Apart from the essentials of the premise (which just about everyone must know anyway, irrespective of whether they’ve read the book), the main thing I can remember from The Portrait of Dorian Gray is learning that I could thumb forward a few pages as soon as I saw a paragraph-long description of some flowers.
So, maybe I’m not the best person to judge how successful an adaptation Dorian Gray is. Or maybe I am, because I’m not so smitten and possessive about the original. It was clear from the film and the following Q&A that the filmmakers – particularly absent screenwriter Tom Finlay – aimed to keep a similar distance from the source material.
Indeed director Oliver Parker said that they brought in Finlay because his vision for the film lacked some of the literary reverence that restricted earlier drafts. Talking about adaptations more generally, Parker argued that sometimes you need to move some distance from the source material to gain a better perspective on the original.
After his previous adaptations of Wilde’s stage plays An Ideal Husband and The Importance of Being Earnest, Parker felt that an adaptation of the author’s novel could offer something more cinematic that those two films, which he feels remain performance pieces at their core (even though he was attempting to “blow the dust off Wilde”).
Their aim with the script wasn’t just to animate the novel as it was written, but to approach the story as they thought Wilde might have if he was alive today and – as he almost certainly would have been – writing scripts.
Parker admitted there’s a trade-off in adapting such literary work. On the one hand, you inevitably lose some of the narrative’s mystique; whoever plays Dorian Gray is never going to be as mysteriously beautiful as the literary character, while the grotesque portrait always takes on a more hideous aspect in the reader’s imagination than might be depicted on screen.
However, giving the world of the book physical form also provides positives for the narrative. Dorian becomes more of a character than the enigmatic cypher of the book. We also become able to see things through his eyes; Parker thought this might be partly why they entitled the film just Dorian Gray, rather than following the book’s lead.
The question inevitably arose of why they didn’t set the film in a more modern context, especially given the current obsession with youth, beauty, celebrity etc. Parker responded by pointing out that the repression in Victorian society is a key engine of the story; it’s what makes Dorian’s licence to do what he wants even more powerful.
He added that the social conditions of the time also made for a stronger contrast between the well-heeled social circle of Wotton and Gray and the grime of the Whitechapel demi-monde into which the Mephistophelean Wotton initiates Gray.
Finally, he said that he prefers the metaphor of using Wilde’s work in its original setting to depict something about the present day. Wilde was ahead of his day - and maybe still is – and period films work better when they have a strong perspective on the present.
In technical terms, Dorian Gray is a strongly coherent film, with a clearly defined structure and a consistent tone. Parker’s earlier work included theatrical collaborations with horror writer Clive Barker, and the film touches effectively on the Gothic atmosphere of its source while adding a contemporary visceral edge.
The script is also admirably sparse, resisting the temptation to slap on layer upon layer of characteristically ‘Wildean’ dialogue or narration. Colin Firth spits out a few familiar epithets as the sardonic Wotton, but the story is generally told with slick cinematic economy.
Edit: Here's a note from Fun Joel on his response to the script when he read it for a Hollywood studio.