The History Boys
A film directed by Nicholas Hytner
screenplay by Alan Bennett from his own stage play
The new film from director Nicholas Hytner, with a screenplay by Alan Bennett is a surprisingly successful stage-to-screen adaptation. Or perhaps not so surprising, given that Bennett also wrote the original play, here adapting material with which he was intimately familiar, and Hytner directed the award-winning stage productions both in London and New York. Bennett and Hytner also reunite here as the team that created another successful stage-play that became an award-winning film, The Madness of King George III.
As one of the latest generation of British playwrights, Bennett brings years of successful writing experience to bear, crafting a story that daringly skirts the maudlin, addresses some very sensitive issues, and manages to emerge humorous, provocative and touching.
The communication between director and writer in film varies widely. In some cases the writer is a valued collaborator. On other sets writers have been barred entirely once the finished script is accepted. With a writer of Bennett's stature and the shared history between him and Hytner - and especially with a vehicle like this play, which followed a successful debut in London's West End with a Broadway run that garnered a record number of Tony Awards - there is little doubt that it was an intensely co-operative effort that resulted in the final product, and obviously with good effect.
There is nothing ground-breakingly original about the story. It draws from a tradition of "triumph of the underdog" films with a fair helping of "Goodbye, Mr. Chips" thrown in. But as usual with Bennett's work, it isn't the plot that draws the audience in, it's the quality of the writing and the vivid characters he manages to evoke. Bennett's theatrical background shows through in a few "set-piece" speeches and moments, but restraint wins out and Hytner's direction effectively sweeps the viewer along before the artifice becomes too obvious.
In Sheffield, England, in the early 1980s, a rag-tag group of mis-matched young men in their last year of secondary school at an undistinguished "Grammar School" (the English equivalent of our public High Schools) all do well enough on their "A-level" exams to qualify to apply for admission to the prestigious and venerable Oxford University.
Two outstanding masters of long experience, History teacher Mrs. Lintott - nicknamed "Tot" or "Totty" by the boys - and their "General Studies" instructor - nicknamed "Hector" - have brought them to this pinnacle. Despite their success, the school's ambitious headmaster, anxious to secure the feather of Oxford admissions for his own cap, feels they need something more to help them through the highly competitive entrance process. He hires young, modern Oxford-graduate Irwin, just a few years older than the boys themselves, to "polish" them.
Irwin's progressive, market-oriented approach to education - tailoring essays and interview responses to what will presumably catch the attention of the examiners and make the lads stand out - is initially at odds with Hector's aggressively lackadaisical style, that mixes performances of show tunes and the final scenes of popular films with classic poetry, conversational French, and rigorous study of history and philosophy.
That there is method in Hector's apparent madness is borne out by the boys' wide frame of reference, their unpretentious ( and unpredictable) erudition, and their ability to think for themselves - as well as their A-levels results. But it becomes clear that Irwin, too, has a valuable perspective to convey and the teachers overcome their initial suspicions to become admiring allies in their efforts to obtain a result they all agree is in the boys' best interest.
Meanwhile the boys are occupied by a whole constellation of concerns beyond examinations and University. Their various relationships, evolving with their tentative entrance into manhood, range from simple companionship, through cynical manipulation to helpless adoration. And the fact that the teachers are not only not immune from forming the same kinds of emotional attachments but are in many ways as needy and uncertain as their charges - that in some sense, none of us ever grows up, or rather, our "growing up" never ends - forms a challenging subtext to the story.
It's here that the most controversial thread of the story appears. One of the boys has a "crush" on another. In seeking council, both from his peers and from one of his teachers, he's advised not to take his feelings too seriously, that what he feels may only be a "phase" he's going through, that will go away - to which he plaintively replies "What if I don't want it to go away?" Thus Bennett broaches another of the subtexts in this light but thoughtful work - the exploration and development of sexual identity, and how this "invisible" aspect of people's lives is actually central to everything they do and become.
This rather obvious (but often coyly elided) development in a story that focuses on adolescence is then played in refrain and variation through various characters - Hector's ineffectual homosexuality, as he makes diffident passes at his charges; student Dakin's amoral exploitation of his sexual magnetism; the married Headmaster's hypocritical pursuit of his much-younger secretary; Irwin's confused relationship to his sexual identity. All these dynamics illuminate the contrast between the academic "education" that is the apparent center of events, and the highly personal process of inner learning and growth that is the true core of the story.
Bennett handles his combination of snappy dialogue (replete with social commentary, trenchant observation and emotional revelation) and serious subject matter with a casual-seeming but carefully-polished quality reminiscent of Oscar Wilde. In fact, The History Boys is well within the English historic tradition of the "Comedy of Manners," updated for the first decade of the twenty-first Century.
Bennett's penchant for one-liners (one of the tag-lines for the film is: "History: it's just one bloody thing after another") also recalls Wilde, but unlike Wilde there seem to be a few moments when he allows the setting up of one of his favorites to interfere with the dramatic current of the story. His talent for clever dialogue, however, and Hytner's buoyant pacing, smooths over these awkward moments.
One of the film's strengths - and also one of its few weaknesses - is the fact that the same cast that originated the roles on stage has been carried over wholesale into the film. The ensemble work and the material have been deemed strong enough - which indeed they are - that the injection of "star power" in the person of well-known actors could only be a distraction.
On the down-side, however, several of the actors portraying the boys (who were first cast in 2004), while they may have been able to get away with playing a decade or so younger than their actual ages at stage distances, in the close-up world of film are clearly more than a couple of years beyond graduation, so that in spite of their fine performances, it requires a conscious exercise of "willing suspension of disbelief" to see them as teenagers.
That said, the excellent work of the ensemble is what makes the whole production work. While the cast inhabit their personae with a natural comfort that must arise from long familiarity, there is no sense of staleness at all. The energy and spontaneity they bring to their performances is what makes the characters appealing and engaging.
Several of the actors have been singled out for awards for their work, but such distinction is really unfair in a work like this that is so insistently an ensemble piece. The way the actors - even those who have the least dialogue and screen-time - support and create a resonant context for one another is the key to the film's success. For that reason, I won't detail the skills of the dozen principle actors here individually, but only report that this is "group acting" at its best.
The production values are excellent. Certainly transferring the costume drama The Madness of King George III from stage to screen must have taught Hytner and Bennett a great deal about expanding the visual frame and using the mobility, accessibility of locations and changeable focus of film to enhance a good performance piece without overwhelming it.
Andrew Dunn's cinematography (he was also a collaborator on The Madness of King George) shows a balanced understanding of the strengths and weaknesses of adding a "filmed" dimension to an already formed theatrical piece, adding interest, movement and intimacy without injecting counter-productive distractions. The expansion of the field of view from the school itself - which was essentially the entire set of the stage-play - to such visual feasts as the Oxford Campus, the winding streets of Sheffield and a field trip to a ruined abbey, again serves to provide a reference point of authentic background for the action, but stops well short of diverting attention from the emotional and intellectual developments that are the real focus.
Neither this film nor the play from which it was crafted is "Great Littracher" - a pretentious admiration for which Hector pointedly disparages. Rather, it emulates the irreverent mixture of the silly and the profound which characterizes his classroom style, in which each can be seen reflected in the other, and their relatedness can open the mind to insights both general and personal.
In the end, The History Boys manages to keep a light and entertaining tone that amuses and entertains, while at the same time posing open-ended questions on a variety of profound personal and social topics that lift it above the simple "feel-good" conventions of the "underdog makes good" narrative-arc out of which it arises. It's a film to enjoy in the moment, but also one to savor over time.
That's my take on it. What's yours?