Dorian Gray is a 2009 British film adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s 1890 novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray, starring Ben Barnes as Dorian Gray and Colin Firth as Lord Henry Wotton. Written by Toby Finlay and directed by Oliver Parker, the film saw a mixed reception; despite what Rotten Tomatoes calls a “polished production,” critics attest that the film is shallow and devoid of the meaning present in Wilde’s novel. Although Parker’s Dorian Gray conveys the essence of Wilde’s novel, its many alterations to plot details along with the introduction of the character of Emily highlights the basic theme of the corrupting nature of pleasure, especially on relationships, but downplays the critiques of Victorian culture and aestheticism that Wilde intended.
Some major themes and characters are retained in the film; however, new characters and plot inventions are introduced.
The film opens with Dorian disposing of Basil Hallward’s body and proceeds to flashback to one year earlier, when young Dorian Gray first arrives in London to inherit his abusive grandfather’s estate. Dorian has his portrait painted by Basil and almost instantly falls under the debaucherous influence of Lord Henry Wotton, who instills in young Dorian his doctrine of new hedonism. After Wotton incessantly emphasizes the value of youth and beauty, Dorian, admiring the portrait, inadvertently sells his soul in return for eternal beauty and youth.
Following an evening out with Lord Henry, Dorian comes across a theater, where he becomes enthralled with the young actress Sybil Vane. After sharing some time together, Sybil spends the night with Dorian. During the evening, Dorian accidentally cuts his hand, and Sybil tends to the wound, noting that he will have a scar. It is because of this cut that Dorian first realizes his eternal youth; his hand heals without a trace of the wound, which is instead manifested in the portrait. Dorian tells his friends that he and Sybil are engaged to be married, but Lord Henry, remarking on his own wife’s pregnancy, says to Dorian that “children are the beginning of the end.” Thus, Dorian rejects Sybil, who is despaired over her love for Dorian as well as the fact that she “gave [her]self” to him, and goes with Lord Henry to a brother; heartbroken, Sybil drowns herself.
Sybil’s brother, Jim Vane, comes to Dorian the next day to tell him that Sybil has not only been driven to suicide, but was also pregnant with Dorian’s child. Jim tries to kill Dorian, but is restrained and removed by Dorian’s servants. Throughout these events, Lord Henry has fueled Dorian’s growing hedonism, and consequently, Dorian has become estranged from Basil Hallward,whom he kills by stabbing with a shard of mirror after showing him the changed portrait; Dorian disposes of the body by dumping it in the Thames. Meanwhile, the portrait shows increasing change as Dorian ages and commits various sins.
Dorian leaves London for more than ten years, unquestionably partaking in all sorts of pleasurable pursuits, and the film continues with Dorian Gray’s welcome-back party into London's high society; all of his acquaintances have aged considerably, but Dorian appears young as ever, a fact which shocks and arouses suspicion amongst the party goers. Lord Henry begins to exhibit a disdain for Dorian Gray’s hedonistic lifestyle and becomes especially wary when his now-grown daughter, Emily, a determined suffragette, becomes romantically interested in Dorian. Moreover, Dorian’s relationship with Emily causes Dorian himself to genuinely consider giving up his self-gratifying lifestyle. Leaving an opium den, Dorian is again confronted by Jim Vane, who is still seeking vengeance, and attempts to convince him that he can’t possibly be the same man who knew Sybil, as he is hardly older than twenty; later in the evening, Vane, having learned Dorian’s real identity, chases Dorian into the London Underground and is killed by an oncoming train.
Soon afterwards, Dorian and Emily are making plans to go away together when Lord Henry, having just seen a photograph that reminded him of Dorian’s portrait and deal with the devil for eternal youth and beauty, breaks into Dorian’s house to find the portrait, and, coming across Basil’s blood stained-scarf in the attic, tussles with Dorian before ultimately uncovering the portrait. Terrified by the grotesque picture, Lord Henry throws a lamp at it, causing the picture to catch fire; then, he locks Dorian in the attic and unscrews the gas lamp in an attempt to catalyze an explosion. Meanwhile, Emily pleads with Dorian for the key to the attic gate, but Dorian realizes he genuinely loves her and turns his back, instead choosing to stab the portrait with a poker to destroy it as his body begins to rapidly age, matching the picture. Lord Henry drags Emily out of the attic, which is soon incinerated. The film ends with Lord Henry visiting to the attic several months later to find the portrait of Dorian Gray returned to its original youthful condition.
The Power of Influence and Revenge
In Wilde’s novel, Lord Henry Wotton can be interpreted as a critique of 19th century Victorian culture and aestheticism. His influence on Dorian Gray develops Dorian’s character; it is Lord Henry and his witticisms that lead Dorian to the debauchery that eventually ruins him. Lord Henry’s corrupting influence is presented similarly in Parker’s celluloid adaptation; however, as the film’s plot progresses, Henry proves to be somewhat less devoted to his ostensive philosophy than he is in the novel and ultimately destroys the pleasure-seeking monster that he has created. Whereas Henry remains rather amicable toward Dorian in the novel and continues to encourage his behavior, despite that he might still "never say a moral thing, and... never do a wrong thing," in Parker’s film, Henry actually becomes a voiced opponent to the same lifestyle he initially promoted (Wilde 7). It is suggested that having a daughter, Emily, began to moralize Henry, and moreover, Henry interprets Dorian’s romantic interest in her as a threat to her safety and social standing. Thus, Henry actively causes an explosion to cause Dorian’s demise in the attic in an act of revenge, as opposed to Dorian’s own self destruction in an attempt to rid himself of his hedonistic past in Wilde’s novel. This withdrawal of corruptive influence and moralization of Lord Henry proves to be one of the major questions of this adaptation of The Picture of Dorian Gray. Furthermore, the creation of Emily’s character serves an interesting purpose; unlike Hetty Merton in the novel, Emily has a more personal connection to the characters, and thus has more significance as a moralizing factor for both. It is because of Emily that Dorian and Henry question their philosophy of pleasure. Perhaps these implements suggest the check on the corruption of Victorian culture that Wilde’s novel implies was needed.
Personal Pleasure over Aestheticism
Lord Henry tells Dorian that youth and beauty are “everything” and encourages the pursuit of pleasure with disregard to consequence. In an attempt to visualize the sins of Dorian Gray that Wilde merely implies, the film explicitly shows opium use and sexual promiscuity, primarily heterosexual in nature excepting a brief encounter between Dorian and Basil. For the most part, the film is concerned with showing Dorian’s downfall as a result of his perpetual pursuit of pleasure and beauty, but a higher appreciation of art and aesthetics is lacking in comparison to the novel. This is particularly exemplified by Dorian’s relationship with Sybil; in the novel, he rejects her because she wants to quit the stage to be with him, as he considers her beauty to be in her art of acting, but in the film, Dorian rejects her solely on the basis that he does not want the constraints of marriage and children. Moreover, Sybil herself is arguably less artistically developed in some ways in comparison to novel; in Wilde's original narrative, her role as the lead female in various Shakespeare plays is emphasized, but this film mitigates her experience on stage and instead focuses on the development of her personal relationship with Dorian. One of the few instances in Parker's film that does reflect some more artistic qualities is Sybil's death scene, in which she is shown drowned and floating in the water, much like Ophelia in Hamlet. Overall, less attention seems to be paid to the actual discussion of art in Parker's Dorian Gray, and more focus is placed on physical experiences.
Death and Murder
Firstly, Sybil’s death is made more glamorous for the film audience, as she drowns herself like Ophelia in Parker’s adaptation rather that swallowing poison in her dressing room. Moreover, Parker’s Dorian is more personally involved in ridding himself of those who complicate his pursuit of pleasure; he disposes of Basil’s body himself rather than blackmailing Alan Campbell into destroying it. The murder weapon itself sheds light on the obsession with youth and beauty, as Dorian kills Basil with a shard of glass from a mirror rather than with a knife. Dorian is more directly responsible for the death of Sybil’s brother as well, leading him into the London Underground, whereas in the novel, Vane is accidentally shot during a hunting excursion. However, while Parker's Dorian Gray still causes his own immediate death by stabbing the painting, Lord Henry is the one who actually induces Dorian’s downfall in the adaptation and is therefore responsible for Dorian’s death, or rather, murder, as Dorian simply sped up the process. Because of this plot invention, it is never totally sure that Dorian actually intended to change on his own.
Significance of the Film
It has been argued that “Parker’s film over-emphasizes the story” in an attempt to promote a screenplay, thus disregarding deeper messages present in Wilde's novel (Deep Focus Review). Likewise, this adaptation does not introduce any really major changes, such as a different setting or gender for Dorian, but it does alter significant plot details and introduces Dorian’s final romantic interest as Lord Henry’s daughter rather than as simple Hetty Merton, perhaps simply to create a more cinematic story.
These changes leave audiences wanting for the same meanings present in Wilde’s novel; they do little for Wilde’s narrative as an art or as a philosophical and cultural critique and in most cases only change rather than enhance the plot. The narrative presented in Parker’s Dorian Gray is, therefore, ostensibly simplified, abridging the story and resulting in the omission of some of the characters and philosophical questions implied in the novel but also providing modern audiences with a more climatic ending, with an explosion and all. Furthermore, Ben Barnes' performance as Dorian Gray has been called shallow by some critics. Perhaps the medium of film is less suited to the adaptation of a text that relies so heavily on language and witticisms to drive the plot and to develop the characters as well as the art of the text itself. On the whole, the film Dorian Gray seems less concerned with itself as an art form and more concerned with being mass entertainment, and some of the philosophical power of the novel may have been lost in the transfer from textual to filmic medium.
The plot and character changes in adaptation are especially disputed because they seem to imply that Wilde’s narrative does not hold the same cultural relevance that it once did, when in fact, it could theoretically be easily retold while staying true to the original text or even transferred to a more current setting. It is possible that modern audiences do not actually need a transformed Lord Henry to serve as a check on hedonism, as the film suggests. A true-to-text ending, though perhaps more difficult to portray via film, could certainly leave the audience with a more meaningful impression than can revenge and fiery explosions.
It should be noted, on the other hand, the Parker’s Dorian Gray does retain the basic essence of the novel, successfully conveying the lavish lifestyles of the characters and even exemplifying some of Dorian’s pleasurable pursuits, particularly those of a sexual nature, which Wilde was unable to detail in The Picture of Dorian Gray.