The only time I think watching a film or TV series trumps reading the original book is when it comes to plays. Plays are not meant to be read; they are meant to be performed (if only high school teachers of Shakespeare would remember this!). I feel no shame in watching film adaptations of Oscar Wilde’s plays because they were written to be performed.
One of the things I love about Oliver Parker’s adaptations of The Importance of Being Earnest and An Ideal Husband is that he includes visual references to Oscar Wilde’s world. Before he became famous as a playwright, Wilde was an art critic, book reviewer and editor of The Woman’s World who toured the United States and Britain giving lectures on Aestheticism, art and interior design.
In Oliver Parker’s film version of Earnest, Cecily’s romantic daydreams are presented as Pre-Raphaelite tableaux, which are entirely appropriate because Wilde admired the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood (PRB) and one of his early influences was a champion of the PRB, the art critic John Ruskin. The sensual, emotional and idealised Pre-Raphaelite motifs of chivalrous knights, pining damsels and seductive nymphs are perfectly suited to Cecily’s overheated imagination and her determination to shape Algernon to her ideal. Similarly, Dr Chasuble’s secret portraits of Miss Prism are done in a Pre-Raphaelite style.
The portraits of John Worthing (Colin Firth) in his London apartment mimic the style of Max Beerbohm and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, which is fitting because both artists knew Wilde and created caricatures and paintings of him. (It must have been fun for the art department staff to create these homages to artists of the past.) When John Worthing chats to his friend Algernon Moncrieff in a nightclub, an actor dressed as the artist Aubrey Beardsley (the illustrator for Wilde’s Salomé, and one of Wilde’s protégés-turned-enemies) listens in on their conversation. These little details add to my enjoyment of the film adaptation because they draw on Wilde’s interests and tastes and remind us that Wilde, like his peer Toulouse-Lautrec, shaped the artistic and literary world we take for granted today.
© JD Ellevsen