OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWriting on this blog a couple of weeks back, about the narrative voices of the book, and film of ‘Barry Lyndon,’ I asserted that the film was grimmer…

That was after reading the first few pages of the novel, having seen the whole film. Having read the whole novel, I find my first impressions have to be revised. Yet I cannot say simply that the novel is grimmer. Rather it’s that the comic element that I detected in Thackeray’s narrator, an element entirely missing from Kubrick’s film, has worn thin by the time we have worked our way into the book.

I’ve long been a fan of Thackeray’s Vanity Fair, but he went up further in my estimation as I reached the end of Barry Lyndon. Lyndon is a first person narrator, and one that is used by the author in that most enjoyable of ways, for the reader, by which it reveals far more of its true character than the speaker realises; more in fact than the character has even been aware of.

A consequence of this, is that as we read Lyndon’s account of his own life our perception of him becomes progressively at odds with his own, and perhaps also, we begin to recognise where the author is using this self-obsessed bully to highlight some of the ills which he, the author, perceives within his own society. Lyndon’s self-indulgent and myopic narcissim begins to grate. The events of the written story are not so much grimmer than the filmed one, but they make the novel profoundly sad, for Thackeray shows us a man whose self-regard not only damages those around him, but which also, ultimately, leads to his own downfall. The fact that that he never recognises this, rather than saving him from its consequences, adds to his tragedy. In the film, the Lyndon character is redeemed, to some extent, by the action. His opinion, his understanding of what has taken place is not an issue. This redemption is most obvious in the scene, entirely absent from the book, in which Lyndon tries to save his stepson from the consequences of the duel that he has demanded. That this backfires on Lyndon, leading to an injury and amputation not suffered by the book’s hero, turns the character into one with whom we can sympathise in a much less subtle way, than we might be able to sympathise with the broken, imprisoned Lyndon of the book.

Here is a difference between text and image. We are shown, in the film, a sequence of events, such, as one of Lyndon’t many duels. We are told, in the novel, his version of those events. In the film the shown events have an objectivity that strips the telling of those events of the irony – a darkly comic irony – that Lyndon’s verbal account of them, in the text, supplies.

Most trenchant, for me, was the second half of the novel, in which the eponymous hero, stalks the woman who will give him his Lyndon name. Having trapped her, his cruelty towards her during their sham marriage is shocking, but more so, is his self-justification of it, and his total inability to see the truth of her, and his situations. Even when brought down by her eventual rescuers, Lyndon can see himself only as the innocent victim of fools and knaves. The word stalker hadn’t, I think, been used with the meaning we imbue it with today, when the book was written – nor, probably, when the film was made – but that was the word that sprang to mind, as I read Lyndon’s account of how he had ‘wooed’ his wife!

He is a monstrous character, far less likeable than the character presented by Ryan O’Neal in the film, and we know this, purely from the dissonance between what we perceive him to understand by the words he uses, and what we perceive them to mean. There is no equivalent to this in the film, neither in its mis-en-scene, nor in the measured narrative of the third person voice-over.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA