I’ve always felt that Dorian Gray gets cinematic short-shrift compared to his contemporaries, Dracula, Frankenstein’s monster, and Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde. While everyone else has had brides and sons and run-ins with Abbot and Costello, Dorian has been largely absent from the big screen. In the 60 years that span between the two films I am about to discuss, no significant addendums have been made to Dorian’s tale.
The most remarkable thing about the two films I am about to review is how utterly similar they are, though produced so far apart. Of course, there are the pacing and aesthetic changes that one might expect, and the recent version is able to be more explicit where the original is not. But what is truly remarkable is how both films treated the source material virtually the same, in my opinion, right down to hitting the same marks and making the same mistakes.
While standing for a portrait by his friend Basil, Dorian is introduced to Lord Henry Wotton, a sharp wit possessive of a cynical philosophy of hedonism and folly. Dorian is taken with Henry’s ideas, especially that youth and beauty are the only things of real value. So, when his portrait is completed, Dorian looks upon it and desires that it be the painting that would grow old rather than himself.
Dorian soon discovers that his wish has been granted when he trifles with the emotions of a young actress, Sybil Vane, causing her suicide. In the wake, Dorian notices the face in the portrait has become cruel while his own appearance remains unchanged. Panicked, he locks the paining away and adopts Henry’s philosophy, pursuing a life of amoral hedonism.
Years pass yet Dorian’s youthful visage remains; the evidence of his debauchery shows only on the painting. Rumors of Dorian’s double-life roil through his Victorian social circles. He grows fearful that someone will find the picture and his secret will be revealed. The paranoia eventually leads him to murder Basil and cover it up.
Around the same time, Dorian becomes romantically involved with a woman much his junior. Because of her, he wants to change his ways, though he hardly refrains from his old haunts and habits. James Vane, Sybil’s brother, happens upon him. He tries to kill Dorian, but is killed in the process.
Surrounded by death, Dorian ultimately realizes that he cannot bring the woman he loves into the monstrous live he has created for himself. In a final moment of self-sacrifice, he stabs the painting through the heart. Dorian dies, his corpse taking on the horrible appearance of the painting, while the painting returns to that of a young and innocent man.
What they got right
Absolutely too much can be said about the technical and stylistic differences between the two films, but that isn’t what is important about the story of Dorian Gray. Both versions are a fairly straight retelling of Oscar Wilde’s novel and, so far as I’m concerned, that is the best way to go about it. The only really remarkable difference is that Dorian’s later love interest is rewritten to bring her closer to the main cast of characters. This makes for much better dramatic effect as her counterpart in the novel is almost an incidental character.
This is a story about characters, and for the most part, the casting was excellent. To be honest, the role of Dorian is not particularly demanding, as his primary character trait is being able to conceal his emotions. None of this is meant to slight the actors Hurd Hatfield (1949) or Ben Barnes (2009), but all that is truly required of Dorian is that he be young and attractive.
The real serious role is that of Lord Henry, the vehicle for Oscar Wilde’s irascible and irreverent wit. Both George Sanders (1949) and Colin Firth (2009) pull this off remarkably. Henry is at the same time both the perfect English gentleman of his age as well as a wry agitator. He treads this thread-thin line with perfect charm and ease, and delivers every innuendo as though it were equally rehearsed and spontaneous. If Dorian is the anti-hero, Henry is the anti-villain, and yet he is simply the villain as well. All of this conflict conspires to form a character both fascinating and intolerable, one the viewer likes in spite of himself.
Compared to these two, all the other characters seem relatively minor. However, they all share the important role of demonstrating the normal relationships and emotions from which Dorian has alienated himself. This is perhaps achieved a bit more successfully overall by the 1945 cast which included a young (and young looking) Angela Lansbury and Donna Reed. However, a nod must be given to Rebecca Hall (2009) for portraying the most convincing and likely of Dorian’s romantic interests.
What they got wrong
It must have seemed all to obvious to the directors of both films that the titular picture of Dorian Gray ought to be a spectacle of sorts, especially after its hideous transformation. Unfortunately, this led to taking the film’s sole cause for special effects much, much too far.
The original film is particularly noteworthy for being mainly in black and white, but showing particular shots of the portrait in Technicolor. I consider this a genius move for the time. However, the genius is overshadowed by the apparent attempt to give Technicolor a run for its money with a rainbow-colored creature in the painting. This is extremely detracting from the film. It is made clear throughout the film that the portrait supposedly remains recognizable as Dorian even though disfigured. The actual shown portrait makes this an unignorable and inexcusable lie.
Despite the fact that by 2009 there were no new film technologies that might be worth showcasing in a fantasy film, this picture also took its depiction of the portrait too far. Though they created an image of recognizably aged and sinister Dorian, they also decided to bring it to life through CGI. So, rather than an inanimate painting, there is a snarling, huffing animation a la Hogwarts. While I don’t necessarily find this as distracting as the other painting, it just struck me as strangely unnecessary and took me out of the fantasy for that moment.
While the films are very much the same, they are of course different, too. Where the earlier film had to be merely suggestive of Dorian’s exploits--as did Wilde’s novel--the more recent film is able to be explicit. At times, this is used to good effect, as the basic adage in cinema is to “show, not tell.” But at other times, this same liberty became gratuitous, dwelling too long on Dorian’s hedonism and too little on the effects the lifestyle has on him.
A positive alteration was made to the rather hum-drum killing of James Vane. I’m willing to grant a little artistic license when the source material is lacking, and a foot-chase ending with the pursuer being hit by a train is a helluva lot better than an off-camera hunting accident.
Another bit of artistic license was applied to the epilogue of the newer film. The earlier film simply had none whereas the newer film showed a bit of the aftermath as experienced by Henry. It is debatable whether it needs to be seen that Henry pays a price for leading Dorian astray, but it is a fitting end. The only downside to adding such a scene is that it becomes painfully obvious when Henry’s dialog is not lifted directly from Wilde’s original text. His voice was unduplicable.