It’s a wild, Wilde world
Will Self knows something about repressed, homosexual, aristocratic drug addicts
In 1998 I was approached by Joan Bakewell and her then husband, Jack Emery, to consider doing a film adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray. Some money came from Jack and more from Channel 4. Without this commission I don’t think that I would ever have considered adapting Wilde, let alone re-novelising him.
Rereading the original I saw that one of the things which I’d always found curious about the novel could be the springboard for a new approach. In Wilde’s Dorian 16 years pass, but the only way they are measured is through the moral dissolution of the protagonist – no social, cultural or historical change is registered. It occurred to me that if I wanted to set my adaptation approximately 100 years after Wilde’s (and there were good reasons for this; I’d always viewed the novel as a strange anticipation of the shape of a liberated gay culture) then there were two concurrent significant 16-year periods available. It was 16 years from the first stirring of the HIV/Aids epidemic until the introduction of Haart (Highly active anti-retroviral therapy), which spelt the end of public perception of the disease as a threat in the west. And these were the same 16 years as the ones between the marriage of Prince Charles and Diana Spencer and the latter’s death.
I began work on the script, taking as my model Bruce Robinson’s Withnail & I. The film is great, but arguably the script is still greater, a literary work in its own right with superb – almost Dostoevskian – stage directions. Screenwriting friends kept talking to me about useful computer programs, but I eschewed them; it didn’t seem such a hardship to type “INT DAY” every few lines. Other friends would bang on about various adaptations of Dorian – there have been a lot of them over the years – but I ignored them as well. What was the point? Setting aside the fact that I was writing an adaptation – and therefore the material was a given – I’ve never understood the mania writers have for examining the similar works of others. In my view the plangent artificiality of a lot of creative work results from the fact that the people who write novels, direct films and put on plays tend to read too many novels, watch too many films and go to too many plays. As for the business of writing a screenplay as against prose fiction, it didn’t seem such a big deal. You just make the margins wider and type “INT DAY” or “EXT NIGHT” where appropriate.
Nevertheless, despite finding Emery perfectly simpatico, and meeting with an equally simpatico John Maybury, who was interested in directing the film, I found work on my Dorian script slow to the point of being tranquillised. Having spent years more or less confident that what I typed would end up being what the reader encountered, I found the idea that there would eventually be input to my script from accountants, men wearing sleeveless anoraks and (gulp!) actors impossible to stomach. I broke off to write a novel, a non-fiction work and then to edit a collection of my journalism.
Eventually I became so late with the project and poor Emery was so despondent that I seized upon the only possible way of completing it: I’d done about two-thirds of it in script form, why not make the margins narrower and delete “INT DAY” and “EXT NIGHT” where necessary? Then I’d end up with a recast Dorian Gray all ready for Jack et al to adapt for the screen. Besides, the whole business of my work appearing on the screen has always seemed highly problematic to me. I hold with Martin Amis’s dictum: “Don’t believe they’ve made a film of your book until you rent the video.”
So, Dorian was born. I found it easy enough to finish my re-novelisation, and sometimes, but not always, ease is a good sign. Overall, I’m fairly pleased with the book, and satisfied with the wide disparity in its critical reception. As dear Oscar remarked: “When the critics are divided the artist is in accord with himself.”
Setting my version in the aristocratic, gay, druggie milieu of the 1980s wasn’t too difficult, as I’d spent quite a lot of the 80s in – surprise, surprise – an aristocratic, gay, druggie milieu. So it was with considerable annoyance that I confronted a member of an audience whom I read to at last year’s Soho festival (upon hardback publication). This woman said to me: “I enjoyed your reading, but I find your characters altogether unbelievable. I mean people like Henry Wotton, Basil Hallward and Dorian Gray couldn’t possibly exist, could they?” Ignoring the fact that these (fictional) characters were Wilde’s rather than my own, I snarled at her: “Just how many repressed, homosexual, aristocratic drug addicts have you hung around with in your time?” And when she conceded “None”, I rested my case.