OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAA fellow writer recently passed me a copy of William Makepeace Thackeray’s Barry Lyndon. I’d just watched the film version, made in the nineteen seventies by Stanley Kubrick. In my days as a second-hand bookseller, selling books to wargamers, this was a film that came highly recommended. Finally getting to see it, I could understand why. The early battle scenes are as good a training manual for an eighteenth century re-enactor as you are going to find anywhere.

Having seen the film I was eager to get on and read the book, looking, as always, to see what changes had been made, and to speculate about why, and with what effect. I wasn’t disappointed. Indeed, within the first few pages I had enough grist for the mill of this little blog posting! The immediately noticeable difference was in the telling of the story – for the story is told rather than, or in the case of the film, as well as, shown in both versions. The film has an intermittent voice over narrative spoken by Michael Horden. The book has a first person narrator, in fact, the eponymous hero himself.

Barry Lyndon’s voice, however, is not Michael Horden’s. You might remember Horden. I certainly do. He played in popular movies – Theatre of Blood, a Hammer Horror riffing on Shakespearian themes, springs to mind as well as in more serious fare. I saw him play Prospero at Stratford in the late nineteen seventies. His passion was fishing, and he provided voice over, as well as his own fly-rod, for a reading of Isaac Walton’s The Compleat Angler. In the film of Barry Lyndon, Horden provides an omniscient narration, in a patrician, authoritative voice. In the book, the Barry Lyndon that speaks for himself is a bombastic self-aggrandising braggart, as blinded by his own rhetoric as he intends us to be. The two voices alone, without the further distancing of the ‘third person’ camera lens, separate the two tellings, and perhaps inevitably, rob the film of some of the humour inherent in the bragging.

There is a quirk in this first person novel though, and that is in the provision of footnotes, in an authorial voice, not unlike Horden’s, which offers a third person perspective on some of the facts , and fictions, offered by Lyndon himself. One effect of these is to give the narrative the sense of being a ‘real’ narrative, however flawed or unreliable, set in a real time and place, but it also, in relation to the later adaptation, brings film and novel into closer harmony. The footnotes validate the use of the voice over, but they don’t alter the fact that the film has turned the story into an external narrative, rather than a personal account. We see Lyndon as he is, but not through the screen of how he wishes us to see him, which is where the comic aspects of the novel lie. This makes the film a grimmer story.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

One further comparison is worth considering, not between book and film, but between Thackeray’s novel, and later works by, for example, Fielding, where the novelist has stepped forward, so to speak, to address the reader, not through mere footnotes, but, as in Tom Jones, through whole chapters of direct, conversational engagement, in which the progress of the story, and the development of the characters is discussed. With a little encouragement from pundits like Barthe we’ve been turned away from engagement with storytellers, preferring to sink into a gloup (sorry to be so technical) of self-absorbent pseudo-reality from which the narrator, and his or her irritating personal understandings and insights, has been. allegedly excluded – or should I say refined?  I myself rather like an author who talks directly to me (albeit not in his or her true voice), opinions and all.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

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