On Why I Need to Read More Classics

It seems a shame to let the year go without another post, despite my long neglect of this space. I have, to be honest, found myself lacking the inspiration to write creatively in the midst of a grad school year filled by often dense and specialized readings. It’s been difficult not to talk myself out of writing because, really, who is remotely interested in reading about a defunct evangelical publishing house or the politics of British censorship on a light and fluffy blog?

But the holiday break and a run of good films has finally presented some material for a post – material that connects effortlessly to some of the semester’s readings on British popular culture, of all things.

One of the overarching themes of books on British popular culture is the constant anxiety the middle classes suffered on behalf of the British population in the nineteenth and twentieth century. Well-meaning, if overzealous, evangelical men and women especially worried constantly that theatre, books, and music halls would corrupt the youth, the women, single and married men of the lower and middle classes. (The aristocrats, they figured, were already to licentious to bother with.) They started youth organizations, church groups, and working-man’s clubs as alternatives to secular entertainment; they lobbied for censorship laws to stymie offensive plays, imported (read: French) books, and bawdy variety shows.

But the worst of the worst, the entertainment industry that caused the most ulcers and aneurysms, was cinema. Woe to the viewers of Hollywood, or even sub-par British, films for they knew not what smut lay within. At best, critics found the moving pictures mindless. At worst, detractors accused films of undermining God, King, and Empire. (This, of course, despite Hollywood’s penchant for producing films like Gunga Din.)

Recent historians however argue that, far from corrupting the general population, cinema played an important role in renewing interest in classic plays, books and historical themes, all elements of elite culture that critics could hardly object to. Most British films depended on an audience’s pre-established interest in a play or novel (say, Henry V or Great Expectations) for their success. Elaborate period pieces about looming British figures, like Henry VIII, likewise succeeded at the box office in large part because the British public already knew of the person. What’s more, historians increasingly see evidence of film and television prompting viewers to seek out serious books that inspired or were related to what they saw.

Which brings me to my own viewing pleasures over the break and my fledgling hope that this winter’s box office hits might have the same effect. The biggest films of the season – The Hobbit, Anna Karenina, Les Misérablesand Lincoln – are all based on classic novels, musicals, and historical events. The Hobbit and Les Misérables are old favorites for me, but even those have me asking new questions, like who on earth is that Pale Orc? And what are the rest of the verses to “The Misty Mountain“? Some changes to the lyrics in Les Misérables as well as new interpretations of the characters likewise left me curious about the original novel, which I haven’t read. Does Hugo emphasize the class conflict apparent in the original stage show, or does he take shots at the monarchy the way this newer rendition suggests? Is Javert the cool, calm, calculating figure we see from Russell Crowe, or is he the passionate, fanatical law enforcer who usually shows up in the musicals and concerts? (Crowe’s interpretation is, to be honest, a little lifeless for my taste, but I’m willing to wait and see if maybe this is moreso the Javert of the novel.)

Anna Karenina and Lincoln, by contrast, are new territory for me. I’m intrigued by the former in large part because the brilliant Tom Stoppard did the screenplay, but it’s also high time I read a classic Russian novel. Plus some reviews are suggesting that the film doesn’t even begin to do the novel justice, and I dislike being unable to judge the value of a reviewer’s appraisal. Lincoln thoroughly impressed me, and I’m willing to take M.L.’s word on the authenticity of the portrayal of the former president. The film’s characterization of Mary Todd, though, is troubling. She’s petty and hysterical and machinating and I wonder if historians have been more harsh on her than is warranted. There’s the possibility that the portrayal is accurate, of course, but I tend to find that history isn’t always terribly kind to women who might wield power, or who grapple with mental health issues. Still, I’d like to add a biography or two of her to my personal reading list before I offer criticism. (I’m assuming such a thing exists. Recommendations, anyone?)

So from sheer personal experience, I ultimately find myself agreeing with historians’ evaluation of the role of cinema in the lives of the British people. Far from being mindless entertainment, films based on books and stage shows and history can illuminate the richness of their inspirations. A good film, I think, is ultimately defined as one with enough entertainment value to keep us in our seats for two or three hours, but one that still lacks just enough to send us running for the written word after the credit roll is completed.