Talking to your friend about the latest film adaptation of some other form of media (book, play, sculpture), you must always restrain your enthusiasm, even if the movie was mind-humpingly good. This is a necessity because you know that at some point, your buddy will put down his copy of Thus Spake Zarathustra, take a sip of espresso (pinkie up), and remind you that the book/play/sculpture “was much better.” And, instead of hitting him in the face, you grudgingly slump down in your seat; because you are a film fan, and don’t have the inclination to check out the acclaimed source material for yourself. That’s why you went to the damned movie.
Alan Bennett’s The History Boys was at one time a stage play, and when watching Nicholas Hytner’s screen version, it isn’t hard to spot the snappy vaudevillian dialogue and the edgy-for-edgy’s-sake subject matter that all plays contain. But I’d like to take a moment to remind you that you are currently at Cinemablend.com, and not the Museum of Stuffy Arts, and here we discuss films. I didn’t come close to a theatre before viewing The History Boys, and therefore cannot and will not compare it to the play from which it derived.
When an adaptation is attempted, the idea is always for the film to stand completely on its own. The original version must act like a mother mare, allowing her gooey, placenta-soaked baby to gain its own footing before licking it clean. In the case of The History Boys, this natural process succeeds, creating an excellent piece of film that, while it could not have existed without the play that birthed it, still has the look of a proper show-horse.
The film takes place in the magical year 1983, and though the intro features New Order’s “Blue Monday,” there is rarely another moment when the horrible 80s intrude on the plot. Eight brilliant, eager young grammar school boys are getting ready for the exams that will decide whether they get into prestigious Oxford and Cambridge, or wallow away in the lesser bootblacking and chimney-sweeping universities.
Their overzealous, misguided Headmaster (Clive Merrison) has enrolled these boys in a special curriculum, designed solely for the purpose of helping them achieve scholarships. They study with three teachers: The post-feminist Mrs. Lintott (Frances De La Tour), the eccentric, poetry-spewing Mr. Hector (Richard Griffiths, of King Ralph), and a fresh, young, newly-hired history professor named Mr. Irwin (Stephen Campbell Moore). Mr. Irwin becomes the first to truly challenge the young prodigies, taking their first essays and describing them en masse as “not bad, just dull” in an effort to get them to see history as more than just an assemblage of famous battles and quotations.
Gosh, it’s getting really Dead Poet’s Society in here. Can somebody turn down The Emperor’s Club? By that description, in would seem that this film ventures right into well-worn, cliché territory, where teachers can inspire the lost souls of youth to get up on their desks and quote Whitman until they believe in themselves.
But The History Boys has a little catch, one that differentiates it from the others. This ensemble of boys has already received their Dead Poet’s treatment. From the beginning of the film, thanks to rigorous “General Studies” sessions with Mr. Hector, these boys can already quote Sartre and speak fluent French with hardly any prompting. When the bold new teacher gets ahold of these students, he has to deal with their breaking out into song or performing scenes from classic films. Mr. Hector’s lessons about loving literature and using it in daily life have already been instilled and it is Mr. Irwin’s job to bring them back to the actual task of succeeding. Honestly, whose boss actually gives a crap if he read “Charge of the Light Brigade?” It is a subtle twist in the standard formula, but one that makes all the difference in terms of originality.
The boys themselves, all portrayed by the original cast of the stage play (as are the professors), are each unique, but blend into an ensemble group of brainy misfits. They are all good friends and there is no outcast among them. Even Crowther (Samuel Anderson), the token gay kid, hardly feels token, since his ambiguous sexuality is so understood and accepted by the group. They are all simply geniuses that are each at times cocky and introspective. Sometimes their smarts seem a little far-fetched, as though play/screenwriter Bennett was having a wet dream about the perfect student. For God’s sake, even their “shenanigans” are nothing more than impromptu quotation battles. But that stuff is roped back in when the boys are discussing more teenage matters, like getting to third base (ahh… high school).
The teacher-student bond is further warped in the film right around the time that Scripps, one of the boys (played by Jamie Parker), accepts a ride on Mr. Hector’s motorcycle, with the full knowledge that at some point during the trip, Hector will lean back and gently grope his balls. All the students have had it done to them (save Crowther), and it has become a necessary adjunct to the teaching. In fact, when a crossing guard spots the act, and the Headmaster is informed, the students react to Mr. Hector’s forced retirement by asking: “Who told?”
The homosexual undercurrent in the film is undeniable, but also provides most of the film’s more hilarious moments. When Mr. Hector’s groping activities are described by the headmaster as “more appreciative than investigatory” it turns a delicate subject into one that we can laugh at, which is great, because those are the best kind. The crush Crowther develops on classmate Dakin (Dominic Cooper), becomes humorously mirrored in the crush that ladies-man Dakin suddenly develops on Mr. Irwin. The culmination of that scenario is a scene between teacher and student that is great in the way that we all wish we could pull off.
The History Boys is a well made, polished film with great dialogue that is not in any way sullied by the fact that it originally came from the theatre. The performances by all the characters are fun and lively, and at no time as depressing as some of the topics might lead them to be. Through the metaphor of history, we are meant to examine what we can and cannot take joy or pride in, and why we do the things we do. Most playwrights use their lessons like a tack hammer, beating us over the head with them as though there was insurance money in it. This film never falls into that trap, keeping it light and comedic until the end, which unfortunately, is the film’s only glaring flaw. Until that point, I could’ve sworn I was watching a really cool movie, and not a boring old play.
The features on this disc are less impressive, since, for starters, there aren't many of them. All the features, besides Dolby Digital 5.1 audio, Widescreen option, and English/French/Spanish subtitles, are meant to further explore the transition of play to film. It’s a very simple distinction to understand: if you go to a play, there’s not going to be cuts or special effects, but you may see a coy Hollywood actress take off her top. Conversely, a film can provide you with a lot of freedom to do things you can’t do onstage, but you don’t get the cozy, personal feeling that you feel whenever six people cough.
A commentary by director Nicholas Hytner and writer Alan Bennett is provided, and through it you get an understanding of what boring really is. The two are proper British gentlemen with just a touch of sass, like a lemon in your tea, but don’t expect any laughs here. Instead, Bennett discusses the differences in staging techniques, and throws in a few anecdotes on his childhood that became the inspiration for the play. Though he admits, the environment he learned in was nowhere near as dramatic and inspiring. Go figure.
There is a tour diary, called History Boys Around the World, which is an MTV-style documentary featuring the cast performing across the globe, making stops in China, Germany, and the States. This is a good feature for fans of the play, because footage from backstage at shows is provided, as well as personal commentary from the actors on how they feel about their performances. It is strange to me how little difference there is between the actors and their characters in the film. I suspect some of it was staged for effect.
Finally, there is Pass It On: The History Boys On Screen. If one wanted to, they could skip the other two major features and just watch this one, or vice-versa. It is a mixture of behind-the-scenes footage of the actors and commentary by screenwriter and director on the tasks involved in making a stage play successful on film. Didn’t I just pass this house? The difference here, however, is it all takes place on set, so you get to see some boom-mike operators in there, too.
The History Boys DVD proves to be a worthy accompaniment to a play that I guess a lot of people liked. I don’t feel it needed to be seen, as long as I saw the film. Oh sure, there could’ve been some extra material in the play, or better dramatizations of certain scenes. And maybe a character or two was cut out of Lord of the Rings. Who cares? I had a good time watching this film, and that’s all I need to know. And just like the classic Jim Gaffigan line goes: “You know what I liked about the movie? No reading.”