Evelyn Waugh closed Vile Bodies, his tart look at the not unrelated subjects of journalism, partygoing, and war, with a section entitled “Happy Ending.” The slug is a ruse; the book’s chilling last sentence suggests eternal recurrence: “And presently, like a circling typhoon, the sounds of battle began to return.” Stephen Fry has shrewdly adapted Waugh’s 1930 novel into Bright Young Things, and the difference in titular adjectives is telling. Though Fry retains a healthy dose of Waugh’s cynicism, his happy ending stands.
Fry has chosen to land on a love story, and though he changes the originals’ fates considerably, it’s a respectful, even adoring deviation. He finds more to like in Waugh’s characters than Waugh ever did. Writer Adam (Stephen Campbell Moore) and flapperish Nina (Emily Mortimer) are engaged; but when an overzealous customs official impounds the MS of his next book, Bright Young Things (by “Sue de Nimes”), Adam loses his advance, and the marriage is off. Then it’s on again (he wins a thousand pounds in an idiotic coin-manipulation challenge). Then it’s off again (he gives it to a drunken major to place on a horse reputed to be n.g.). He becomes a gossip columnist, inventing not only boldface names but fads (green bowler hats). And of course there are always parties to go to—at mansions, racetracks, even an asylum.
The problem isn’t so much the revamped plot, or the comic set pieces necessarily left out (at one point in the novel, characters watch a molasses-slow film based on the life of John Wesley, with the deadly title card “Epworth Rectory, Lincolnshire (Eng.)”). Bright Young Things‘ plus ça change critique of society scuttlebutt and celebrity culture is heavy-handed, on a level with, say, Chicago. And aside from cameos by Jim Broadbent (as the drunken major) and Peter O’Toole (as Nina’s reclusive, eccentric father), much of the acting strains for a sophistication that quickly becomes annoying. Moore (a dead ringer for Hugh Laurie, the TV Wooster to Fry’s Jeeves) elicits some sympathy as the cash-poor cipher, and Mortimer has a curious-making rasp to her voice. If only they would just stay at home with an improving book.