transaction. Adaptations from literature to music, opera, or paintings are of this nature (Andrew 1984). Andrew brings the example of Strauss’s Don Quixote. The audience meets an already familiar concept but the context itself bears new and powerful aspects which may have been hidden in the cherished work before.
In order to be able to study this mode of adaptation, the analyst must take into consideration the generality of the original work, its function as an archetype in culture. This is important especially in those cases where the original work keeps reappearing in adaptations and in this way it starts to function as a myth, for instance, in the case of Tristan and Isolde or in case of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The success of these work’s adaptations lies in their fertility, their ability to be able to be reborn and have timeless value and message which can bear validity in any era, age or period. According to Frank McConnell, this direction of study will elevate the filmmaking process on a higher level, where cinematic works will be viewed as active participants of a reforming cultural movement. A cultural enterprise that has extremely complex values which eventually will outgrow the film (as an artistic field) and the text itself by reusing fundamental elements from myths or folclore which may help to transmit a general message of cultural identity. This global cultural operation is adaptation in its most explicit form. However, McConnell, and other theorists such as Frye and Jung wanted to include in their theory of artistic fertility even the “original” texts in order to be able to point out their dependence on symbols and mythic patterns of civilization (Andrew 1984).
As opposed to the term “borrowing”, Andrew proposes a new concept, namely “intersecting”: “Here the uniqueness of the original text is preserved to such an extent that it is intentionally left unassimilated in adaptation. The cinema, as a separate mechanism, records its confrontation with an ultimately intransigent text.” (Andrew, 1984: 99)
Andrew brings as an example the wonderful adaptation of Robert Bresson’s Diary of a Country Priest (1951). André Bazin, who wrote a whole essay about the film, praising it for its ability to “stir the emotions rather than the intelligence” (Bazin qtd. in Wakeman 1987: 57), claimed that Bresson’s creation is more like a refraction of the original novel than an adaptation. Since Bresson refused to open up and give a possible interpretation of the movie, Bazin concluded that the film is the novel as seen by the cinema. To explain his hypothesis, he created one of his most popular metaphors regarding to literary works and their adaptations. He likened the original artwork to a crystal chandelier, a formal beauty made of artificial arrangements, while the cinema is a cruel flashlight which is not intersted in the chandelier’s shape or quality, but is rather looking for the chandelier’s other projections, or its shadows in the dark corners. In this case, Bresson’s work is the flashlight, while Bernanos’s (the original writer) novel is the chandelier and together they create an intersection due to which the original work is inflected by the beam of the cinema. Obviously, the adaptation won’t be able to bring light on the whole Bernanos, but what is lit up, is definitely a piece of the original Bernanos, however, it will be a Bernanos seen through the optic of the cinema. The most important feature of these intersected movies is that they refuse to adapt the original work. Instead of adapting, they try to illuminate another side of the work, another dimension of it by setting up an interplay between the aesthetic forms of the literary work’s period with the cinematic forms of their own period (Andrew 1984). The cultivators of intersecting claim that an original work has the right to have its own life in the cinema, however, the consequences of this method are quite complicated. Such a disconnected method as intersecting promotes its support toward modernist aesthetics. Both fields refuse the traditional perception of adaptations in which these works are seen as supporters of conservative film aesthetics.
Without doubt, the most controversial mode of analysis is quesioning the fidelity and the transformation of an adaptation. Theorists (and laic people as well) usually assume that the adaptation must or at least should be faithful to the source of inspiration, meaning that it should contain something essential from the original literary work. The audience generally expects to see a film which can be measured up to the original work in quality. According to Andrew, an adaptation must consider the original work’s “letter” and “spirit” in order to be able to become faithful to it. At first sight, it seems that the level of the “letter” is more approachable for the cinema, since it can be converted into the mechanics of filmmaking. It includes similar aspects that appear in film scripts, for example, the characters, the relation between them, the setting, the time, the plot, the sociological, historical background, cultural information and many other aspects that contribute to rebuilding the context of a literary work. The basic narrative aspects, such as the point of view, the tense, the degree of participation, the identity of the storyteller can also be transferred into the cinematic world. By transferring these aspects from the literary work to the field of filmmaking the creators will get a typical scenario which, from a structural point of view, is almost identical to a film script. That, and this was Bazin’s frequent complaint, will be the bare skeleton of the original literary work, which will basically become the skeleton of the film.
Being faithful to the “spirit” of the original work is already a more problematic challenge. The abstract parts of the literary work, such as the values, the rhythm, the figures of speech, and the atmosphere, do not belong to the mechanical process of adaptation. Hence, it is more difficult to find equivalents in the cinematic toolbar to express these intangible characteristics of the literary work. Many critics agree on the fact that actually it is impossible to readapt these abstract components and embed them into a film. However many others claim that these elements can be expressed through the various palette of filmmaking, such as sounds or lights, colours, or shadows.
Generally, cinematic works build their stories starting from the perception towards signification, from the concrete, external experience, towards the more abstract, interior motivations. Literature is characterized by the exact opposite procedure. Literary fiction starts to work with signs (such as words and groups of words) which will be organized into propositions and these propositions will have the responsibility to establish the perception itself. Literary works usually focus more on the abstract thoughts and the story will be built around these components; it is the story that eventually links the abstract with the concrete, the inner world with the external, real world. It is probably this antagonism that is the reason why these fields constitute the subject of a continuous controversy.
This opposition between the two fields is very sharp and according to George Bluestone and Jean Mitry it can be observed clearly in the adaptations (Andrew 1984). They scrutinize this procedure through several examples, with special attention to the differences of language systems but they ultimately reject the possibility of thorough, completely faithful adaptations. They take as example the translation of poetic texts from a language to another. If signs represent the strong relation between the signifier and the signified, how can a poetic work function in another language? Is it possible to transfer its holistic message into another system of signs? Is it possible, for example, to transfer the meaning of the Mona Lisa painting into a poem, or a musical phrase? If this is possible, then one must accept the fact that the tools of cinema, such as lights shadows, sounds, music or colours, are more than enough to transfer the original text’s abstract components into a film. If one accepts this possibility, only in that case will the affirmation which claims that both fields can create narratives and scenes on a higher level in their own way become true.
One of the supporters of adaptations is E. H. Gombrich, who believed that “one cannot dismiss adaptation since it is a fact of human practice” (Andrew 1984: 101– 102). He also noticed that the field of adaptation introduced a new concept, a new term, namely “matching”. To explain this term, he brought several examples: for instance, a tuba can be matched more with the sound of a bear than with the sound of a bird. Names of colours could describe the atmosphere of the world (e.g. the colour grey suggests sombreness). Nelson Goodman was the first specialist who investigated Gombrich’s theory in his study called The Language of Art and he concluded that there is a correlation between a domain and the position of the elements which they are consisted of. This means that names of properties or colours are in fact especiallly able to describe metaphorically the aspects of the world of sound (a blue note, a sombre or bright tone) (Andrew 1984: 102). In this sense the process of adaptation would cover the process of finding two communicational systems of which one system has equivalents for the other system’s elements, for example, in the case of the description of a narrative action. Thus, according to Gombrich and Goodman, adaptation is possible – however, there is never a “perfect” adaptation in the traditional meaning of the word – because every artwork is based on a traditional use of certain systems that have the general ability to be adapted from one into another. Nonetheless, these “proportional consistencies” call for a thorough examination of both fields, “the study of both art forms in their proper historic context” (Andrew 1984: 102).
This approach is no other than the semiotic interpretation, which examines the relation between the cinematic sign system and a previously existing sign system. Specialists of this field stated that the conversion of one sign system into another can be possible through transformation. If we accept this interpretation, we can admit that every single film is basically a re-interpretation of the original sign system which was converted by the cinematic languages into another art form. From this aspect the task of adaptation is to take the original text and reproduce its very essence in a cinematic work that can be measured up to the original text’s norms. In this sense, the relationship between the two sign systems is very similar to a code transfer due to which they share some common grounds, ergo the transformation and adaptation is possible, even if it is not exactly accurate (Andrew 1984). The main difference between the two fields can be naturally found in the fact that literary texts usually work with visual imagery, while films use the montage technique more frequently. However, the general features of the narrative can be considered as a common layer for both fields. In this sense, the film adaptation has to find an aesthetic equivalent that is appropriate enough to express the same message from the literary text.
More recently, there have appeared debates regarding the term “relation”, theorists trying to give more specific and varied terms with further implications, such as interdisciplinary questions that include fields such as narratology or intermediality. For instance, if we take Gérard Genette’s typology, then we can observe that the original literary text and its film adaptations are parts of hypertextuality. The script which is based on the original text is an intermediary text and the film builds an intertextual relation with the script itself. From this approach the film adaptation creates an intertextual field where the final cinematic work can gain further interpretations and readings.
During the analysis of Wilde’s novel and its film adaptations, this paper mainly relies on Andrew Dudley’s views on film and adaptation theory and in the following chapters we will see how these views can be applied to practice.
II. The Many Faces of Dorian Gray
The fact that Oscar Wilde wrote only a single novel during his lifetime is probably not a coincidence. With the birth of The Picture of Dorian Gray he created one of the most controversial literary works in English literary history, he created a novel that caused his biggest success but it also brought an immense downfall into his life. No matter how we look at it, the novel did manage to survive the countless attacks of its time and now it is one of the most frequently reinterpreted literary works in the cinematic world. However, before we start to examine the novel’s film adaptations, we must start a thorough investigation focusing on the meaning behind The Picture of Dorian Gray. We need to decode the symbols, solve the puzzle behind the gothic story and find the reason why this book can be the perfect raw material for film adaptations. In order to be able to start the investigation one should look at the interpretations that have been born since the novel’s publication.
The genesis of the novel is already interesting enough to be mentioned. The theme of The Picture of Dorian Gray comes from a real episode in Wilde’s life. He had a painter friend whose name was Basil Ward and one day when Wilde visited him the painter had an exceptionally beautiful model in his studio. Wilde reacted similarly to Lord Henry, complaining about the fact that such beauty would grow old eventually. The painter’s response was that it would be wonderful if the painting could age instead of the young model. Another intriguing fact is related to the character of Lord Henry. Some of the critics believe that he shares many traits with Oscar Wilde himself but also with Wilde’s professor, Pater. This might be true, since just like his famous character, Lord Henry Wotton, Wilde used to hold long speeches at every dinner party, making original remarks and paradoxically witty statements which had no sense.
It is clearly obvious that Wilde used many experiences from his life as sources of inspiration, but he also found encouragement in his personal library as well. For example, when Wilde was on his honeymoon, he bought a book called A Rebours by J.K. Huysman. Many biography writers believe that this novel had a huge influence on Wilde’s dark side and also it was the starting point of his ideas related to Aestheticism. It can also be viewed as the source of inspiration for the idea of the “yellow book”, which was a gift from Lord Henry to Dorian Gray and which had the same effect on the young man as Huysman’s novel on Wilde: it freed his inner dark side by living according to the aesthetic principles. “It seemed to him that in exquisite raiment, and to the delicate sound of flutes, the sins of the world were passing in dumb show before him. Things that he had dimly dreamed of were suddenly made real to him. Things of which he had never dreamed were gradually revealed (Wilde, 2003:120). Another book that might have influenced Wilde in writing his controversial work is the Studies in the History of the Renaissance by Walter Pater, which was often mentioned as the “Golden book” by Wilde himself.
As it was mentioned before, Wilde was extremely fascinated by aesthetic ideas and because of this he was often considered as the leader of the English Aesthetic Movement, which was quite unappealing for many literary critics. Thus, it is not surprising that The Picture of Dorian Gray was highly debated already in its contemporary time and its readers often did not agree upon how to interpret it. Many critics considered the novel as an outrageous piece of literary work, they described it as “dull”, “vulgar”, “lame”, “clumsy”, “tedious”, “disgusting” or even “false”. Some of the critics went further, claiming that the book should be “chucked into the fire” (Mason, 2010: 7). Fortunately, there were several literary critics who saw the value in Wilde’s novel and marked it in a much more positive light: “two thirds of all Mr. Wilde has ever written is purely ironical . . . [The Picture of Dorian Gray] is a work of the highest morality, since its whole purpose is to point out the effect of selfish indulgence and sensuality in destroying the character of a beautiful human soul” (Buchanan quoted in Mason 2010: 41-42).
Since Wilde’s aesthetic beliefs were not kept as a secret, so to speak, he was dressed for the role – as he was always wearing bohemian, colourful clothes – and often expressed his opinion about art and art’s role in everyday life, many reviewers interpreted the novel as a propaganda for male affection, instead of a story about artistic appreciation and fell straight to the conclusion that the book is purely immoral. The question of morality was even brought up at the well-known trial of Lord Queensberry at the Old Bailey on April 3rd, 1895, where Wilde said the following words: to him “there is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written, or badly written. That is all” (Wilde 2003: 3).
True to be told, these accusations were not unfounded. The Picture of Dorian Gray was first published in Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine, in 1890. During a dinner party the chief editor asked both Oscar Wilde and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle to write a short story for his magazine. Doyle wrote The Sign of Four while Wilde wrote the first version of Dorian Gray. The original work had thirteen chapters and contained many paragraphs that may have suggested an allusion to male appreciation. For instance, Basil expresses his love towards Dorian several times:
It is quite true that I have worshipped you with far more romance of feeling than a man usually gives to a friend. Somehow, I had never loved a woman. I suppose I never had time… from the moment I met you, your personality had the most extraordinary influence over me. I quite admit that I adored you madly, extravagantly, absurdly. I was jealous of every one to whom you spoke. I wanted to have you all to myself. I was only happy when I was with you. When I was away from you, you were still present in my art. It was all wrong and foolish…it was to have been my masterpiece (Wilde, 2012: 144).
Later, to the advice of the magazine’s editor, Wilde changed the structure of the novel a little. He expanded the thirteen chapters into twenty and broke down the last chapter into two pieces. According to Wilde, this change was necessary in order to make Dorian’s character more profound and by this his psychological breakdown would become more convincing. Wilde also introduced a new character, namely James Vane, Sibyl’s brother, with the intention of being able to describe other social classes as well, paying special attention to the struggles of lower classes. The re-edited version of The Picture of Dorian Gray was finally published in a book in 1891, to which Wilde also added a preface. Nowadays this Preface is considered as one of the first theoretical writings on the principles of Aestheticism.
According to the Dictionary of Literary Terms and Literary Theory, the term Aestheticism derives from the Greek word “aisthetes”, which means ‘One who perceives’. However, the term gradually became a reference to those who dealt with the criticism of the beautiful or with the theory of taste. “An aesthete is one who pursues and is devoted to the ‘beautiful’ in art, music and literature. And Aestheticism is the term given to a movement, a cult, a mode of sensibility (a way of looking at and feeling about things) in the 19th century” (Cuddon 1998: 11). In other words, Aestheticism claimed that art is self-sufficient and it serves none other than art itself. It should not be didactic or politically committed. It should not bear propagandistic traits or a moral lesson and it should not be judged by any non-aesthetic criteria. The origins of this movement can be found in German literature. Kant, Schelling, Goethe and Schiller all represented Aestheticism, they all agreed in the fact that art has autonomous power and exactly because of this no artist should be criticised for his work. Later on during the 19th century Aestheticism was developing towards a Bohemian and non-conformist lifestyle which was the result of the influences made by Romantic ideas. The main representatives of Aestheticism were Samuel Taylor Coleridge or Edgar Allan Poe, Ralph Waldo Emerson and, of course, Walter Pater, Wilde’s professor.
Among many others, Walter Pater (later Oscar Wilde’s professor and mentor) looked at art as something independent of life, something that had no relevance to life and as a result it shouldn’t be treated in relation with real life. Furthermore, life itself should be treated in the spirit of art. The most representative piece of work created in the spirit of Aestheticism is considered J. K. Huysmans’s A rebours (1884), which, as it was mentioned before, happened to be the most inspirational book in Oscar Wilde’s life and also one of the sources of inspiration of The Picture of Dorian Gray.
By taking a closer look, we can clearly observe that Aestheticism was a reaction against the materialistic and capitalistic Victorian age. It is also considered as a “revitalizing influence in an age of ugliness, brutality, dreadful inequality and oppression. (…) It was a genuine search for beauty and a realization that the beautiful has an independent value” (Cuddon 1998: 13).
This knowledge lets us have a deeper understanding of Oscar Wilde’s “scandalous” lifestyle, besides, we will be able to interpret his statement correctly, according to which “There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written, or badly written. That is all.” The Picture of Dorian Gray was also written in the spirit of Aestheticism, however, if we take a closer look, we can notice that there is a quite major contradiction between Wilde’s ars poetica and his works, since it is true that his novel deals with controversial, even immoral topics, still it also has a moral. One who follows his darkest desires will eventually pay for his irresponsible behaviour; at least this is what happens to Dorian Gray himself. He becomes the victim of his own dark side, which eventually leads him to destroy the painting (which is a projection of his soul), an act that will inevitably kill him. This is a strong moral and by this the whole literary work goes against the aesthetic principles. Even Oscar Wilde acknowledges that “There is a terrible moral in Dorian Gray – it is the only error in the book” (Ellmann 1969: 237) However, the main topic, the idea of living for art’s sake or rather having a life in the spirit of art is indeed an aesthetic principle and Dorian Gray does this exactly. He lives his life to its fullest, tries everything that fate offers to him and in the end he does everything for the beauty of art. His life is viewed as an artwork, probably this is the reason why Oscar Wilde chose a picture (also an artwork) to represent Dorian’s soul. Basil’s attitude towards his works is also filled with these aesthetic principles. Basil does not live his life for art’s sake, but he is obsessed with art (especially Dorian’s portrait) and eventually that obsession will lead to his death as well. This can be also interpreted as a smaller, less obvious moral in which the author describes the negative effects of obsession itself. The view as Dorian looks at his relationship with Sybil is also from an artistic perspective. Dorian himself refers to it as a ‘romance’ and the fact that he doesn’t want to know the actress’s personal life or the fact that at first he refuses to be introduced to Sybil shows that Dorian protests against any trace of real life and interprets the whole situation as an imaginary sphere, a sphere of art. Dorian’s aesthetic attitude towards Sybil’s person can be clearly seen from the following dialogue:
“‘Tonight she’s Imogen’ he answered, ‘and tomorrow night she will be Juliet.’
‘When is she Sybil Vane?’
‘Never.’”(Wilde, 2003: 54)
This is the reason why Sybil’s death does not particularly perturb Dorian’s state of mind. Dorian has a sensitive theatrical sense; he views his own life as a drama in which he is just a spectator and that causes the effect of detachment from his own feelings. He sees Sybil’s tragic death as a “wonderful ending to a wonderful play” (Wilde 2003:98) and nothing more. He sees himself from the outside, he sees the artistic beauty in tragedy. This is a typically aesthetic mentality.
One of the greatest charms of The Picture of Dorian Gray is probably this constant contradiction that stimulated the audience (and it still stimulates) to begin countless debates about Wilde’s only novel. This ambiguity was probably intentional; Wilde could be well aware that his work could be offensive or even provocative to his contemporaries. What he didn’t know is that his only novel has remained one of the most controversial literary works even up to these days.
II.1. Dorian Gray also Known as Dr. Jekyll?
Robert Louis Stevenson had written his famous novel just four years before Wilde wrote his. Thus, many critics claim that the popularity of The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde could have contributed to the birth of Dorian and it should also be taken into consideration when we talk about the many interpretations of The Picture of Dorian Gray. Not only the motif of the Doppelgänger or divided self is present, but there are also traces of interest in chemical science and crime story writing. Not to mention those motifs and symbols that lie in both works’ subtexts.
Possibly the strongest motif that can be found in both novels is the motif of duality. In Stevenson’s novel this duality appears in the main character. He has two personalities in one body. One is a well-respected member of society, Dr. Jekyll, whereas the other one is a sinister, evil figure of unknown origins, Mr. Hyde. The fact that these two characters are in one body clears away the boundaries between good and evil and eventually the reader concludes that Dr. Jekyll is not purely good or evil but he is both at the same time. The same motif can be found in Wilde’s novel as well, except that this time there are not two separate personalities, only the duality of human nature. Dorian has a well-respected, reputable side that is preferred by the higher layers of society that is kept for gentleman’s club and dinner parties. However, there’s also another side, an alter ego side of his that commits the sins, a darker side that spends his time on the dock and in opium saloons. A dark side that is summoned whenever Dorian wants to satisfy his peculiar desires or just simply wants to oppress his conscience. From this perspective, the duality of social classes can also play a major role in both literary works. Both Jekyll and Dorian have a respectable public image in higher classes while they seek their sinister pleasures among the lower classes of London. In this sense the higher social classes may represent a pure and civilized form of humanity, while the lower classes are associated with primitivism and crimes where every dark wish can be fulfilled without further coincidences. However, there is a major difference between Jekyll’s and Dorian’s personalities: Jekyll tries to desperately escape from his evil side, whilst Dorian has several moments when he looks upon his dark side as a possibility, a mode through which he can realize his concepts of the beautiful, which of course mirrors an aesthetic mentality as well.
Another frequent motif that is actively present in both novels is the oppressed aggression of human nature. In relation to Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Fromm claimed that “What is unique in man is that he can be driven by impulses to kill and to torture, and that he feels lust in doing so; he is the only animal that can be a killer and destroyer of his own species without any rational gain, either biological or economic” (Fromm 1973: 218). In this sense, Edward Hyde represents this animalistic and extremely aggressive side of Dr. Jekyll, which was probably slumbering under the surface, it was part of Dr. Jekyll and the potion that he drank just ‘helped’ to unleash the beast itself. The sinister in Hyde’s personality is exactly the fact that he finds pleasure in committing crimes and killing people. That is the reason which scares Jekyll as well. In the case of Dorian we can also observe the signs of “malignant aggression” as Erich Fromm named it. However, his aggression builds up much slower as compared to Edward Hyde and it reaches its peak in the act of killing Basil Hallward. There is a form of sadism (and to some extent even masochism) both in Hyde and Dorian, which explains why they find pleasure in aggression and crimes. Hyde’s victims are always innocent and frequently helpless people, for instance a little girl or an old man, but even Jekyll can be considered as a victim of Hyde. His masochistic side lies in the fact that Jekyll is basically stuck in the same body with his evil alter ego and also ‘they’ keep repeating the same mistakes. Dorian shows a sadistic attitude towards Basil. As the painter states during a conversation,
Now and then, however, he [Dorian] is horribly thoughtless and seems to take a real delight in giving me pain. Then I feel . . . that I have given away my whole soul to someone who treats it as if it were a flower to put in his coat, a bit of decoration to charm his vanity, an ornament for a summer’s day. (Wilde 2003: 14)
Indeed, Dorian shows cruelty and high-minded attitude towards Basil. He refuses to show the painter’s own picture to him and when finally decides to tell his secret to Basil, right after that he kills him. Dorian treats his first lover, Sybil, in a sadistic way as well. Earlier it was discussed how Dorian searches only the art in Sybil and not a real person. Once this artistic layer disappears, Dorian sees the real Sybil, a talentless, naïve and melodramatic young woman whom he despises after that and eventually leaves her without and explanation or mercy. This spiritual sadism will force Sybil to choose suicide as a form of escape from her own illusions. Since Dorian doesn’t have another personality, his masochistic attitude is more obvious in his case. His self-destructive attitude and the fact that he keeps looking at the portrait as a mirror of his own soul is to some extent torturing. Facing his demons and the scars that he had gotten due to his extreme lifestyle, yet not bearing any of these traces, is a serious psychological pressure. Still, he keeps repeating the same mistakes, just like Edward Hyde. Dorian promised several times to become good, however, somehow he never managed to keep his promises, either for others and or even for himself. These failed promises and the constant thought of staying young and fresh forever has a masochistic effect on Dorian’s mentality.
However, if we take a closer look at the text, we might discover that besides these motifs that are relatively reachable from the surface, there can be buried something more between the lines which might not even show up for first time readers. Many contemporary and later critics claimed that both literary works have a hidden subtext in which questions of sexual identity are discussed thoroughly, especially the question of homosexuality. The fact that there are no important female characters in The Strange case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde might confirm the suspicion that Dr. Jekyll’s “undignified pleasures” would cover the character’s homosexual nature. This suspicion becomes even stronger in the case of Dorian Gray, moreover, Nils Clausson declares that Wilde’s novel describes none other than the road during which an innocent juvenile discovers his homosexuality. He highlights words such as “vibrating”, “throbbing”, “secret chord” or “curious pulses” which, according to him, are allusions of Dorian’s preference of male companions (Clauson 2003: 345–346). True to be told, there are indeed paragraphs in the novel that may serve as proof for Clauson’s observations. First of all, there is Basil’s confession which was mentioned before and which eventually was left out from the revised version of the novel. Furthermore, Dorian does not really have deep relationships with women. Apart from those few days during which he had “feelings” for Sybil Vane, he seems to be fascinated by his male acquaintances and also his personality seems to attract mostly young men’s attention. In addition, even Henry expresses his homoerotic thoughts about Dorian. He says that the boy is an Adonis, a brainless Narcissus, a flower that needs to be looked at.
James Joyce was fascinated by his fellow writer’s skills. He often said that Wilde was not only a fellow artist but also a betrayed artist, a “dishonoured exile”, a kind of Christ. However, his initial opinion about the book itself was kind of contrast with the opinion created about the writer. He said that the book was “crowded with lies and epigrams” and its spirit muted by the fact that Wilde felt obliged to “veil” the homosexual implications (Ellmann 1959: 283, 241). However, Joyce’s opinion was still quite positive and supportive, but most of Wilde’s contemporary critics were convinced that The Picture of Dorian Gray was a poisonous book. If the “yellow book” corrupted Dorian’s soul, then the novel itself corrupts the reader as well. No matter how we look at it, Oscar Wilde’s only novel could not create unanimous opinions on the part of critics and fellow artists and probably that was its forte. Everything can be read into it, it has countless interpretations, that is the reason why it still stays fresh and up to date.
II.2. Faustian Interpretation
Every literary work has countless layers and The Picture of Dorian Gray is not an exception either. Since its birth the novel has been the centre of several debates. Naturally it is unquestionable that on the surface this is Gothic fiction that bears several features of the supernatural and horror stories. It is a profoundly haunting piece of work which was most likely inspired by such literary works as Charles Maturin’s Melmoth the Wanderer or Goethe’s Faust.
Maturin’s character has to deal with similar problems as Dorian. He is a young, innocent, naïve scholar who sells his soul to the devil in exchange for extra 150 years but he has to pay a huge price for this pact. He has to wander all over the world to find someone who will take over the deal. At the beginning he is haunted by a portrait of one of his ancestors who is simply called “Melmoth”. He finds the picture dreadful and sinister, thus for the wish of his uncle he burns it. From this perspective it is quite obvious that Maturin’s novel had a huge influence on The Picture of Dorian Gray since the portraits have crucial roles in both stories. Melmoth finds the sinister portrait hidden in an abandoned closet while Dorian hides his in his abandoned playroom. However, while Melmoth is looking terrified at his ancestor’s portrait, Dorian has to face his own portrait that goes through a remarkable change due to the corruption of his soul. Another common feature with Maturin’s novel lays in the scene, when Dorian is described to look at his ancestor’s pictures: “He loved to stroll through the gaunt cold picture gallery of his country house and look at the various portraits of those whose blood flowed in his veins” (Wilde 2003:137). This short excerpt suggests that Dorian can find such ancestors even in literature. He feels and knows that all these ancestors’ sins and experiences are now his own.
“There were times when it appeared to Dorian Gray that the whole of history was merely the record of his own life, not as he had lived it in act and circumstance, but as his imagination had created it for him, as it had been in his brain and in his passions… It seemed to him that in some mysterious way their lives had been his own.” (Wilde 2003: 138).
One of the most frequent interpretations however (that had a huge influence on Maturin’s character too) is related to the Faustian nature of Dorian Gray. Goethe’s famous character bears indeed some similar traits that can be found in Dorian as well. He is curious, he strives to know everything in the world. He is an intellectual, interested in sciences and religions but when his studies fail, he even turns to magic. When he sees that every attempt of learning everything fails, he sells his soul to the devil (which is a consequence of a bet made between God and Mephistopheles). In this sense Dorian is indeed a Faustian character. He is also curious and intellectual and because of his aesthetic views upon the world he desires to experience everything that life can give to a human being. To some extent this can also be interpreted as a search for knowledge, for experience. Dorian wants to know everything in the world, just like Faust. However, when he realizes that his life is finite and he probably won’t have the time to experience everything on the world, he falls into despair and makes a wish. He wishes that the portrait would age instead of him and although it is never mentioned clearly, something, a supernatural force, or maybe the devil himself listens to his wish and grants it:
I shall grow old, and horrible, and dreadful. But this picture will remain always young. It will never be older than this particular day of June. ... If it were only the other way! If it were I who was to be always young, and the picture that was to grow old! For that-for that-I would give everything! . . . I am jealous of everything whose beauty does not die. I am jealous of the portrait you have painted of me. Why should it keep what I must lose? ... Why did you paint it? It will mock me some day-mock me horribly! (Wilde 2003: 27-28).
With that wish, just like his “ancestors”, Faust and Melmoth, Dorian sells his soul for eternal youth, which will help him experience all wonders and pleasures that the world can give him.
II.3. Psychoanalytical Interpretation
According to several other critics, The Picture of Dorian Gray can be interpreted from a psychoanalytical point of view as well. In this interpretation every character would represent a subpart of the psyche. The idea of psychoanalytical criticism might have been born in connection with Oscar Wilde’s following statement: “Basil Hallward is what I think I am: Lord Henry what the world thinks me: Dorian what I would like to be—in other ages, perhaps” (Hart-Davis 1962:352). Wilde’s statement was immediately attached to the Freudian psychoanalysis and the three subparts of a human psyche; however, by taking a closer look, we might observe that the Lacanian structure of the psyche is more fitting to the world of The Picture of Dorian Gray.
Even in the beginning, when Dorian has not appeared yet, the two other important characters, Basil and Henry are already talking about him. Basil tries to explain to Henry his feelings towards Dorian and his art but he fails every time he uses words to describe these abstract notions. Henry intervenes with witty, almost paradoxical one liners which lead to the intimidation of the painter and eventually Basil gives up trying and he simply summarizes his affection in two simple sentences: “As long as I live, the personality of Dorian Gray will dominate me. You can’t feel what I feel” (Wilde 2003: 15). From these passages that appear in the opening scene of the book we can conclude that Basil and Henry have different communicational tools and competences. Basil is a painter who sees and understands the world in images. He can’t talk about feelings but he can express them through his paintings. On the other hand, Lord Henry is a man of words who could continue speaking until the end of time. He treats language in its finest ways, selecting the perfect expressions in order to be able to tell his own views and opinions. However, it is notable to mention that Henry always talks about the concrete and he never (or just rarely) discusses the abstract, the ideal. If one recognizes this subtle difference between the two characters, one can apply Lacan’s theory of the structure of psyche. In this sense, Basil may represent the Imaginary Realm while Henry would be the speaker of the Symbolic. These new terms were created by Jacques Lacan himself during his seminar courses that he held in the 1950’s and they are deeply rooted in the Freudian psychoanalysis as they define the three orders through which subjectivity functions. According to Lacan there is a cognitive process during which the ego recognizes its ideal form. He brought up the example of the infant child who sees himself in the mirror for the first time. Up to that moment the child didn’t have any picture of wholeness about himself, only fragments. According to Lacan this reflection represents the “Ideal-I” (Lacan 1977: 2) and this ideal image of wholeness is actually the ego. It is an image of coherence and because of that the basic act of seeing oneself wholly for the first time becomes the process of identification of the internal self with the external image. Thus, the mirror stage of a child is actually the first encounter with subjectivity and with the sense of “I” and “You”. By using this scene as a model, Lacan created the theory on the development of the psyche defining the three orders in which the subjectivity operates. According to his theory, The Imaginary is the internalized image of ideal, of the whole self and it is placed around the notion of coherence. The Symbolic however, in contrast to the imaginary covers the process during which the relation between the signifier and the language comes to prime plan. Lacan claimed that "Symbols in fact envelop the life of man in a network so total that they join together, before he comes into the world, those who are going to engender him…" (Lacan 1956: 42) and, "Man speaks therefore, but it is because the symbol has made him man" (Lacan 1956: 39). In other words, through the Symbolic order the psyche becomes accessible. Finally the third concept, The Real, covers basically the conventional perception of objective and collective experience. Lacan says that that the Real resists representation, the Real is pre-mirror, pre-imaginary and even pre-symbolic. It is the aspect where words fail. If we retake these theoretical concepts than it becomes obvious that Henry is indeed the Symbolic while Basil is the Imaginary. However, as Frederic Jameson warned, the critics, the division between these two subparts is not as obvious as it may appear at first sight.
Yet to speak of the Imaginary independently of the Symbolic is to perpetuate the illusion that we could have a relatively pure experience of either. If, for instance, we overhastily identify the Symbolic with the dimension of language and the function of speech in general, then it becomes obvious that we can hardly convey any experience of the Imaginary without presupposing the former. (Jameson 2007, 350).
As we can see, one subpart cannot be completely divided from the other and this is the case in The Picture of Dorian Gray, as well. Basil and Henry are both more complex than to be purely Imaginary or Symbolic. Basil, for instance, changes his whole attitude in the course of the plot. Gradually, he becomes the speaker of the Symbolic. A good example from the book is the scene where Basil verbally criticises the behaviour of Dorian. He tries to convince Dorian to live according to the social and moral values, to respect the laws. In change, Lord Henry starts to talk more and more in riddles, using metaphors to make his point clear. No matter how we look at it, in the end both the Imaginary Realm and the Symbolic speaker want to interact with the Real. In our case, both Basil and Henry want to influence Dorian, thus consequently, Dorian represents the Real for both of them. Another scene that may confirm the Lacanian interpretation of the novel is the scene where Dorian sees his portrait for the first time. Lacan described in his studies that when a child looks into a mirror for the first time, he recognizes himself in it, he is mesmerized by his own reflection and ultimately he identifies himself with this reflection. This is called the mirror stage. The same happens with Dorian as well. He sees his own portrait and feels an immense pleasure by seeing it. The fact that he identifies himself with the person of the image can also support the idea of several interpretations that were discussed here earlier (mostly those interpretations where the picture is viewed as Dorian’s soul). However, Lacan emphasizes the fact that this act is actually misrecognition. Just like Narcissus, the child loses himself at the point of self-recognition. Dorian falls into the same mistake. By looking at the picture as his own reflection, he objectifies himself and the fact that both of his friends support this misrecognition by pointing out parallels between the person and his double does not help at all. As Lacan also points out, the reflection seen by the child is an ideal that shows a harmonized “total form of the body” (Lacan 1977, 14). This is the reason why Dorian hates the portrait, although he recognizes that it is a well painted portrait. He sees an ideal version of himself in it, which doesn’t age and because of this and the misrecognition that happens at the beginning, he despises the artwork. He realizes that with every second he gets farther and farther from his idealized version and this is where his tragedy of self-identification lies. From the perspective of this interpretation, the whole novel is a search for ideals and self-identity dressed in a Gothic robe spiced with witty, aesthetic and hedonistic thoughts. The desire of miming that ideal reflection that Dorian misidentified as himself and the act of failing by doing so causes his final tragedy and death.
II.4. Marxist Criticism
Before discussing the novel from a Marxist point of view, first of all we have to clarify that Marxism declares that literature is the reflection of a culture and by this any certain culture can be affected by its literature. This idea derives from Marx’s main idea which briefly was based on the thought that whoever controlled the production matters of a society, those controlled the society as well. Later this idea was renamed as “dialectical materialism” because Marx had a premonition about the birth of a communist world. He believed that the production matters should be controlled by the masses and not by the hands of those few who owned these production matters. The ideology also stood up for oppressed poor communities. Later the Marxist idea was misinterpreted and corrupted by the Soviet Union.
Marxist ideologies are often linked to Freudian psychoanalysis, since Freud often focused on the individual’s subconscious, while Marx is believed to have been preoccupied with the political subconscious. He was convinced that certain oppression exists in the political subconscious of a society and that the social hierarchy rankings are inherent in any group of people. In The Picture of Dorian Gray the Marxist ideology is described as a negative philosophy where success is based on wealth and economics. There are many traits of the novel that support this interpretation as well. Already Dorian’s way of using money is reflecting the manipulative corruption of the higher social ranks. Dorian’s fortune lets him visit opium dens without any splurge. He can easily bribe the driver of the hansom who will fulfil every wish of Dorian’s. Dorian is aware of his financial power which comes with the privilege of being in the upper class and uses it to manipulate those who stand below him.
There is another specific scene where the Marxist ideology’s influence can be noticed and at the same time it is described once again as something bad. In this scene we see Sybil and Jim as they are walking in the park:
They went out into the flickering wind-blown sunlight, and strolled down the dreary Euston Road. The passers-by glanced in wonder at the sullen, heavy youth, who, in coarse, ill-fitting clothes, was in the company of such a graceful, refined-looking girl. He was like a common gardener walking with a rose. (Wilde 2003: 63).
It is clearly visible that once again there is a negative view of the Marxist ideology, since it represents the domination of wealth over poverty. The upper class people judge Jim by his poorly chosen clothing which paints a quite superficial and extremely materialistic picture about higher classes.
Another negative Marxist example is Lord Henry himself. He is an upper class aristocrat who instead of helping the poor or doing acts of kindness out of humanity, is simply preoccupied with his own business. Nothing seems to be important to him. His opinion about the property owning class and the proletariat also seems to be controversial. He believes that the bourgeoisie, which in this case would be the property owning class, does charitable acts not because they would want to show their humanitarian side but because they have the intention to show their competitors how much power they have over the working classes. This is a mentality which was quite typical at the end of the 19th century. Upper class people believed that once somebody became a wealthy person, they should not have wasted their time helping the poor, which leads us to the conclusion that charity in real life and in the novel as well was something immoral from the perspective of the higher classes.
Basil represents the middle class. During the 19th century artists were not exceptionally wealthy but they could earn a kind of status due to their success in the artistic fields. However they always struggled with financial problems but sometimes The Academy or The Grosvenor helped these artists. There are several references to these situations in Wilde’s novel as well, as, for example, when Henry sees the portrait, he tells the following words to Basil: “You must certainly send it to the Grosvenor. The Academy is too vulgar.” On the other hand, people like Basil had to socialize once for a while with upper class people in order to gain prestige and valuable connections. The idea of being successful only if we are in touch with the higher class is also a typical Marxist idea.
You know we poor artists have to show ourselves in society from time to time, just to remind the public that we are not savages. With an evening coat and a white tie, as you told me once, aybody, even a stock-broker can gain a reputation for being civilized. Well, after I had been in the room about ten minutes, talking to huge overdressed dowagers and tedious academicians, I suddenly became conscious that some one was looking at me. (Wilde 2003: 9)
There is one special scene that discusses the Marxist ideology in a positive manner. In a conversation Sybil Vane decides that she does not need a husband just because he is rich and she concludes that she can fulfil her goals without the help of a man who is not important for her: “Money, Mother?... what does money matter? Love is more than money.”(…) [Mr. Isaacs] is not a gentleman, mother, and I hate the way he talks to me.”(…) We don’t want him anymore, mother.” It has a positive tone, because a member of the lower class society realizes that she has triumph and independence over a member of the upper class society. In relation with the Marxist ideology, the theme of “Materialism versus Spirituality” gets an important role, since materialistic values tend to erase the spiritual, aesthetic values which once again would bring us back to the question of Aestheticism and morality in relation with the Victorian period’s rigid social rules.
II.5. How Many Layers Does This Novel Have?
The answer is not obvious. Probably there are several interpretations of this literary work that were not mentioned in this paper. In my final thesis I decided to discuss the most popular theories and interpretations in order to show how diverse and colourful Oscar Wilde’s only novel can be. However, if we want to find a common point between these analyses, we might observe that to some extent they all agree in one matter. The most important theme of The Picture of Dorian Gray is the theme of ‘Falling’. No matter how we look at it, in the end the novel is about a juvenile whose soul was corrupted by the world and in this way he lost his innocence which was a price to experience everything and become mature enough to understand the world. From this perspective, Dorian can be seen as a tragic hero, whose hubris is his narcissistic personality and his obsession towards eternal youth and immortality. Only the questions change from one interpretation to another. Was it because of the materialistic world? Was it because of the other characters that were around Dorian and influenced his life? Was it an oppressed dark side that was brought up on the surface? Or was it even something supernatural involved? Every single interpretation looked for different answers to different questions. That is what makes a literary work exceptional. Literature is highly subjective and it has just as many readings as readers. This is the reason why The Picture of Dorian Gray has been so wonderfully successful over the last two centuries. We can always find another layer, we can always dig deeper into the symbolic structure of the work. As Oscar Wilde said once, “all art is at once surface and symbol. Those who go beneath the surface do so at their peril. Those who read the symbol do so at their peril.” (Wilde 2003: 4)
In the next chapter of my work I will discuss two film adaptations of the novel paying special attention to the devices and procedures that these films apply. I will also try to identify the filmmakers’ interpretations as well, since as we said, Dorian Gray has many faces and he stays young and fresh, no matter in what age we are. In this sense, he gained the well-desired immortality. People still talk about him, and the novel can still stir many debates. That is the reason why not only the novel itself, but also its film adaptations have became controversial.
III. Adapting The Picture of Dorian Gray to the Screen
Oscar Wilde’s only novel has become a major source of inspiration for artists from all over the world. Many adaptations have seen the light since the original work’s birth; these adaptations are not only films but theatrical works, literary re-writings or even audio-plays. There are hundreds of variations, transmediations based on Dorian’s story that can’t be enumerated in this paper but just to refer to some, I’m going to mention a few titles that captured my attention during the research work. An interesting novel written in 2002 modernizes the old story, placing the whole plot into 1981, where Dorian’s portrait is actually a video of himself that is said to carry sexually transmitted diseases. The novel made a lot of noise among the critics and up to this day it is still debatable whether it is a well-written novel or just a vulgar version of the original one. The novel’s title is Dorian, an Imitation and it was written by Will Self.
The world of the theatre also saw some potential in the eternally young Dorian’s story and during the last few decades many plays were born, all of them based on the original novel. For instance, there is a musical adaptation that was written by two Hungarian composers, Mátyás Várkonyi and János Ács, and it was premiered in 1990 in the Rock Theatre in Budapest. The English premiere was in London five years later. A traditional three-act play was written by Greg Elridge and Liam Suckling in 2007 and it had a huge success all over Australia, which was proved by the fact that every single show was sold out throughout two seasons. The most recent adaptation was made by none other than Oscar Wilde’s grandson, Merlin Holland, and it was running in the Trafalgar Studios earlier this year.
Although there are several other attempts both in literature and theatre, probably the most fruitful field for reviving Wilde’s immortal Dorian Gray would be the cinematic screen. There are plenty of film adaptations of the novel; the earliest one was made in 1910 and it was directed by Axel Strom. There is also a Hungarian adaptation of the story made in 1918. The title was Az élet királya (The King of Life), it was directed by Alfréd Deésy and it featured such actors as Norbert Dán in the role of Dorian and Bela Lugosi in the role of Lord Henry Wotton.
However, probably the most popular adaptation known by the public is The Picture of Dorian Gray, made in 1945 and directed by Albert Lewin. The movie featured the following actors: Hurd Hartfield played the role of Dorian Gray, Lowell Gilmore was Basil Hallward and Henry Wotton was portrayed by George Sanders. The movie won the Academy Award for Best Cinematography because of the unusualblack and white photographing technique and the use of multicolour technology which was quite modern in that time. The portrait, which was used during the filming and which was originally painted by Henrique Medina (and later modified by Ivan Albright) stays now in the Art Institute of Chicago.
Another interesting film adaptation is The Secrets of Dorian Gray, which was produced in 1970, directed by the famous Massimo Dallamano, and the leading role was played by Helmut Berger. What makes the movie more interesting is the fact that the whole story is placed in the sixties, which lends to the whole cinematic work a kind of Euro-cult atmosphere. It is also the first adaptation that discusses a bit more explicitly the sins that Dorian committed and which were only suggested in the original work. By choosing a blonde-haired and blue-eyed actor for Dorian’s role, this is one of the most authentic versions of the novel in which Dorian is portrayed as it is described in the book as well.
I think it is important to mention that there is an extremely interesting interpretation of the novel that was made in 1983, in which Dorian Gray is seen as a woman who works as an actress and photo model, and instead of her an audition tape will age. The movie was directed by Tony Maylam and the leading role was played by Belinda Bauer. The film didn’t have a huge success since it was originally made for television broadcasting, but it is considered as one of the most unusual re-thought interpretations of Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray.
A more recent adaptation was produced in 2009, having Ben Barnes and Colin Firth in the leading roles. The movie was directed by Oliver Parker and it had a similar controversial atmosphere around it, just like the original, the novel. Many reviewers share the opinion that Parker managed to catch the atmosphere, the main topic of the original work, however, many others think that the 2009 remake is just a cheap and vulgar remake of a remarkable literary work. However, compared to the most recent adaptation, which was made in the TV series called Penny Dreadful in 2014, it is still a much better done work.
In my paper I am going to discuss three of these film adaptations: the Oscar winning movie that was produced in 1945, the 1970 version and the 2009 film adaptation. I will make a brief analysis of each cinematic work in turn and then I will proceed to make a comparison between the three works as well as between the films and the original novel, paying special attention to the adaptation procedures that helped to convert a literary work into a cinematic one; to the question of fidelity and interpretation methods; and to the symbols and allusions that might be found in the following threefilm adaptations that made each of them unique. In order to carry out this comparison I have chosen one scene which plays a crucial role in all the works, namely that moment when Dorian sees the portrait for the first time.
III.1. The Picture of Dorian Gray – The Rigid Marble Statue
One must admit that this film indeed used many technical tools that were considered modern in those days. The fact that the whole movie is black and white and only the portrait appears in multicolour when it changes makes this cinematic work quite unique and it rises above several contemporary productions. The cinematography and the camera angles all give the sense of an advanced technology, thus it is not surprising that the movie won an Oscar. The casting was exceptionally well made. George Sanders brought to life Henry’s character in an exceptional way; with the intonation and rhythm of his speech he managed to capture that cynicism that characterizes Henry so well, while with the gestures and posture he managed to give that dual ambiance to the character that makes him interesting. He was a gentleman and a phlegmatic character at the same time. Hurd Hatfield was also an excellent choice for the role of Dorian Gray, since he could personify the true innocence with a single look. However, during the film many spectators would notice that Hatfield tended to act like a rigid marble statue, which is completely understandable since Dorian Gray’s major trait is that he conceals his feelings, hides secrets and makes sure that no one will discover his dark side. It is worth mentioning Angela Lansbury as well, since she managed to capture Sybil’s innocence very well. There is a specific scene in the movie when Dorian asks her to stay, and the mimics that Lansbury makes are remarkable. By laying down her head and doing extremely slow motions, she expresses the hesitation that Sybil might have felt in the same situation. In other words, the casting was on point and every actor and actress did an exceptionally good job. However, being an adaptation, there are several slight and major differences that were not present in the novel and which were probably added to the screenplay with the intention to make the film a bit more unique. These added details are mostly allusions, references or symbols, however, there are some meaningful changes in the case of the characters.
The film begins with a quote from The Rubáiyát by Omar Khayyám, which is originally a selection of poems written in Persian and it was translated into English by Edward Fitzgerald:
I sent my soul through the invisible,
Some letter of that after life to spell:
And by and by my soul returned to me,
And answered, ‘I myself am Heaven and Hell’.
This quote appears several times during the film as well, though it is not retaken word by word. The most memorable scene is probably towards the end of the film, when Dorian shows the hideous portrait to Basil and points out that “each of us has heaven and hell in him.” Also, the last scene shows this same quote from one of Dorian’s books and with this it forms a kind of frame together with the first scene.
After the first scene the movie starts to build up the plot threads. The main story is placed in London in the year 1886. Lord Henry Wotton is sitting in a chariot reading a book, while the narrator makes a brief introduction about the character to the audience. Since a movie is quite different from a novel, not only physically but also from the perspective of the narrative, the introduction of an omniscient voice can ease the construction of the plot on the screen, since a narrator can tell details, descriptions that help the audience to gain a better understanding of the characters and to be able to put the story-pieces together more easily. However, another characteristic device can be observed during the movie and that is none other than the objects that surround the characters. In the opening scene Lord Henry reads Baudelaire’s famous book, the Les Fleurs du Mal. Aestheticism is often related with the Symbolist movement, furthermore, Baudelaire and his book are considered as the basic creations of Symbolism. Through this simple act in which Henry is reading this book, we can conclude that the character is a believer of the theory of senses; it reflects his hedonistic and aesthetic views upon life.
From this point the movie follows the happenings in the book. However, there are several specific moments that add some extra charm to the movie and to the plot, as well. For instance, while Henry is sharing his hedonistic views with Dorian in Basil’s studio, he catches a butterfly and puts it into a chemical liquid. Later it is shown that the butterfly is dead and it is preserved on a picture. In my opinion this is an extremely well-constructed foreshadowing symbol. I think the butterfly represents Dorian’s innocence and the fact that this butterfly is caught and killed by Henry may represent not only the negative influence that Henry has on Dorian, but also the fact that Dorian’s innocence is probably doomed. Also, there is a new character introduced in the first minutes of the film that doesn’t exist in the original novel. It is Basil’s niece, Gladys, who will later become Dorian’s second love interest instead of the village girl from the novel.
One of the most crucial moments of the novel and the film is the scene in which Dorian sees his portrait for the first time. It is clearly observable that the filmmakers also had the same opinion considering the fact that it is the best constructed scene and this is also the first time when the multicolour technology is used. When Dorian looks at the portrait for the first time, the camera zooms in the picture, which becomes colourful and lively; haunting non-diegetic music is played in the background and the attention of the spectator is directed to the Egyptian black cat that appears on the portrait as a design prop. Then the camera immediately snaps back to a close shot of Dorian’s face. He is visibly mesmerized by his own reflection and he says quietly the following words: “As I grow old, this picture will remain always young”. Then a sudden despair and disappointment appears on his face, while he is continuing his monologue: “If it were only the other way. If it were I who was always to be young and the picture that was to grow old”. Then, once again, our attention is directed towards the Egyptian black cat in the form of a warning by Lord Henry. “You oughtn’t to express such a wish in the presence of that cat, Dorian. It’s one of the 73 great gods of Egypt and is quite capable of granting your wish.” It is clearly evident that the intention of filmmakers was to bring in the supernatural and even the transcendental into the story and by this they emphasized the Gothic nature of the original work. The Egyptian black cat represents an inexplicable supernatural force that might be able to grant Dorian’s wish, however, it is never mentioned if this god is evil or good. Despite Henry’s warning, Dorian continues to talk about the fact that he will grow old while the picture stays young. His reasons become more and more eager and he ignores his two friend’s calming advice. “It’s more than a painting. It’s part of me. If only the picture could change and I could be always what I am now. For that I would give everything. Yes, there’s nothing in the whole world I would not give. I would give my soul for that.” Then the camera zooms out from Dorian’s face and zooms in once again to the picture, while the sinister music slightly intensifies in the background. His wish was heard by the Egyptian god and it will be soon granted. It is interesting how the filmmaker made the actor emphasize the last few words. It is true, that in the novel Dorian mentions that he would give his soul to the devil, but it is not highlighted, in fact the reader might interpret it, as a reckless malediction caused by Dorian’s vehement nature. However, in this film Dorian makes sure to emphasize this wish; as if it was a seal on the pact that the boy made with the supernatural force.
It is also notable that the whole film – just as the novel – is built on the motif of duality. First of all, there are the picture and Dorian, then in the quote the mentioning of heaven and hell. Later Dorian goes to a bar with the name of “Two turtles”, where he meets Sybil Vane. This is another difference from the novel. In the novel Sybil is an actress in a relatively cheap theatre. However, as we can see, in the movie she is performing in a bar. Also, she is not quite an actress, she is more a singer. In spite of all these, her personality remains basically the same. She is over-melodramatic and falls instantly in love with Dorian. She calls him Sir Tristan, which is once again a difference, since in the novel Sybil called Dorian the Prince Charming.
Music plays a significant role in the film. When we first meet Dorian’s character, he plays Schumann’s works on the old piano found in Basil’s painting studio. Then, when he meets Sybil, he plays a sad, almost melancholic prelude to her. Then, when he finally invites Sybil to his house (and thus he follows Henry’s advice), he plays more upbeat tempo music on the piano, which will gradually intensify when he asks Sybil to stay. These are instances of diegetic music. Sybil hesitates for long moments and she even goes out of the room, but then she finally returns and stays. The music expresses not only the atmosphere of a given scene, but also the slow degradation of Dorian’s personality. During the same scene the importance of the black Egyptian cat is once again brought up. Sybil declares that she is afraid of the statue and as an answer Dorian reads a poem by none other than Oscar Wilde. The poem is called The Sphinx. In this way, the film breaks the fourth wall illusion and reaches the metaleptic effect that Dorian might have been a contemporary of Oscar Wilde, and thus it creates the impression that Dorian might also have been a real person.
Another crucial point in both the novel and the movie is the moment when the portrait changes for the first time. Dorian refuses to marry Sybil, instead, he leaves her and as a consequence Sybil commits suicide. Exactly the same happens in the film, too. Dorian sends a letter to Sybil, in which he expresses that he does not wish to continue the relationship with her and then he leaves England to travel around the world. During the night when Dorian sends the letter, he notices the first change on the picture. The narrator helps us to identify the slight cruelty that appears around the portrait’s lips. When he arrives back from his journey, Dorian is informed by Henry about Sybil’s death. His reaction is quite similar to the one in the novel. At first he is shocked by the news, but soon his sadness will fade away and he will become insensitive towards Sybil’s death. When Basil visits him, Dorian is already in his “normal” state. Basil thinks that Henry and the yellow book given by him have a bad influence on Dorian, thus he also gives a book which tells the story of Buddha. Once again, there is another motif of duality. The yellow book probably contains Henry’s perspective, while Buddha’s book might reflect Basil’s. In this sense these two books are in total contrast with each other. It is worth mentioning that not long after this scene, Dorian decides to hide the picture in his old playroom. It is quite ironic how his corrupted soul is hidden from curious eyes in the space of his childhood, the symbol of innocence. It is also notable that the playroom contains a blackboard in which the following inscription can be read: “Non ignoravi mort alem esse”, which, roughly translated, means ’I have not ignored to be mortal᾽. This statement may reflect Dorian’s attitude towards his sins. He knows that the change of the portrait is wrong and whenever a bigger mistake is made (like the death of Sybil or of his brother, or the murder of Basil), he keeps reminding himself that he can still be a normal mortal human being. However, he quickly forgets this belief as well, since the portrait’s temptation is much stronger than his own will.
Soon after this scene the film jumps forward in time. The voice over narrator fills up the empty parts that were left out from the movie, never explicitly describing the acts that Dorian carried out during all those years. All that we get from the narrator’s brief story is the fact that Dorian had done some dreadful things. By this the atmosphere becomes just as ambiguous as the ambiance of the novel. The film never shows what happened in those few years, in fact in the next scene we see an already grown-up Gladys, as she is singing the same song that once Sybil sang in the bar. Dorian looks at her with nostalgia, maybe this is the reason why he almost immediately falls in love with her. Also, as we may see later, this will become one of the reasons why Dorian will kill Basil.
Since the film was made in the 1940s, one should pay attention to the melodramatic tension that is present in this cinematic work as well. In that time, love triangles, tragic lovers and huge conflicts were quite popular topics in movies, thus it is not surprising that another character is introduced in the story that portrays Dorian’s rival. His name is David and he is completely in love with Gladys. He will be the first character who notices the mysterious vibe around Dorian and starts to investigate the truth behind Dorian’s eternal youth. This investigation wakes suspicion in several other characters as well. And then one night Basil visits Dorian with the intention to borrow the portrait, because he wants to exhibit it in Paris. At first Dorian refuses to lend the picture to the painter but then he changes his mind and invites him to the play-room with the following words: “I’ll show you my soul”. When Dorian finally reveals the portrait to Basil, he stares at the distorted picture with a dreadful look on his face. Once again the whole picture is shown in colour. It depicts a very gruesome version of Dorian and it shows not only the signs of age but also the corruption of his soul. Basil is shocked, he asks Dorian to pray with him and when Dorian questions the reason behind praying, Basil says the following words: “This is monstrous. It’s beyond nature, beyond reason!” Dorian’s answer is a simple sentence: “Each of us has heaven and hell in him.” Basil desperately tries to find a solution to save Dorian’s soul and while Dorian is watching him, the narrator explains the scaring feeling that will lead Dorian to kill Basil. He is frightened of the idea that Gladys might find out the truth about him, thus in order to keep his secret, he stabs Basil multiple times. During the act of killing the lamp which gave a sombre semidarkness to the room starts to swing rapidly. This might be the symbol of the evil in Dorian’s soul; the evil that enjoys committing sins. But it can also represent the goodness of his soul, that small light which is still fighting against the dark crimes.
In the rest of the movie the events happen in relatively similar order. Basil’s body is destroyed by Dorian’s friend, Allan Campbell, then shortly after this Dorian meets Jim Vane, who will be killed during the hunting in Selby. The only difference from the book is around Gladys’s and David’s character. Dorian decides to marry Gladys, he thinks of this act as a last chance to become good, however, unfortunately, this idea is not appreciated by his rival. David manages to get in the play-room while Dorian and the others are at the Selby house and will see the picture. He then immediately goes to the Selby house to tell the truth to Gladys and ask her not to marry Dorian. However, in the meantime, Jim is killed during the hunting and Dorian realizes that his final attempt to become good is just as selfish as any of his acts ever done, thus he decides to go back to his house and destroy the portrait. Once again, during the act of destroying the lamp in the play-room starts to swing extremely rapidly and finally it stops when Dorian collapses on the floor. At the same time Gladys finds out the truth and together with Henry and David they hurry back to Dorian’s house but they arrive late. The picture is changed back to its original form and in front of the picture there is a hideous corpse of Dorian Gray. The closing scene shows the Egyptian black cat statue in the hall of Dorian’s house and the book which is opened at the same quote that appeared at the beginning of the movie.
All in all, The Picture of Dorian Gray, produced in 1945, is well-constructed and probably one of the best adaptations of Oscar Wilde’s novel. However, there are some traces on the performance that show the influences of the time. Although the plot is set in the 1890s, the characters’ costumes are reflecting more the style of the 1940s. All the men have suits and ties that were not typical of the 19th century, but rather to the 20th century. Also, the melodramatic effect of the movie shows that the cinematic work tried to catch up with the contemporary trends of filmmaking, but after all, that was a good idea, since they won an Academic Award. In spite of these small remarks, my personal opinion is that this movie is one of the best cinematic adaptations of the novel. In the following subchapter we will see what happens when a cinematic work tries to completely reinterpret its source of inspiration and tries to put it in a total different context. The result might be astounding in some ways that we would never imagine.
III.2. The Real Prince Charming – The Hippie Dorian Gray
The 1960s can mostly be characterized with one word: revolution. This decade has remained in collective memory as one of the most influential periods of human history. With the appearance of The Beatles, teenagers and young adults started several rebellious movements. There were countless protests for civil rights, against the Vietnam War and for sexual freedom as well. It was a time of change, of revaluation of human rights, and due to the immense effect of the Beat Generation, the first hippie movements appeared all over the world. This period was controversial enough to serve as the perfect setting for the next adaptation that I am going to discuss in my paper.
The Secrets of Dorian Gray is a film produced in 1970, directed by Massimo Dallamano, having such actors in main roles as Helmut Berger (Dorian Gray), Richard Todd, Herbert Lom and many others. This “modern allegory based on the work of Oscar Wide” – as the film claims to itself – places Dorian’s story into the swinging 1960s, giving a completely different interpretation of the original work. One would think that by changing the plot’s time and space we get a whole new story, but in fact we have to mention that this movie is much alike the novel in many small details.
The most important detail, which, surprisingly, is often not taken into account, can be observed already in the first seconds of the movie. This is Dorian’s appearance. One would think that if Oscar Wilde described precisely the young boy’s external features, the filmmaker of an adaptation would respect the author’s indications:
Yes, he was certainly wonderfully handsome, with his finely curved scarlet lips, his frank blue eyes, his crisp gold hair. There was something in his face that made one trust him at once. All the candour of youth was there, as well as all youth’s passionate purity. One felt that he had kept himself unspotted from the world. No wonder Basil Hallward worshipped him. (Wilde 2003: 19)
This description of Dorian’s appearance is often ignored by filmmakers. The 1945 version used an actor that had dark hair, while the 2009 version casted Ben Barnes, who had brown eyes and brown hair. However, this adaptation chose Helmut Berger in the role of Dorian, an actor who has blonde hair and sparkling blue eyes: a perfect portrayer of the innocent Dorian. Furthermore, while Hurt Hatfield portrayed a quite prim and rigid Dorian, Helmut is more similar to the original one, his behaviour is more licentious. However, in the other characters’ case there are slight differences in their personality. Basil, for instance, is a more strong-minded person, he lacks the delicacy of an artist, while Henry is a typical rich businessman who has lost most of his wit and most of the time he is just extremely bored. The movie itself didn’t really have a huge success either. The first edition of its digital form was faulty and because of that it was impossible to watch the last half an hour of the movie. This error was corrected by the RaroVideo several years later. Still, I think it is notable to discuss this adaptation since it has a unique view upon the novel and it is also one of the first versions that discuss explicitly Dorian’s crimes.
The first scene already interferes in the chronology of the original plot. The film begins with the moment when Basil sees the portrait for the first time. Although we can hear his voice, we can’t see him. Instead of him, we see a very agitated Dorian, who blames the painter for the picture’s change. The motif of the swinging lamp is once again present in this version as well and probably it has the same meaning as in the 1945 version. As the title rolls in, the scene jumps to another moment and the spectator can see the events from a camera angle that suggests the Dorian’s subjective viewpoint. We see two bloody hands (presumably Dorian’s) through Dorian’s “eyes” as he rushes down the stairs into the bathroom to wash off the blood. The camera movements are very quick and sharply cut as if the person were extremely nervous or scared. Then Dorian runs into the living room where we see exotic decoration. Once again, we see a Buddha statue and also, Dorian has a living black cat this time. Then the scene cuts back to the objective view and we can see as Dorian burns Basil’s scarf and then he watches the flames with a concerned look on his face, then the set fades out to black. During these scenes there is a sinister non-diegetic music in the background that uses the Theremin, which, due to its sharp sounds, builds tension in the viewer.
Soon after these anticipatory moments the film jumps back in time. Now that the audience’s curiosity was sparked they can finally watch the course of the plot, the events that led to the moment of this disturbing murder scene. We see Dorian, Basil and their friends as they are sitting in a bar that evokes the 1960s disco feeling quite accurately. A woman is singing and dancing on the counter and later it is revealed that this person is actually a transvestite. This simple moment might be a reference to the movements that promoted human rights and sexual freedom in the 1960s. Dorian is fascinated by this person’s talent and when Basil notices this fascination he decides that it’s time to wrap up the party and go home.
It is interesting how the chronology affects the events and for those who have read the novel this distortion of the chronology of the events can be a little bit confusing. First of all, we get to know Sybil right after the bar scene. It turns out that she is an actress at a local theatre but her dream is to be able to play in films. We also know a relevant detail about Dorian. He is a student here and he moved to London because of the university. The two characters become instantly interested in each other and Dorian asks Sybil out for a date. There is something charming in the fact that we have the chance to see how Dorian’s and Sybil’s date would have taken place in the 1960s. They are wandering around in the cities, taking strolls in plazas, eating hamburgers while looking at show-windows. It looks like a today’s teenage romance and not accidentally. To some extent, it is a representation of innocence, a representation of the first pure love. However, it is also an initiation into another stage of life which might cause the loss of innocence as well. Sybil is depicted as an ordinary teenage girl in the 1960s. When she starts dating Dorian regularly, she keeps listening to twist and rock’n’roll songs that are often associated with rebellious attitudes. Her room is full of posters and decorations, and she keeps daydreaming about Sir Galahad who is none other than Dorian himself. It is interesting how all adaptations try to identify Dorian’s character through Sybil’s eyes with a well-known hero, who is famous of his morality and good deeds. The outcome however is basically the same. Sybil goes to Dorian’s house and they sleep together. The only difference from the book might be the fact that her relationship with Dorian seems to last longer than in the novel.
The next scene shows Basil’s studio but the audience is not yet allowed to see the portrait. But in exchange, this is the scene where Henry is introduced for the first time together with his sister, who once again is a character newly introduced by the filmmaker. She serves the same role as Gladys in the 1945 version. She is a love interest for Dorian, though not the only one. We also get to know that Henry is a painting collector and he would like to buy Dorian’s picture even though Basil disagrees with the idea. There is also a moment when the fourth wall illusion is yet again broken similarly to the previous adaptation. While the painter introduces Henry to Dorian, the former makes a witty remark which will cause the following reaction on the part of Basil: “The epigrams of Oscar Wilde… badly edited by Henry Wotton.” Although this is a humorous observation, it is somehow halfway true. Wilde admitted that Henry was a part of him, however, since he does not own every personality trait of the author, he cannot be exactly the same, he would be just a “badly edited” version of Oscar Wilde. Thus this single sentence might have a deeper meaning than the audience would have thought at first hearing.
The most crucial scene of the novel appears finally in the 28th minute of the movie. This is the moment when Dorian, but also the audience, sees the portrait for the first time. The painting reminds us of an old advertisement from the 1960s. Dorian is posing topless on the portrait with a tie around his neck, his hands put into the pockets of his neat jeans. He is fascinated by his own reflection and can’t take his eyes off the picture. The camerawork is extremely interesting in this scene. It zooms into Dorian’s eyes, then into the eyes of the portrait, while we hear a quite witty and amusing conversation between the characters:
(Henry): He’s fallen I love with your painting. Or with his own beauty that he didn’t realize before.
(Dorian): Why should I get old while this stays young?
(Basil): Don’t ask me. I’m a painter not an alchemist.
(Dorian): Why can’t be the other way around? I would always be young while this grew old. My hideous puppet would be up there and I would never change.
(Basil): Nice idea! Why don’t we paint it? (…)
(Dorian): I would do anything to stay like that. I would give my soul to stay like that.
It is clear that the conversation is more light-spirited than the one that can be found in the novel. However, Dorian’s reactions are surprisingly similar to the original Dorian’s. He loses his temper and he would say he hates the picture for staying young. But when Basil offers to destroy the portrait, he stops him, saying that he is completely in love with the picture and he wants to keep it. A significant detail, once again, is the fact that Dorian emphasizes that he would sell his soul for this eternal youth. However, this time there is no symbol or presence of the supernatural force.
What is interesting in this adaptation is that although it doesn’t really follow chronologically the plot and because of the time jump many things had to be changed, still there are some scenes that are following the small details from the novel. A very good example is the scene where Dorian, Henry, Basil and some other friends go together to the theatre to watch Sybil’s performance. It is interesting how the smallest reactions are almost identical with the description in the novel. Sybil is awful at acting and the audience is not amazed by it. Henry and Dorian’s friends are extremely bored, some of them are yawning. Sybil is too happy to be able to play Juliet’s role authentically. Even her co-actor is watching her with disbelief. And while the audience is leaving the theatre one by one, Dorian becomes more and more frustrated. He feels shame and anger at the same time. If look could kill, Sybil would be already dead. Thus, it is not surprising that soon after the play is finished Dorian breaks up with Sybil. This time however the circumstances of Sybil’s death are completely changed. While she’s wandering on the streets, utterly confused by the sudden break-up with Dorian, she gets hit by a car. Meanwhile Dorian is visited by Henry’s sister who manages to convince him to sleep with her. On the next day Dorian notices the first change on the picture. It is notable to mention that whenever Dorian confronts the picture, the camera zooms in the eyes of the portrait. This movement can be explained by a simple saying that is quite popular among many cultures: the eyes are the mirrors of one’s soul. In this sense, whenever Dorian looks into the eyes of the portrait, he might see his own soul or, more precisely, his conscience that was sold for eternal youth. However, in this adaptation science has a more significant role. Dorian thinks that the portrait changed because of some chemical mutation in the paint, so he sends a sample to his friend, Allan Campbell, who will tell Dorian that there is no chemical change in the ingredients of the painting. Shortly after this the two start to talk about the relationship between the material and the spiritual world. Allan Campbell claims that every action has a reaction and by this it is quite possible that the material world can have some kind of effect on the spiritual one and vice versa. As we can see from this scene, Dorian desperately tries to rationalize the change on the portrait. This once again shows the intention of the filmmaker to create a more realistic interpretation of the novel, excluding the supernatural as much as possible.
As it was mentioned before, this is one of those several interpretations in which Dorian’s sins are explicitly discussed, though they are reduced only to his sexual behaviour. The film doesn’t go into details but it shows significant quantity of nudity and sexual allusions to sexual acts that are driven by different underground cult rituals or even allusions to homoerotic desires as well. There is a specific scene where Dorian is participating in a boat party and while he is taking a shower, he drops the soap and soon after that we get a close shot of Henry’s face. Although from today’s perspective this would be a bit comical scene, still it is a quite clear reference to homoeroticism. These scenes are edited in a very unusual way. At first sight the spectator would think there is no relation between the pictures and the story. The film frames are changing quickly, not showing enough to have concrete interpretation of Dorian’s sins but instead of it they suggest it through these unfinished cuts. The quick rhythm of the events also symbolizes the passing time and suddenly we notice that Henry, Basil and all the other characters have aged, except Dorian. The next scene in which we see the main characters once again in one place is very crucial from the perspective of the film plot. This is the scene where Dorian meets Sybil’s doppelganger. Dorian is overwhelmed by the feeling of nostalgia and suddenly he realizes the weight of his crimes. In this sense Sybil’s doppelganger takes the place of the village girl from the novel; a character who represented the last ray of hope for Dorian, the last chance for which he could still change. Probably this is the reason why they are going together to that certain hunting trip, where later Jim is killed. It is a witty coincidence that Sybil’s brother and Sybil’s doppelganger appear almost at the same time in the film, both having a revelatory effect on Dorian.
The most final sin of Dorian is once again the act of killing Basil. A shortened version of the opening scene is shown with the purpose of linking the events in a chronological order. We see Dorian as he accuses the painter for the corruption of the portrait: “It’s your fault. You and that stinking portrait!” Soon after this statement he kills the painter. It is surprising that this time the act itself is not shown. Instead of it the camera shows the distorted picture and due to the moving lamp we see only the shadows of the characters. Later the corpse is destroyed by Allan Campbell similarly to the original novel and the first adaptation that was discussed.
After the incidents happened in the Selby house, Dorian recognizes that he can’t change any more. Just as it was in the case of original work and the first adaptation, Dorian has a sudden realization that everything he does is driven by his selfish behaviour, thus he decides to end his life. A very interesting detail is the fact that as compared to the novel and the 1945 adaptation, Dorian stabs himself instead of the portrait. Once again the illusion of the supernatural is ignored just as much as possible. With Dorian killing himself instead of stabbing the picture we get a more realistic, a more rationalized interpretation of the whole story.
The closing frames show the last paragraph of the novel, while the camera zooms out from the dark room where Dorian lies dead and old in front of the now young portrait. In the third movie we will see a strange combination of these two adaptations and we will investigate what kind of effect that version of Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray had on the audience.
III.3. Dorian Gray, the Prince of Supernatural
Probably one of the most “scandalous” film adaptations of The Picture of Dorian Gray is the one that was produced in 2009. This cinematic work was at least as controversial as the novel in its time. For some critics it was just a poorly edited vulgar imitation of the successful literary work, while others claimed that it was the most faithful and most well-done film that managed to capture the mysterious and ambiguous atmosphere of the novel. However, if we take a closer look, we will see that the truth is somewhere between the two extremes. Film critic of The Guardian Peter Bradshaw stated that in this adaptation “Wilde’s romance is caricatured, certainly, but the whole thing is socked over with gusto” and he also mentions that the filmmaker, “Parker has made a name for himself with Wilde adaptations. This is the least respectful and the most fun” (Bradshaw 2009). In other words, the film adaptation used the novel as a primary source of inspiration indeed but lit it from another perspective by not taking very seriously the main topic of the story and emphasizing the Gothic nature of the work as much as possible. It is also notable that the filmmaker probably studied previous adaptations in order to create his, since this cinematic work includes many similarities with the previous adaptations. For example, one similarity can be found between the 2009 and 1945 version. Both films treat the question of Gothic with such tools as the decomposing portrait and the invisible supernatural force in order to create the atmosphere of a decent horror movie. However, Parker’s movie has some common points with the 1970 version as well. It changes the chronology, starting from the point where Dorian kills Basil. Although this is a similar structure to the Dallamano adaptation, after the first scene, we immediately see the difference as well. This time Allan Campbell won’t help Dorian in destroying the corpse, since Allan Campbell does not exist in the 2009 version. Instead of it Dorian puts Basil’s corpse into a huge chest and throws it into the Thames.
Since the change of chronology was mentioned, I think it is important to notice that this is the only adaptation that has to some extent a prologue and an epilogue, too. The spectator gets to know Dorian’s story from the very first point when he arrives in London and meets Basil, and the story will continue even after Dorian’s death, showing a very old Henry Wotton, who is talking to the portrait that hangs now in his cellar. The meaning behind this epilogue will be discussed later in this subchapter.
The imagery of the movie is however completely different. It is much darker and more sombre. The whole cinematic work is in almost constant semidarkness. There are only a few scenes when the light is a bit sharper and these scenes are almost always connected to the innocence of Dorian. Such scenes are, for instance, those when Dorian arrives in London or when Dorian takes Sybil on a picnic. However, these scenes have a greyish filter that may foreshadow the loss of his innocence. Starting out from this point, the 2009 version has another common point with the 1945 version. It uses various symbols in order to suggest character development and ambiguous atmosphere. Music is once again used as a characterizing device. Dorian is characterized by the diegetic music he plays on the piano. Similarly to the award winning adaptation, in the beginning he plays soft and almost romantic songs, however, as the story advances, his songs are getting more upbeat and sinister up till to the point when Dorian will not be able to play them anymore, since that would summon evil memories along with Basil’s ghost as well. In this sense, music may represent the spiritual world as well which once again is connected with the supernatural. The presence of eerie sounds and presumable ghosts expresses not only the supernatural but also the Gothic nature of the story and its link with Melmoth the Vanderer. For instance, there is a specific scene at the beginning of the film when Dorian first arrives to his house. We see the portrait of his grandfather whom Dorian fears extremely and we hear unusual echoes through the walls of the building. That is clearly an allusion to Melmoth, who is scared by the portrait of his ancestor, and it also suggests the fact that there is something inherently evil in the spirit of Dorian’s family.
Another interesting symbol can be found in the play-room that is presented also at the beginning of the film. As it was discussed before, Dorian’s playroom is a reference to innocence and ironically this will be the place where his corrupted portrait will be hidden. However, it is notable to mention that in this case the play-room is the attic at the same time and we see from flashbacks that Dorian might have been locked into this play-room several times during his childhood. There is also a mirror in the room that is shattered. Dorian sees his distorted reflection in this broken mirror. This can be interpreted as a representation of his vulnerable innocence which is easily corrupted and by this it is just as fragile as the glass on the mirror. However, it also foreshadows the murder that Dorian will commit, taking a piece of shattered glass and replacing it into his original position. From another perspective it can also be an allusion to Lacanian psychoanalysis, only this time the young Dorian does not see his ideal reflection, he sees a distorted version and probably this is the reason why he will be later mesmerized by the portrait.
Because of the change in chronology, Dorian gets under the influence of Henry much earlier, already during the process of painting the portrait. They go together to a bar where Dorian will notice Sybil for the first time. Later we will see that they will actually meet in quite a similar way to the original story.
The most crucial scene, the first time when Dorian sees his own portrait, is once again reinterpreted. It is quite similar to the 1945 version, however, the symbols and the camera movements are rather different. While in the 1945 version there was a symbol of the butterfly, the 2009 version uses rose petals. Dorian is speechless because of the fascination he feels towards the portrait, so Henry, being an impatient character, sits down, grabs a rose petal and starts to play with it while demanding the boy to speak up in order not to hurt Basil’s feelings. Dorian’s answer is however unique and a bit doubtful: “Is that really how I look? It’s just so… life-like.” Henry’s answer is instant and precise: “Better than life… He’ll always look like that. You, Mr. Gray, I’m afraid, will not.” This is a major difference as compared to the other adaptations. While the previous versions only suggested these ideas through Henry and made Dorian to say them out loud, here Henry is the one who speaks in the name of Dorian, expressing the boy’s own thoughts. Dorian acknowledges Henry’s answer and he reacts intensely: “Perhaps I should nail my soul to the devil’s altar”. Once again, the pact is uttered loud by Dorian himself and the tone of his voice sounds more determined than in the previous versions. However, in this case, the supernatural force is identified with the devil himself. This is a quite reasonable interpretation, since the premiere of the movie was set on the date of 09/09/2009, that being a slight allusion to the devil’s number, which is 666. From this point, for the filmmaker the supernatural force that keeps Dorian young and fresh is none other than the devil himself. Now, if we return to the symbol of rose petals and the dialogue between Henry and Dorian, we can observe that the pact is expressed not only verbally but symbolically as well. Henry asks Dorian: “Would you?” and meanwhile he places the rose petal above the flame of a candle. The rose petal gets on fire and it slowly burns, while Dorian’s answer is short and determined: “Yes”. The camera zooms out from his face to the face of the portrait, there is a non-diegetic sound, a sigh that suggests that the pact was made and in the same time the petal burns as well. Here, the petal might represent the innocence of Dorian that will fade but it also represents sensuality while the fire might be once again a symbol of the devil. Basically this can be interpreted as a symbol of Dorian’s soul that will be corrupted by the evil.
Another interesting reference in the movie is the scene where Dorian breaks up with Sybil. He leaves her after a poorly performed show, treating the girl’s broken heart with extreme cruelty. This scene is performed in the theatre and it is also viewed by Henry from one of the box seats. This might be a reference to Dorian’s description of his relationship with Sybil. He views the events as a melodrama and nothing else. The fact that they broke up in the theatre and they also have an audience for that is clearly like a melodramatic play that might have no real, lasting effect on one’s soul. However, it does have an effect on Dorian’s soul, because after the breakup, the portrait changes.
It is important to discuss about the portrait itself. As compared to the other two adaptations, this is the only version in which the picture is alive. We often see some scenes through the eyes of the portrait. During these scenes, the images are slightly distorted and coloured with a sallow filter. Furthermore, it emits strange sounds like moaning or sighing in pain and due to the well-developed special effects it truly comes to life at the end of the movie like some grotesque monster, and this frightful monster will be killed by Dorian, which act eventually kills Dorian himself as well.
Another major difference from the other adaptation is the presence of ghosts and strange visions. Dorian’s struggling conscience tries to stop his soul with haunting images. For instance, Dorian often sees Sybil’s ghost as she is drowning or when she is at the picnic with Dorian. And after killing Basil, Dorian will catch a glimpse of the painter’s ghost, too, during a performance, a vision which will cause Dorian to mess up the song that he played. The frightful image of the portrait is also haunting him wherever he goes. There are several times when his reflection gets just as hideous as the portrait as well.
As about Dorian’s sins, this adaptation is obviously the most explicit version out of the three films, however, the emphasis is laid, once again, mostly on sexual sins. Somewhere at the middle of the film there is a series of scenes that suggests other sins, like drug use, illegal fights, financial frauds and many others; however, it does not play a significant role in the movie. Homoeroticism is expressed explicitly as well and there is a specific kiss scene between Dorian and Basil which was probably inspired by that small confession mentioned before, which eventually was left out from the published version of the novel.
Another major difference can be linked to the death of Jim Vane and to the introduction of a new character. In this version Dorian does not go to a hunting trip but he meets Sibyl’s brother in the city. Unfortunately, while he chases Dorian into the subway, he gets hit by a train. The scene is extremely naturalistic and terrifying which once again proves the fact that the filmmaker’s intention was probably to create a horror film rather than a faithful adaptation of Wilde’s novel.
This time the new character introduced is Henry’s daughter, Emily, who once again serves the role of Dorian’s second love interest. However, she does not only represent the last piece of hope in Dorian’s world, but she also illustrates the amount of time that has passed since the first film frame. Through her the viewer realizes that Dorian should look much older, but thanks to the supernatural pact that he had made with the devil, he stayed young. She also serves as a reason for the birth of a tension between Henry and Dorian, and because of this tension Henry will decide to investigate the secret behind Dorian’s unnatural life in order to protect his daughter, and ultimately he will discover the truth about the portrait and the murder. The confrontation between the two ex-friends is spectacular. Henry is shocked, he can’t recognize Dorian anymore, he desperately asks: “Who are you?”. Dorian, of course, answers in a rather harsh tone: “I am what you made me! I lived the life that you preached but never dared practice. I am everything that you were too afraid to be.” This is another allusion to the Lacanian concept in which Henry is considered to be the symbolic, the language. He speaks about several topics but he doesn’t really engage into them. Eventually Dorian attempts to kill Henry, but due to Emily’s arrival, Henry manages to escape. He throws the kerosene lamp on the painting which starts to hiss and scream while it is burning. If the spectator still remembers the scene at the beginning where Henry burnt the rose petal, (s)he will probably notice the similarity between these two scenes and will probably realize that burning the rose petal was also a foreshadowing symbol. Henry first burnt the innocence of Dorian, now he burns the corrupted soul as well. In the end Dorian realizes that every single act that he does is driven by selfishness, so he stabs the portrait and while he does this, due to the gas leak, the whole building will burn.
However, the film won’t end with Dorian’s death. If one watched the movie carefully, one could realize the emphasis that was laid on the relationship between Henry and Dorian. Here Henry was more a father figure than a true friend for Dorian. That is the reason why the film gets an epilogue. We see how the characters react to Dorian’s death. Emily, Henry’s daughter, left the city and she does not want to talk to his father, because she blames him for Dorian’s death. However, we also see that Henry got his punishment as well. Not only he can’t talk with his daughter, but half of his face is burnt, too, not to mention that he somehow managed to save Dorian’s portrait and now he is hiding it in a very dark room. The closing scene reveals how Henry goes to this dark place to face the picture for the last time. He doesn’t say much: “Poor boy. Who can bear to look at you now?” His words and his tone express tiredness and disappointment, and the last sentence may refer to the original ending in which Dorian’s body is unrecognizable due to the fact that he had aged hideously. The closing frames show how Henry closes the door, then the camera zooms on the portrait, especially on its eyes. It seems as they are lit up, which might suggest an open ending and a huge question mark in the viewer’s mind. Is it possible that Dorian’s soul is still trapped in the painting? Or is the devil himself hidden in the picture and by that it changed to a cursed object? Whatever is the reason, this ending leaves place for multiple interpretations and probably that was the filmmaker’s intention. He left in the viewer an ambiguous and uncertain feeling just like the original novel, and from this perspective I think Parker managed to grab the main atmosphere of the original literary work and set it in the cinematic world.
The non-diegetic music, the mysterious lights and the camera movements all contributed to the creation of the atmosphere, and in this way the film managed to stay somehow faithful to the spirit of the book, yet it still had a quite unique interpretation of the whole.
The aim of this paper was to investigate the relationship between a literary work and its cinematic adaptations by following Dudley Andrew’s theoretical concepts about the process of an adaptation. Thus I believe The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde was a good choice, since it has several cinematic reinterpretations which contributed to the novel’s immortality. The fact that it is constantly readapted not only shows the popularity of the novel’s theme, but also provides valuable information regarding the way the view of the literary work has changed since its first appearance. Due to the ability to change and stay fresh, to the ability of having multiple layers (and by that, multiple interpretations) Oscar Wilde’s novel is highly suitable for being adapted to screen. It is a perfect adaptation material because of its topic, as well. It deals with moral issues, with the relationship between the good and the evil. It discusses man’s relationship with art and creation, humanity’s obsession with staying young, with immortality, but it also criticizes the society and its hypocrisy, the injustice that is caused by the power differences of different social layers, the problem of stigma and even sexual identity. These are topics that were very topical in the past, they still are in the present and they will probably exist in the future as well.
Another reason why the novel is still successful in the circle of filmmakers lies in the style of the original literary work. Wilde’s witty and short paradoxical statements are ageless and serve as elements of a sophisticated sense of humour, which in the vast majority of the cases is widely appreciated by the audience. The ambiguity of the plot and the mysterious atmosphere also provides several possibilities to create multiple interpretations of the novel and by that to create multiple cinematic works that always have something new in them. The three films that were analysed in this paper illustrated pretty well how Andrew’s adaptation categories are appearing in practice, however, it is necessary to mention that in these cases it was rare to see a pure form of any category. Almost all adaptations are some kind of mixtures of these categories, out of which one is more dominant.
For instance, The Picture of Dorian Gray (1945) showed us how successful an adaptation can be if the filmmaker uses the intersecting method. He took the basic skeleton of the original work and retold the story on the screen as it was expected by the audience. However, due to the omission of several layers (e.g. social criticism, homoerotic subtext) and because of the major emphasis of the original work’s gothic nature, it can be regarded as a borrowing as well, since the film borrowed the most essential elements of the novel. Still, having a narrator that speaks similarly to the one in the original work and having actual quotes from the novel (mostly Henry’s witty remarks) this cinematic work manages to adapt to screen the main features of the style as well and due to the film’s original symbols it creates that exact ambiguous nature which made The Picture of Dorian Gray successful. For these reasons we can safely say that this film adaptation contains some traits of borrowing but it is mostly dominated by the intersecting method. The only missing aspect is the fidelity of transformation; it seem that the filmmaker could not find the perfect voice for the spirit of the novel, however, Andrew stated that staying faithful to the spirit of a literary work is almost impossible for a cinematic one (Andrew 1984).
As compared to the first adaptation, The Secret of Dorian Gray (1970) mostly used the method of borrowing. It is worth discussing why the filmmaker decided to borrow Dorian’s ambiguous and mysterious character and put it into a quite different context, into his own time. The reason behind this decision probably lies in the similarity between the mentality of Dorian and the hippie lifestyle. Dorian lives by experiencing every sin, not caring about the consequences. His spirit is free and revolutionizing, just like the people of the swinging sixties. If Dorian had lived in the 1960s, he would have been a perfect prototype of a free spirited hippie person who is travelling around the world, looking for new experiences, having fun in bath houses and revolting against traditional conventions. Through this borrowing the filmmaker managed to present the atmosphere of his own contemporary time through the lens of a well-known and widely read novel. From this perspective, Wilde’s novel was a perfect choice; however, due to the major ignorance of other layers of the literary work, this movie cannot be viewed as a successful adaptation of the novel. Yet, the intention of the filmmaker was probably not to recreate the story on screen, but rather tell a story of his own time, and thus – whether it was a conscious or subconscious process – he created a new interpretation of the novel, as well.
The 2009 version, Dorian Gray, attempted to make the impossible. It tried to stay faithful to the spirit of the novel. It tried to create the same atmosphere, the same impressions in the audience which was born in the first readers of the novel, too. To some extent, the film managed to stay faithful to the ambiance, however, due to the major plot differences we can’t really categorize this cinematic work into a successful adaptation that used the fidelity of transformation. It is more likely a borrowing. Once again, the characters, the supernatural force, the time and space are borrowed from the original work, but they are drastically changed due to the fact that the filmmaker wanted to create a horror movie. For this, he emphasized the Gothic nature of the original work, and in order to make his interpretation more frightening, he changed several events in the plot. The skeleton of the original novel is pulled apart and some of its pieces are put together in a way that the cinematic work can function as a well-made Gothic horror story. The film does suggest some deeper layers of the original novel, but these layers are mostly ignored or once drastically changed for the sake of the horror. However, by using witty dialogues and by hiding several symbolical scenes in the movie (e.g. when Dorian breaks up with Sibyl and Henry watches them) we can say that Dorian Gray was a quite well-done film adaptation, even if it didn’t really manage to discuss the whole novel. The ambiguity, for instance, is almost completely destroyed due to the fact that Dorian’s sins are concretized and explicitly discussed. Wilde left out Dorian’s sins intentionally in order to wake curiosity in his readers. By discussing Dorian’s immorality explicitly, the film takes away the possibility from the audience to interpret this ambiguity on their own. However, thanks to the epilogue, the mysterious atmosphere will not be omitted completely, since the ending will be left open in order to give that possibility from another point of view. It seems like the intention of the filmmaker was to take away the attention from Dorian’s character and turn it towards the portrait, towards the soul and thus he may have suggested the start of an introspective process about morality in the audience.
We could clearly see in these adaptations that every filmmaker who worked with Oscar Wilde’s novel had their own interpretation of the novel itself. However, surprisingly, all of them believed that it was important to make Dorian emphasize that originally reckless idea of him selling his soul for eternal youth. Possibly they had the intention to emphasize the strength of the supernatural, to emphasize the relationship between man and his consciousness, or even his own soul; to emphasize the relationship between the material and spiritual world and the moral consequences of this relationship. Also, all of them believed that in order to emphasize the last ray of hope for Dorian, a new character, a new love interest is needed to be introduced. The original novel showed this last hope in the image of a village girl. This character suggested that Dorian’s hope was false, since according to the social criticism seen in the novel a village girl would not have a big impact on Dorian’s life. For some reason, all filmmakers felt the urge to bring closer this second love interest to Dorian. The 1945 version used Basil’s niece, the 1970 version created Henry’s sister, while the 2009 version had Henry’s daughter, who played an important role in Dorian’s love life. The reason behind this can be the intention of increasing the dramatic effect of Dorian’s tragedy. If the second love interest stays closer to Dorian (and to the readers, too), then the fall of the main character because of this false hope is bigger, the realization of his own selfishness is a much stronger emotional step. It is a good step from the perspective of the plot as well, since it creates a stronger conflict between Basil and Dorian or Henry and Dorian and a strong conflict plays a crucial role in any cinematic work.
No matter how we look at it, we can clearly conclude that this comparison of the adaptations and the novel proved the fact that The Picture of Dorian Gray has multiple interpretations with messages that can have new meanings in every period, in every era, and due to this it won’t become obsolete, it will stay fresh and it will always serve as a perfect source of inspiration for cinematic works. Even if in different transmediated forms, Dorian Gray managed to gain immortality. He will be discovered again and again by filmmakers and he will stay young, beautiful and immortal in world culture forever.
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