The portrayal of decadence through staging and shots in the 1945 adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray compared to the 2009 adaptation.
“Move from the consciousness of the picture to the unconscious of the thought… A photograph is only a surface, lacking in depth, but burdened with fantastic weight.”
Philippe DuBois, Photography Mise-en-Scene, 1995, p. 170
“Anything and everything that is included in the composition of a shot will be interpreted by an audience as being there for a specific purpose that is directly related and necessary to understand the story they are watching”… “we could add that the placement, size, and visibility of anything in the frame will also affect how an audience understands its importance to the story.”
Gustavo Mercado, The Filmmaker’s eye, 2013
The Picture of Dorian Gray is a gothic novel written by Oscar Wilde in 1890. The story is about a boy named Dorian who bargains his soul to maintain his youth and beauty. As he becomes corrupt and consumed by vices, only his picture reveals his sins.
In Wilde’s writing there is an ambience of decadence, The Picture of Dorian Gray peers into the human condition, into the hedonistic vanities and pleas for materialism, that stray our path away from morality, and into the immoral. In this case, Decadence refers to a “period of decline”, a corruption that leads to a decay in morality, standards and values. The story documents Dorian’s decadence, and hence maintains an atmosphere, or ambience of it.
Albert Lewin (1945), Glenn Jordan (1973), and Oliver Parker (2009); re-invented the novel and put their own interpretation of Dorian’s sins to the screen, and each adaptation has had different portrayals of these sins. To see how these portrayals of decadence differ, the presentation of Dorian’s decadence in the novel will be compared to those in the adaptations via analysis of the composition of shots/staging/frames. The earliest cinematic adaption by Albert Lewin will be compared to the recent adaption by Oliver Parker.
Key words: Albert Lewin, Corruption, Debaucheries, Decadence, Frames, Hedonistic vanities, Materialism, Morality, Oliver Parker, Shots
Albert Lewin (1894-1968) was a well-known American film director, producer and writer, characterised by his surrealist shots and “unusual subject matter and presentation” (MediaBistro, Inc., 1956). The Independent Film Journal goes on to describe Lewin’s works as a more “imaginative type of film” of which “bear his stamp of quality and dramatic content”. Lewin’s adaptation of The Picture of Dorian Gray was released at the end of world war two, 2 months before Germany surrendered to the Allies. Lewin’s film presents an “idealised image of pre-war England… the film plays the well-preserved dandy to the picture of war-torn Europe presented in the newsreels and yet the film is shot through with a desperate urge to find transcendence in the ruin” (Stilling, 2013). During wartime and due to US war involvement, Hollywood’s film industry, like most other industries of the time, became involved in the war effort. This included making war themed films such as Frank Capra’s Why we Fight (1942) and John Ford’s The Battle of Midway (1942).
“Following the declaration of war on Japan, the government created a Bureau of Motion Picture Affairs to coordinate the production of entertainment features with patriotic, morale-boosting themes.”
Cook & Sklar, History of Motion Picture, 2019
Despite Albert Lewin’s adaptation being at the end of this war era, his frames, shots and staging echo the attitudes of the 1940’s, and this is also echoed in how he portrays decadence in the Picture of Dorian Gray.
On the other hand, Oliver Parker (born 1960) is a British Filmmaker, known for making averagely received adaptations of classic literature. From Oscar Wilde’s writings; as seen by Parker’s An Ideal Husband (1999), The Importance of being Earnest (2002) and Dorian Gray (2009), to that of Shakespeare as seen by Parker’s Othello (1995). Parker tends to exaggerate themes that are originally only hinted at in the original text, adding a postmodern element and portraying characters in subverted ways which can lead to varying reactions from audiences who are familiar to the source material. In Dorian Gray, Parker does this by focusing on Dorian’s sexual exploits and vices in a far less subtle way than how they are depicted in the source material, particularly he emphasises Dorian’s homo-erotic nature.
In the early 2000’s, film is transitioning into the conventions of the 21st century. There is a growing trend of “international coproduction” (Sklar & Cook, 2019) and in European cinema, clear film movements are now identified with national culture such as “Italian Neorealism, the French New Wave, or New German Cinema” (Sklar & Cook, 2019). At the same time audiences have changed compared to the past as society now allows more sexually explicit and provocative images. Oliver Parker’s frames, shots and staging echo this societal change and carry hints of this national culture, and this is echoed in how he portrays decadence in his adaptation of The Picture of Dorian Gray.
Lord Henry Wotton (Harry)
“Realize your youth while you have it. Don’t squander the gold of your days, listening to the tedious, trying to improve the hopeless failure, or giving away your life to the ignorant, the common, and the vulgar. These are the sickly aims, the false ideals, of our age […]Be always searching for new sensations. Be afraid of nothing… A new Hedonism- that is what our century wants. You might be its visible symbol.”
Lord Henry, The Picture of Dorian Gray, Chapter 2
The trigger that brings about Dorian’s decline, comes in the form of Lord Henry Wotton, also known as Harry. His character is a zeitgeist of the more depraved nature of English upper-class society in the late 1800’s. He opposes conservative Victorian pressures and advocates a lavish desire filled lifestyle. He is quite the utilitarian as he cares only for seeking out passions and maximising pleasure in brazen ways. Like the snake which tempts Eve, Harry encourages Dorian to embrace a more hedonistic attitude. Telling Dorian how beauty has sovereignty, and as a result Dorian has power due to his beauty and youth. Lord Henry’s words push Dorian to seek passions and cause him to trade his soul for everlasting youth and beauty.
The power that Lord Henry will exert over Dorian in the story is presented immediately through the offscreen non-diegetic narrative voice, at the start of Albert Lewin’s 1945 film. The narrative voice explains that Lord Henry’s “greatest pleasure was observing the emotions of his friends whilst experiencing none of his own, he diverted himself by exercising subtle control and influence over the lives of others.” (Lewin, 1945)
The medium close-up shot of Lord Henry riding in a carriage, smoking a long pipe, shows that he is a member of an aristocratic class. Albert Lewin likely introduces the character using this medium close-up, to showcase the nuances of Harry’s behaviour and body language to the audience. His downturned gaze combined with his top-hat and straight posture conveys his power. Behind Harry is the carriage window, which makes the audience aware of the larger world within the film, but with the close-up we are focused on him, suggesting that he is an imposing figure in this world.
In Harry’s hand he holds a book titled “Fleurs du mal” which translates to “The Flowers of Evil”. A book by Charles Baudelaire which contains poems relating to the themes of decadence and eroticism. With this frame alone, the audience becomes aware of the great influence that Lord Henry will have in the plot and are given clues to the decadence he brings with him.
In Oliver Parker’s 2009 adaption of the tale, Lord Henry is introduced at a party that Dorian attends with Basil Hallward. Lord Henry is surrounded by rich men and lavishly dressed woman. Parker uses a subjective shot where we see Lord Henry from the back, causing the audience to view this from Dorian’s point of view. The subjective shot shows the psychological importance that Harry’s character has on Dorian. Parker places Lord Henry in the exact centre of Dorian’s view, Lord Henry is the centre of his group, conveying that he is a key figure within this filmic world. The influence that Lord Henry will have over Dorian is further implied, when he catches sight of Dorian in the next frame. Lord Henry immediately approaches Dorian and eventually migrates behind him, as he begins telling Dorian about his hedonistic values. In figure 3, Dorian is notably looking to the distance whilst Lord Henry talks behind him, almost on his shoulder, like a tempting demon, whispering ill-intent into Dorian’s ears.
This is symbolic of Lord Henry and Dorian’s relationship and represents the control Lord Henry holds over Dorian, even from their first encounter. In figure 4, Lewin can also be seen using this staging, positioning Harry behind Dorian’s shoulder.
In the novel, Wilde introduces Lord Henry in the first scene, as he compliments Basil Hallward’s painting of Dorian Gray. Wilde doesn’t introduce Lord Henry’s new hedonism directly in the narrative but implies it through symbolism, such as “his heavy opium-tainted cigarette” (Wilde, 1890). When Wilde wrote this in 1890 there was a growing opium epidemic, opiates were known for being dangerous, causing addiction, and sending many into a decadent spiral. Introducing Lord Henry with this cigarette connotes his hedonism.
Additionally, Lord Henry brings an ambience of decadence to the novel through his juxtaposition to Basil Hallward. If Harry is a zeitgeist of Victorian hedonism, Basil is zeitgeist of conservative values and good ethics. The opposing values of Lord Henry and Basil represent the opposing values of good and evil, opposing ideologies.
Basil, in Lewin’s 1945 adaption, gives Dorian The Light of Asia, a book by Edwin Arnold which has insights into Buddhist practices and spiritual methods for conveying good will and good karma. Lewin ingeniously uses the book, Fleurs du mal to represent Harry, and the book The Light of Asia to represent Basil.
“His eye fell on the yellow book that Lord Henry had sent him.” (Wilde, 1890). In chapter 10 Lord Henry gives Dorian a yellow book. Fleurs du Mal, like the Yellow Book, serves the purpose of representing Harry’s hedonistic values and the influence he has over Dorian.
Lord Henry wishes to drag Dorian away from a common life and into one of passions and pleasures, and Basil wants to maintain Dorian’s purity and goodness, and constantly clashes with Lord Henry’s negative influence.
A few of their clashes can be seen in figure 6 and figure 7: The actors are always seen standing to the side, opposed to each other. Parker uses this in his 2009 adaptation as does Lewin in his 1945 adaptation.
Basil reminds Dorian not to listen to Lord Henry, but Dorian still turns to Harry. He ignores the cautions and positive influence of Basil.
The opposing influence that Basil Hallward and Lord Henry hold over Dorian, can be seen in the following images:
Both Lewin and Parker, upon Dorian’s first meeting with Lord Henry with Basil Hallward, position the actors on either side of Dorian. Foreshadowing the moral and literal choice that Dorian has to make between the two, and in the next frame they convey which choice Dorian makes. In figure 9, Lewin has Dorian turn and face Lord Henry, putting Basil and his positive influence literally behind him. In Figure 11, Parker has Dorian take the cigarette that Harry offers him, and face Harry instead of Basil. The fact that Dorian is giving into Lord Henry’s temptation marks the start of his downward spiral. In both adaptations this positioning is used, but whilst Lewin’s is more subtle, Parker’s use of a cigarette is more of a direct insinuation of Dorian’s corruption.
The irony being that, as Basil Hallward states in the novel, “You never say a moral thing, and you never do a wrong thing. Your cynicism is simply a pose”. Lord Henry rarely follows the hedonism he preaches. Despite his disapproval of marriage that he feeds Dorian, of which leads Dorian to eventually break Sibyl Vane’s heart (Dorian’s early romantic counterpart) and causes Sibyl’s death, Lord Henry is ironically happily married and doesn’t partake in a decadent lifestyle. He only talks about it.
In the films, the hypocrisy of Lord Henry is physically shown rather than implied like it is in the novel. In the 1945 version, this irony appears visibly when Lord Henry discovers Dorian’s corpse, and sees the decadent costs of a hedonistic lifestyle, causing him to murmur “Heaven forgive me”. In the 2009 adaptation, this irony is shown more forcibly as Lord Henry fights with Dorian, pointing a sword at Dorian in horror at what he has created, directly causing Dorian’s death.
“From the corner of the divan of Persian saddle-bags… tussore-silk curtains that were stretched in front of the huge window, producing a kind of momentary Japanese effect, and making him think of those pallid jade-faced painters of Tokio”
Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray, Chapter 1, 1945
In 1890 there was an encroaching orientalism and a change in aesthetics and tastes brought about by growing trade. The aesthetics within the novel is symbolic of Dorian’s decadence, as the more he surrounds himself with increasing oriental luxuries and items the more he declines.
Robert Stilling, in his journal article on Postcolonial Decadence, mentions how Lewin uses aesthetics to portray the decadent atmosphere in his adaptation of The Picture of Dorian Gray. Lewin does this through art in the form of “encroaching eastern spiritualism” (Stilling, 2013). In the opening frame of the 1945 film, Lewin introduces the theme of eastern spiritualism through a quote by The Rubἀiyἀt of Omar Khayyἀm that says “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’” (Lewin, 1945).
Diverting from the novel, Lewin makes an Egyptian Cat figurine the reason for Dorian’s abilities, marking out art and objects as an important detail. Lewin uses various artworks in the background that relate to oriental luxury, he even adds details into the staging, such as the book The Light of Asia which shows this encroaching orientalism. And as Dorian falls deeper into depravity more of this type of aesthetic is added into the frames.
In the 2009 adaptation Oliver Parker similarly uses objects and luxuries to show Dorian’s depravity. Unlike Lewin he is not solely focused on orientalism, but also uses western pieces to show Dorian’s growing decadence. From Dorian’s masquerade parties to nude statues, snakes, and foreign dancers and tattoos. The more luxuries Dorian is surrounded with inside the frames is equivalent to his level of decadence.
The Concept of Evil
Elvin Staub suggests, that at its core, evil is “the destruction of human beings. This includes not only killing, but the creation of conditions that materially or psychologically destroy or diminish people’s dignity, happiness, and capacity to fulfil basic material needs” (Ervin, 1989). This feeds into why the concept of Evil is so prevalent in The Picture of Dorian Gray; he destroys himself and causes his own decadence through his wanton acts and sexual exploits. He destroys his humanity as he wrecks his own body, commits murder, and corrupts his own soul, and in the process, he hinders his own happiness and the happiness of those around him. He commits a great evil onto himself.
When films or TV programmes represent evil, Cynthia Freeland underscores how they give us many “subtle and complex views on the nature of evil” and they do this by prompting emotions of “fear, sympathy, revulsion, dread, anxiety, or disgust” and stimulate “thoughts about evil in its many varieties and degrees: internal or external, limited or profound, physical or mental, natural or supernatural, conquerable or triumphant” (Freeland, 2000). These emotions can be stimulated in film through staging, editing, and colours within the frame.
In the novel, Wilde presents evil through his descriptions of internal and external conflict that Dorian has with his decisions, to the physical monster within the painting. In the films they show evil using effects and editing to portray the supernatural nature of Dorian’s painting, but there are various other devices used in the composition of shots that stimulate the emotions of fear; dread, sympathy and disgust onto onlookers, especially within the staging of these adaptations.
When looking specifically at staging, one way both Lewin and Parker achieve this evil, is through symbols and the placement of these symbols throughout their films.
In the 2009 adaption by Oliver Parker, there are plentiful symbols to be found that represent the decadence taking place. From the placement of a nude statue of a woman facing Lord Henry. To the yellow snake at one of Dorian’s lavish parties, that in one frame appears to be over Lord Henry’s shoulder. The snake just like Lord Henry, is a tempter, a representation of sin and corruption synonymous to the Devil.
In some frames devil signs can be seen amongst the art.
In one scene, when Dorian hosts a masquerade, everyone is wearing masks, their faces obscured and hidden. Giving into their desires under the pretence of civility. Dorian has descended into Lord Henry’s philosophies of New hedonism and is embracing his decadence. The masks symbolise the façade surrounding him.
Albert Lewin utilises glances to add tension and meaning to a frame, using subjective shots to convey the emotions of the characters. This is mostly seen when women are used in the film. The women are symbolic of Dorian’s hedonistic lifestyle. The woman’s grand hat and the ornaments of luxury around her also add to the ambience of decadence in the frame. Unlike Oliver Cooper’s 2009 adaptation, Dorian’s treatment to woman are only told through gossip and glances and the third person perspective of the omnipotent narrator of the film. The actress in the frame goes pale as Dorian enters the room.’
Another symbol throughout Albert Lewin’s film is the top hat. The top hat is a symbol of aristocracy. Additionally, it is a symbol of wealth of pre-world war II England which Lewin tries to reproduce in this film. Lord Henry is introduced wearing a black top hat, Basil Hallward also wears it- albeit briefly. But when Dorian is naïve and innocent, he does not bother wearing such a hat, however later in the film, the more he follows Lord Henry’s teachings the more he begins to wear this top hat in a similar fashion. In this medium close-up shot, Dorian can be seen wearing a stern expression, his top hat is illuminated by the moon above him. This symbolises that Dorian has become one with the ominous night, his innocence a remnant of the past.
Lewin utilises doors in his film. Usually doors are kept open to show the filmic world but as Dorian falls into decadence, the doors that were originally open to the audience become closed. In this frame, Dorian walks through a dark doorway in a shady bar. The door closes behind him and in turn closes on the audience. Closed doors insinuate secret and corruption. Lewin uses this staging to show that Dorian has become corrupt and has fully embraced his new hedonism.
In combination, Lewin also uses symbols of Dorian’s innocence to convey his corruption. Dorian murders Basil Hallward in the room where he spent his youth. After the murder the camera focuses on Dorian’s old toys. They are on the floor, near the darkness. Forgotten and lost just like Dorian’s former self.
“He rushed at him and dug the knife into the great vein that is behind the ear, crushing the man’s head down on the table, and stabbing again and again. There was a stifled groan, and the horrible sound of someone choking with blood. Three times the outstretched arms shot up convulsively, waving grotesque stiff-fingered hands in the air. He stabbed him twice more, but the man did not move. Something began to trickle on the floor. He waited for a moment, still pressing the head down. Then he threw the knife on the table and listened. He could hear nothing, but the drip, drip on the threadbare carpet.”
Oscar Wilde, Picture of Dorian Gray, Chapter 12
Dorian’s true decadence comes when he murders Basil Hallward. It is at this point that he severs all connection he has to redemption and the good moral ideologies that Basil represents. In the novel the murder is gruesome and detailed. Oliver Parker replicated this detail in his 2009 adaption, emphasising the brutality of the murder, he replaces the weapon- the knife from the novel- with a shard of glass from the conveniently broken mirror near Dorian. Dorian goes into a type of euphoria after he murders Basil, his face covered in his blood and darkness surrounding him.
The 1945 adaptation by Lewin is much less graphic, but unlike Parker’s it is truer to the book in its execution. Dorian uses a knife and stabs Basil, pinning him down. He is calm and collected throughout the process. As Dorian kills Basil, the chandelier above Dorian begins to sway, causing Dorian to be illuminated in light and then plunged into darkness. As Basil finally dies Lewin has the darkness descend around Dorian, he uses the lighting to symbolise Dorian’s complete decadence.
iii. Sex 2009 and 1945
In the 2009 adaptation, Oliver Parker doesn’t shy away from showing Dorian’s sexual and hedonistic exploits. Parker uses more visual aids to represent Dorian’s growing depravity than Lewin does, likely because audiences are more receptive and understanding of overtly sexual scenes in cinema in the early 2000s, compared to how they were in 1945.
Albert Lewin’s adaptation tends to shy away from the controversial overly sexual and homo-erotic nature of Oscar Wilde’s novel. Lewin’s film was marketed to audiences as only a heterosexual thriller, as seen by figure 27 showing the poster of the film. Lewin’s adaption only lightly touched much of the sexual exploits, vices, and actions of Dorian Gray. Only implying them through the narration and glances.
The art of adaptation in film has been going on since motion picture was conceived, as Walter Benjamin pointed out “Storytelling is always the art of repeating stories” and film has always been putting stories to the screen. An adaptation isn’t blatant copying, it is taking a source material and personalising it, it should be about creation and re-interpretation that showcases the original material from a new perspective. Both Lewin and Parker do this, through their different use of aesthetics, symbols, and the positioning of actors in shots. Lewin creates his version of The Picture of Dorian Gray in a much more conservative time, which had different social circumstances compared to Parker’s time. And this can be seen in Lewin’s use of objects, glances, lighting and symbols compared to Parker’s more direct sexual and violent images. Notably, despite the time lapse between both adaptations, Lewin and Parker do have similarities in staging, an example being the similar way they position their actors to convey their relationships to the audience. Overall, the ambience of decadence of is conveyed in similar ways in the adaptations as it is in the novel, through symbols, aesthetics, imagery, and violence.
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 Period of decline