Reworking an old post on the ending of Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited for the slider, I stumbled on something pretty remarkable, the memorandum Waugh wrote to MGM in 1947 about the possible filming of the book. Needless to say, it is extremely rare that an author, especially of Waugh’s caliber, unpacks the meaning and mechanics of their work so thoroughly (in print)–down to specific metaphors! And I’m not so sure it serves potential readers; that is, if you haven’t had the delight of reading Brideshead, which we could not possibly recommend more strongly, best to start there rather than here. One almost wonders what his real intentions with the memo were, i.e. did he really want the “California savages” (as he called them) to adapt his work, or was he having a slightly contemptuous laugh? Some have suggested that he was really only after an all-expenses paid trip to the coast. Regardless, it’s amusing to imagine studio executives reading it. And whatever Waugh’s intent, to see the Grace aspect of the book (and mini-series!) spelled out so clearly and eloquently is really something to behold:
The theme is theological. It is in no sense abstruse and is based on principles that have for nearly 2,000 years been understood by millions of simple people, and are still so understood. But it is, I think, the first time that an attempt will have been made to introduce them to the screen, and they are antithetical to much of the current philosophy of Hollywood. It is for this reason that I venture to restate them briefly here:
1. The novel deals with what is theologically termed, “the operation of Grace”, that is to say, the unmerited and unilateral act of love by which God continually calls souls to Himself;
2. Grace is not confined to the happy, prosperous and conventionally virtuous. There is no stereotyped religious habit of life, as may be seen from the vastly dissimilar characters of the canonised saints. God has a separate plan for each individual by which he or she may find salvation. The story of Brideshead Revisited seeks to show the working of several such plans in the lives of a single family…
The Flyte family is seen through the eyes of Charles Ryder, an atheist, to whom at first their religion is incomprehensible and quite unimportant. It is only bit by bit throughout the action that he realises how closely they are held by it, and the book ends with Charles himself becoming a Catholic…
The second half [of the novel]… it shows how the Grace of God turns everything in the end to good, though not to conventional prosperity… The principal theme of the second half is the redemption of Julia, the final spur to which is her father’s deathbed reconciliation with the Church, which, if properly played, should be a finely dramatic scene.
Charles has now become a successful painter, largely through the help of a socially established wife. Whether this wife appears in the film or not does not seem to me essential, but there must be an impediment to the marriage of Julia and Charles. Otherwise since Julia’s marriage to Rex has never been ecclesiastically valid, there is no reason why she should not marry Charles and provide a banal Hollywood ending. I regard it as essential that after having led a life of sin Julia should not be immediately rewarded with conventional happiness. She has a great debt to pay and we are left with her paying it.
Charles meets Julia on board ship returning to England from America, and although they have never been close to one another, and there has been no suggestion of a love affair between them, it should be delicately suggested that both of them were conscious that they were in some way fated to be of vital importance in one another’s life [sic]. It is not the “plan” that they should be lovers, in fact the importance of which they are conscious is really that each is to bring the other to the Church; but defiantly they do become lovers.
…the climax is the return of Lord Marchmain as a dying man, and I think the whole of this episode should be filmed almost directly from the novel, including the controversy about the admittance of a priest with the last sacraments. It is important that the priest should be as unlike as possible to any priest hitherto represented in Hollywood. He must be a practical, single man. Doing his job in a humdrum way… I regard it as important that in some way it should be made plain that Charles is reconciled to Julia’s renunciation. He has realised that the way they were going was not the way ordained for them, and that the physical dissolution of the house of Brideshead has in fact been a spiritual regeneration.
p.s. Let us all take a moment to appreciate the genius and hilarity of Sir John Gielgud (and good cousin Melchior):