My recent post on the Centenary of the P.G. Wodehouse novel Piccadilly Jim, prompted some discussion about Wodehouse adaptations.
Some people think it impossible and ought not be attempted. I disagree. What the world needs is more and better Wodehouse adaptations.
While it’s true that some of the linguistic joys of Wodehouse’s prose cannot be translated to the screen, his complex plots and fabulous characters absolutely can. But they must be handled sympathetically, by scriptwriters, directors, and cast members who appreciate the material they’re working with — and want to produce it faithfully.
For a thorough criticism of the various Wodehouse adaptations, I direct you to a piece entitled Spats, by Shadowplay.
26 thoughts on “Wodehouse adaptations”
The plot and dialogue can be adapted and replicated satisfactorily in film, although it isn’t as easy or simple as it might seem on first impression. But not the narration, and the narration is a lot of the joy of Wodehouse, especially in the Jeeves-Wooster stories, although the third-person narration in the Blandings stories is inimitable as well. You have to fight the sense that the films have not adulterated, even violated, the stories. For me, even in the Laurie/Frye production, there is a sense of loss.
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I agree Ted. An adaptation will always be a version of Wodehouse to supplement the ‘real thing’, rather than replicate it in another form. However, I think Wodehouse’s time in theatre influenced his later writing and dialogue to such an extent that a good job of it ought to be possible. Wodehouse Playhouse is a good example of what might be done by sticking reasonably closely to the original material. The production is dated, but still good.
I have a peculiar question, which has nothing to do with what wrote (although I agree).
Which font do you use, which size, and which spacing do you apply? I like it very much!
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My dear Frits! It is always a pleasure to hear from you. I spent (some might say wasted) many hours testing WordPress templates before deciding on this one — so pleased you like it. I don’t know the font, but I will check and get back to you.
Thanks for checking, Jen. I find the find ideal in terms of legibility. I look forward to whatever details you can inform me about.
Right Ho, Frits,
The heading font is Gentium Book Basic and the text body font is Karla. I can’t get specific details about layout and spacing, but the WordPress template I called Lovecraft.
The Shadowplay crit gets it right: the tone is the key, and it hasn’t been right in my view since the Ian Carmichael-Dennis Price Wooster-Jeeves pre-colour TV series (many disagree). The short David Niven film of Uncle Fred Flits By succeeds because it’s like a one-act play — a single set and entirely dependent on the dialogue with some silent-film business as contrast. I agree with you of course on the influence of the theatre on Wodehouse. By his own admission he liked to structure his books as plays. Since you started this discussion about Piccadilly Jim, I’ve concluded that the filmmakers should look to the later stories and books, written in the US.The plots are the usual old PGW stuff (not to be dismissed for all that) but much of the action in them is more cinematic than in thepast, which may reflect the impact of Plum’s TV-watching, In the end, however, it all depends on how the script-writers and the producers and directors handle the material. Blandings was a massive fail, Fry and Laurie was mediocre and Heavy Weather went close (not sure about Peter O’Toole). Tinkerty, as I say, tonk.
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What Ho, Old Stepper! What are your views on Wodehouse Playhouse? The production is dated, but I thought they did a fine job of adapting the stories.
I personally liked O’Toole as Emsworth, but I know many Wodehouse fans didn’t care for him in the role.
You surprise me regarding the David Niven and Carmichael-Dennis Price adaptations. I’ve seen snippets of both, and neither left me gasping for more. But if you say they’re good, I will make an effort to track them down and reconsider. I do like the actors in other things — The Niven/Flynn/Rathbone film Dawn Patrol is one of the best films ever made in my opinion, and I enjoy Carmichael’s radio adaptations and readings of Dorothy Sayers’ Wimsey novels.
Just some thoughts from a film maker on this topic of cinematic adaptations. Kubrick speaks about Nabokov’s Lolita, but his apercus apply directly to a writer as sophisticated as Wodehouse. Imagine Kubrick doing Blandings, it is possible, since there is a very adult undertone to the humour of the Wodehouse universe.
“People have asked me how it is possible to make a film out of Lolita when so much of the quality of the book depends on Nabokov’s prose style. But to take the prose style as any more than just a part of a great book is simply misunderstanding just what a great book is. Of course, the quality of the writing is one of the elements that make a novel great. But this quality is a result of the quality of the writer’s obsession with his subject, with a theme and a concept and a view of life and an understanding of character. Style is what an artist uses to fascinate the beholder in order to convey to him his feelings and emotions and thoughts. These are what have to be dramatised, not the style. The dramatising has to find a style of its own, as it will do if it really grasps the content. And in doing this it will bring out another side of that structure which has gone into the novel. It may or may not be as good as the novel; sometimes it may in certain ways be even better.’’
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This is an excellent reference, Fred. That is exactly the kind of thinking a Wodehouse adaptation requires.
Wodehouse responds. Kubrick wrote, “[the] quality [of a writer’s work] is a result of the quality of the writer’s obsession with his subject, with a theme and a concept and a view of life and an understanding of character.” I find it miraculous that Wodehouse has himself responded to Kubrick’s insights with an observation explaining specifically the essence of his own work. [There may those who have not come across this quotation yet.]
“With regard to the Spirit of Comedy, I will simply say this, that in my opinion – and I am told that George Meredith used to feel much as I do – Comedy is a game played to throw reflections on social life, and it deals with human nature in the drawing-room of civilized men and women, where we have no dust of the struggling outer world, no mire, no violent crashes, to make the correctness of the representation convincing. Credulity is not wooed through the impressionable senses; nor have we recourse to the small circular glow of the watchmaker’s eye to raise in bright relief minutest grains of evidence for the routing of incredulity. The Comic Spirit conceives a definite situation for a number of characters, and rejects all accessories in the exclusive pursuit of them and their speech. For, being a spirit, he hunts the spirit in men; vision and ardour constitute his merit: he has not a thought of persuading you to believe him.”
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Nice quote. Where from and when, please.
Where did you find this one, Fred?
A comment in reply.
Borges makes the point somewhere that Shakespeare was in part invisible to his contemporaries, to them the pinnacle of aesthetic refinement was achieved via the writing of epic poems. In this regard Shakespeare did not deserve to be lauded. Shakespeare produced few stand-alone poems, none to match the tragedy of “Rostam and Sohrab” or Homer’s epics, preferring the disreputable hum-drum world of theatre and throw-away play writing. (The performed play was the thing, not the written play.) A similar observation I find can be made of Wodehouse, that in essential part he has become invisible to the modern reader. Not just Wodehouse, but the world from whence he came has become invisible. I do not mean this metaphorically, I mean it literally. For example, the most important book Wodehouse created allowing him to revel in the work of those he considered his peers and betters is no longer even mentioned. I do not find reference to it anywhere, not in my Murphy, not in the incomplete Wikipedia catalogue, nor even in the compilation of names and factoids on the Wodehouse Society pages. Yet, at the time of its creation Wodehouse himself preened that the book was a job “that entitle[d him] to wear pince-nez and talk about Trends and Cycles”. The pinnacle of a career begun thirty four years earlier.
Why is this book important, a book some might say being the most important of all of Wodehouse’s books from a dedicated reader’s perspective? Well, let me recapitulate Borges yet again (he got some things right I think!), interpolating appropriate changes to “Kafka and His Precursors” to reinforce the point.
begin adapted quote —
If I am not mistaken, the heterogeneous pieces Wodehouse has enumerated resemble Wodehouse; if I am not mistaken, not all of them resemble each other. This second fact is more significant. In each of these texts we find Wodehouse’s idiosyncrasy to a greater or lesser degree, but if Wodehouse had not written, we would not perceive it; that is to say, it would not exist. The story “The Life of Lord Coodle” by Will Scott prophesies Wodehouse’s work, but our reading of Wodehouse perceptibly refines and diverts our reading of the story. Scott did not read it as we read it now.
In the critics’ vocabulary, the word “precursor” is indispensable, but it should be cleansed of all connotation of polemics or rivalry. The fact is that every writer creates his own precursors. His work modifies our conception of the past, as it will modify the future. [See T. S. Eliot: “Points of View” (1941), pp. 25-26.]
In this correlation, the identity or plurality of men does not matter. The early Wodehouse of “Love Among the Chickens” is less a precursor of the Wodehouse of “the day was so warm, so fair, so magically a thing of sunshine and blue skies and bird-song” (“with the golden cornfields hardly whispering in the stillness of noon”) and whimsical maiden ladies than is Wyndham Lewis or F. E. Bailey.
end adapted quote —
Hutchinson & Co. (Publishers) Ltd, London New York Melbourne Sydney Cape Town, conceived a series of heavy books “not of course, for women and weaklings, who will be unable to lift it” that would provide representative collections of fine fiction in various genres for only 3/6d. Amongst these books are titles such as “A Century of Detective Stories ed G.K. Chesterton 1935”, “A Century of Girls’ Stories ed Ethel Boileau 1938”, “A Second Century of Creepy Stories ed Sir Hugh Walpole 1937” and so on. Due to his notoriety, Messrs. Hutchinson asked Wodehouse to edit their “Century of Humour”, duly published 1934, “They are all here, all the swordsmen and bladder-wielders of the last hundred years – I think.” All carefully selected by Wodehouse, with each author described briefly by Wodehouse justifying inclusion in the collection. Along with some big names, there are many now forgotten, and even including of course a story by Wodehouse’s close friend Bill Townend. Borges in particular would laugh to discover in this assembly of precursors (“my favourite reading for fifty years”), that Wodehouse includes himself, “… needs no introduction. The name of P. G. Wodehouse spells loud and prolonged laughter throughout the English-speaking world.”
My dear old Rinaldo, this was a bit much for a Saturday morning in my part of the world. But I did it — I got it and I thank you for clearing up the little mystery of where Fred got his quote. You did leave us a tiny bit more to do but I sprang (well, shuffled — it being Saturday morning) to my bookcase, dragged out my somewhat tattered Century, and there it was, right on the first page of the Preface where only a befogged old man could miss it. Maybe you might like to read Cops, Robbers and Other Hairy Tales at https://noelbushnell.wordpress.com/ Please. Pip, oh all right, pip!
Spot-on quote from Mr Kubrick, and of course I wouldn’t expect anything else from him.. I hope someone of his genius takes on the Wodehouse challenge. But perhaps we should be careful what we ask for. Fred makes the important point about the adult undertone to the Plum frolics — depending, of course, how you define “adult”.
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I think it’s time we had an intelligent adaptation of Wodehouse’s work. By that, I mean an adaptation made by people who appreciate the genius of the original material and treat it with respect. A filmmaker who talks about Wodehouse’s work as silly, farce, slapstick, fluff and nonsense is on the wrong track and ought not be allowed within 100 miles of the stuff.
I am not suggesting that the fun should be stripped from ]the stories — rather, that filmmakers should not underestimate the craft of bringing that to fruition.
I like Kubrick’s comments, although I’m not sure I’m totally on board with the restrictive view he has of the importance and purpose of style.
I have often thought that Howard Hawks would have been a good director for Wodehouse. Bringing Up Baby and His Girl Friday should be particularly noted. Fast, fast, fast. There’s a tendency to linger and savor the dialogue like it’s Napoleon brandy. This is done with Wilde, too. It is that, but that’s not how to play it. American screwball comedy should be the paradigm to emulate. Don’t treat the material as if it is sacred. Just throw those lines away and move on quickly.
Although Hawks is my first choice, I think Ernst Lubitsch or Preston Sturges would have been good, too. Among the British filmmakers, the people who did Kind Hearts and Coronets and other of the Alec Guinness comedies of the ’50s.
Roy Boulting, who directed Ian Carmichael in Brothers in Law would have been good, as, of course, would have the young Carmichael in that movie (or as in I’m All Right Jack).
I don’t watch movies anymore, haven’t for years, so I don’t know who would be good directors or actors currently for a Wodehouse project.
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Ang Lee or Peter Jackson — I suspect Wodehouse isn’t quite their thing, but both directors have a track record of handling quality fiction with intelligence and humour.
I say, I am enjoying this discussion. Ted makes some good points about screwball comedy and the old British movie style (Carmichael again) and I think he’s right for at least some of the oeuvre (IFTTWIW).
I’ve been back to Wodehouse Playhouse and it’s pretty good as far as the short stories go, using the device of a narrator to get past the problem of capturing PGW’s style and cutting some of his exposition. I think the short stories are probably the most adaptable for TV half-hours.
Movies are another thing entirely and this is where Ted’s points join up with yours about treatments that are simply over-the-top period piece pastiches that I find as irritating and tiring as you. The themes of Wodehouse at his best overcome the limitations of period (despite the anachronisms) and should translate into present-day terms without great harm. You could easily do that with Niven’s style of Uncle Fred — very smooth and beautifully paced.
The question is how far you want to go into 21st century modes. I doubt Plum would have envisioned — for example in “sexing up” Jeeves and Wooster as he and Guy Bolton sought to do — just how far he could have taken that thought today.
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I’m very taken with this idea. Perhaps we need to put our heads (and talents) together and propose a project.
Egad, where would you start?
The Guardian says it better, here: https://www.theguardian.com/books/booksblog/2013/jan/21/pg-wodehouse-on-screen-blandings-tv
I won’t take that criticism to heart. Robert McCrum says most things better than anybody.
Reblogged this on ashokbhatia.
I would have loved to see what James Ivory and Ruth Prawer Jhabvala would have made of the Blandings stories. After all, they did amazing work in films like The Ramins of the Day, Howard’s End and A Room With a View.
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