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**Warning: Spoilers for both book and movie!**
The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde (1890)
The Picture of Dorian Gray directed by Albert Lewin (1945)
Dorian Gray directed by Oliver Parker (2009)
The Picture of Dorian Gray is actually the only book Oscar Wilde wrote. His works are poetry, plays (including The Importance of Being Ernest, which for some reason I had thought had been a Shakespeare) and short stories. But with his one book he gifted us with a timeless character -pun intended
It is beautifully written, you can tell by his writing that he was a poet. While reading, I highlighted so many lines and passages, some of which I include in the synopsis.
There is also lots of great dialogue between characters as well as lots of internal dialogue. Which isn’t surprising since he was a play-write, and plays are all about the dialogue and monologues
I feel like it’s a story everyone is familiar with, but for those who don’t know it here is a synopsis. (Sorry it’s so long, I included a lot of passages from the book!)
Artist Basil meets the young and attractive Dorian Gray and becomes kind of obsessed with him and as they say in the book, he idolizes him and worships him. He asks Dorian to sit for him for a painting and on the final day of the painting Dorian meets Lord Henry (also known as Harry), a friend of Basil’s. Basil tells Dorian to not pay any attention to Henry because he is a bad influence on everyone aside from himself. Which is true, Basil has a strong enough character that he’s somewhat immune to Lord Henry’s ideas. And is a figure whose goodness opposes the wickedness of Henry.
While sitting for Basil, Lord Henry fills Dorians mind with his various cynical theories on life and Dorian is very susceptible to all he says. Then Basil (who hadn’t been listening) is done with the painting and it’s incredible and Lord Henry remarks how Dorian won’t always be young and attractive, but the painting will. Dorian is upset and says how he wishes it were the opposite. He is very dramatic and says,
I know, now, that when one loses one’s good looks, whatever they may be, one loses everything. Your picture has taught me that. Lord Henry Wotton is perfectly right. Youth is the only thing worth having. When I find that I am growing old, I shall kill myself.
Then he says he would sell his soul in order to have the painting age instead of himself.
Sometime after that Dorian is meeting with Harry again and tells him he is engaged. He has fallen in love with an actress who works at this shabby theater. He says the stage settings and the other actors are cheesy, but the actress, Sybil Vane is not only beautiful, but she is an amazing actress. He says the line, “I have had the arms of Rosalind around me, and kissed Juliet on the mouth.” He has no interest in truly getting to know her, he loves that she is someone new each night.
He takes Henry and Basil to go see her perform Romeo and Juliet, but at the play her acting is terrible and monotone. The audience hisses, and Lord Henry and Basil even leave early. Basil is nice about it, but Lord Henry is more blunt of course.
Earlier in the day we were shown Sybil interact with her mother and brother and it showed her naiveté. Just as Dorian is not in love with her, but with the idea of her, she is also in love with her idea of him. Though neither realizes this. Her brother, who is leaving that night, says that is this man ever harms her he will kill him.
Back to the theater, Dorian goes to see her backstage and says how terrible she was. She tells him that her acting was so bad because she has now experienced love for real. She has experienced the real thing, therefore when she went out on stage she saw how ridiculous the play was and had no passion in her, because she now only has passion for Dorian. He replies saying she has killed his love. “You used to stir my imagination. Now you don’t even stir my curiosity. You simply produce no effect. I loved you because you were marvelous, because you had genius and intellect, because you realized the dreams of great poets and gave shape and substance to the shadows of art. You have thrown it all away. You are shallow and stupid. My God! how mad I was to love you! What a fool I have been! You are nothing to me now. I will never see you again.”
He then goes back to his house where he sees the painting and notices it has changed. The painting now has a cruel smile. He looks at it a long while and realizes that it has changed because of how he treated Sybil, and that the painting has started to reveal who he is.
He vows to be a better person and that tomorrow he is going to go back to Sybil and apologize and will marry her.
The next day Harry comes to his house and tells him that Sybil has died, and that it was suicide. Harry has a very apathetic way of telling him and has no pity at all. He even says how it’s romantic, and that he wishes one of the women he has loved would have killed themselves over him.
Dorian says it doesn’t seem real, just a tragic ending to some play. Lord Henry once again exercises his influence and Dorian even goes out to the opera with him that night.
Sybil’s death was the turning point and Dorian solidifies his previous wish to never age when he says this to himself,
And yet, who, that knew anything about life, would surrender the chance of remaining always young, however fantastic that chance might be, or with what fateful consequences it might be fraught? … If the picture was to alter, it was to alter. That was all. Why inquire too closely into it? For there would be a real pleasure in watching it. He would be able to follow his mind into its secret places. This portrait would be to him the most magical of mirrors. As it had revealed to him his own body, so it would reveal to him his own soul.
When he is in love with her he tells Henry that Sybil is everything that is good in him. With her death, dies all that is good in him.
Basil comes over the next day to console Dorian and is surprised to see how unaffected Dorian is. When asked how Dorian could already be feeling over it he says, “man who is master of himself can end a sorrow as easily as he can invent a pleasure. I don’t want to be at the mercy of my emotions. I want to use them, to enjoy them, and to dominate them.”
Makes you wonder what would have happened had Basil been the first one to bring the news.
Twenty years pass, and Dorian lives a life full of pleasure seeking, with no regard for others. This isn’t said till later in the book, but it sums up the kind of life Dorian was leading,
He knew he had tarnished himself, filled mind with corruption and given horror to his fancy; that he had been an evil influence on others, and had experienced terrible joy in being so; and that the lives that had crossed his own, it had been the fairest and most full of promise that he had brought to shame
A line that comes to mind a lot in this book in regards to both Lord Henry and Dorian is “misery loves company”. They live these pleasurable lives, but pleasure doesn’t equal joy and happiness. Neither is truly happy, and they therefore try and pull others down to their level of misery. Misery disguised as momentary pleasure, but misery all the same.
So, years have passed, and Dorian and Lord Henry are still friends, but he hasn’t seen Basil much till one night Basil comes over. He addresses all the horrible things he’s been hearing about Dorian. He says how he can’t believe it and one has only to look at Dorians innocent face to see how ridiculous these claims are. Then says, but to know for sure I would need to see your soul. This line of course grabs Dorian and he decides to show Basil the painting (which he had taken up to his old school room at the top of the stairs).
He removes the cover and Basil sees how hideous the painting has become. Basil says that if that truly is the state of his soul, then Dorian is even worse than the rumors. He tries to get Dorian to pray and tells him it’s not too late to change his life. Dorian is suddenly filled with a hatred for Basil, to be telling him these things and he stabs Basil and kills him.
The next day he calls up a guy he used to know who can help him get rid of the body. The guy is now a scientist and apparently works with cadavers. The guy doesn’t want to help him because he has such a strong dislike for Dorian. Dorian blackmails him though, and the guy gets rid of the body for him. We later hear that that guy commits suicide.
Dorian is haunted by the death of Basil and turns to his vices to try and forget. While in a bad part of town Sybil Vanes brother, James, finds him. However, when he sees how young Dorian is he realizes it can’t be the same man. Then the person who tipped him off is like why didn’t you kill him? James says that Dorian can’t be more than 22 and is too young to be the same man. The woman then tells him that Dorian Gray has looked 22 years old for the last 2 decades. After the James stalks Dorian and waits for his chance to kill him.
Then Dorian is with friends in the country, where we meet Gladys a woman who people think Dorian should marry. In the book her character is very small, and neither claims to love the other.
In the country, they are shooting rabbits when one of the guys accidently shoots a man who was hiding in the bushes. The dead man ends up being James Vane.
Dorian decides to change his life and to not cause any more bad changes to come to the portrait. His first good deed is to cut things off with a country girl he has been stringing along. He tells this to Lord Henry and he laughs and saws that that wasn’t a selfless act and that Dorian isn’t really going to change and tells him “you will soon be going about… warning people against all the sins you have grown tired of.”
But Dorian believes that he really was being good to be honest with the girl and he goes to look at the portrait, hoping it will now have a positive change. This is what he sees when checking the picture,
“he could see no change, save the eyes there was a look of cunning and in the mouth a curved wrinkle of the hypocrite…the thing was loathsome, more loathsome if possible than before.”
He realizes that his good deed with the country girl wasn’t him being genuinely good “through vanity he had spared her. In hypocrisy he had worn the mask of goodness. For curiosity’s sake he had tried the denial of self.”
He decides that if he can’t be a good person, he will simply get rid of the picture, because he no longer wants to see the ugliness of his soul. In book he stabs the picture to be rid of the evidence of the person he has become. When he stabs the painting, he ends up dying. The portrait then goes back to the way it was originally, and Dorian takes on the hideous look of the man in the painting and that is how his servants find him.
There have been lots of movies made from this book-made for TV movies, as well as a few theatrical releases. Some of which go by a different name, but are the same story just set in a different time period.
I chose to focus on the 1945 version, which is the best adaptation.
Watched trailers for some of the others and based on those, of the acting seemed poorly done, so I had no interest in watching them.
There is another theatrical release called Dorian Gray which was released in 2009 and I saw that Colin Firth was cast as Lord Henry. I could imagine him being perfect for the part, so I watched some of that movie to see.
However, I was disappointed. He could have been perfect, but some scenes I saw he was a bit too aggressive with sharing his thoughts. He lacked the apathy of Lord Henry.
Ben Barnes played Dorian, and he looks young, though he has dark hair and dark eyes and Dorian had blonde hair blue eyes. I didn’t watch enough to really get a feel for his acting though. I only watched about 10 minutes from the movie, so I really can’t judge. I did read the synopsis and it strays too far from the book. For example, he falls in love with a daughter of Lord Henry, and in the end tries to kill him. Plus plenty of other changes. Anyway, on to the better movie.
Dorian is played by Hurd Hatfield. He did a good job overall, though I didn’t think his looks fit the role. He had dark hair and darks eyes for one, but he also looked too old. In the book Dorian is late teens/early twenties. He is also supposed to have an innocent face, and Hatfield didn’t have that. Some of his acting also seemed a bit wooden. That’s fine for when Dorian becomes a bad person, but in the beginning when he makes the wish about the painting he does so in such a passionless voice. In the book Dorian was being a bit over the top and even crying, whereas Hatfield simply delivered the line in a straight forward manner.
Lord Henry is played by George Sanders and he truly brings him to life. He delivers the lines perfectly and has that cocky apathy that Firth was lacking.
Sybil Vane is played by Angela Lansbury, who was only 20 years old while filming. She did a great job, though Sybil is strikingly beautiful in the book and Lansbury, though attractive, just doesn’t have that kind of beauty. You may recognize her though from her work when she was older. Such as the TV show Murder She Wrote, the movie The Manchurian Candidate (I’ll have a post about that book/movie at some point!) and Disney movies like Bed knobs and Broomsticks as well as the teapot in Beauty and the Beast.
Donna Reed is Gladys, who you will recognize from It’s a Wonderful Life which was released the following year. She had actually wanted Sybil role, though in the movie Gladys is a larger role than Sybil’s. So, seems like she got the better role after all.
The dialogue in this is very close to book, some lines even word for word. Which they would be crazy not to use direct lines, since as I said, Wilde wrote wonderful dialogue. It’s two hours long, but it goes by very fast, not boring at all. They have a narrator, which is a good idea, to cover all the internal dialogue.
One of the changes they made was when the painting is being done, there is a cat statue that is part of the picture. They say that the statue is an Egyptian god and joke that it has powers. I think they added this because they felt audiences need a more concrete reason as to why Dorian’s wish came true.
They also made changes with Sybil. She is not an actress but just a vaudeville singe in a seedier place than the book. The reason Dorian dumps her is also different. In the movie he brings Basil and Harry to the performance and she does a good job. But Lord Henry thinks she’s below Dorian and suggests a “test” to see if she really is worth marrying-in the book Harry never suggests a test of any kind.
But the test being, that Dorian try and manipulate her to have sex that night, and if she is willing to sleep with him before they are married, she isn’t worthy of him.
Dorian does this, and Sybil falls for it and they end up sleeping together.
The next day Dorian writes her a letter telling her he doesn’t love her anymore and that she isn’t the woman he thought she was. They use some direct lines from the book, but not entirely because it’s a different situation.
I think that in the book Dorian is much more harsh and superficial. What he does in the movie is horrible, but he dumps her via letter and that right there seems less harsh. Though maybe the fact he didn’t do it in person makes it worse? Anyway, the scenes regarding Sybil-he realizing he was harsh and deciding to marry her anyway, then learning of her death-is the same in the book as in the movie.
One thing I didn’t mention in the synopsis, is that Harry gives Dorian a book. They don’t say what it is, but Wilde was alluding to a real book that talks of this guy living a pleasure seeking life. When Dorian reads it, he is fascinated, and it spurs some of the things he does.
In the movie they have Lord Henry give him this book, but then they also have Basil give him a book. The book Basil gives is about Buddha and obviously juxtaposes the book Harry gave.
In the book and movie, Harry and Basil are symbols of good and evil, and this book makes the contrast even more apparent.
The movie also included the character David, played by a young Peter Lawford. He wants to marry Gladys, but Gladys is in love with Dorian. David doesn’t trust Dorian and snoops around to find a reason to convince Gladys not to marry Dorian.
Speaking of Gladys, she is in love with Dorian, but why?? He’s not likeable. She has known him since she was a little girl though-in the movie she is Basil’s niece and was there when the painting was done. So maybe she still admires him from when she was a little girl and looked up to him. Dorian though does have a more genuine love for her though in the movie. An addition I think they added to make him more likable and sympathetic.
One other annoyance I have with acting, is when Basil is shown the picture. In the book he is shocked at the imagine and even stifles a scream. In the movie he looks curiously at it, but no drastic reaction.
Also, in the movie the reason Dorian kills him is because Basil says something like, poor Gladys, or what if Gladys knew, or something along those line. This makes Dorian worried Basil will tell Gladys and he doesn’t want her to dislike him, so he kills Basil.
That scene when the painting is revealed is brilliant. The whole movie is in black and white, except when we see the painting which is in color. Not only is the painting hideous, the stark contrast between black and white and then color makes it even more shocking. I had seen this movie before (read the book and watched the movie before, so this was my second time around) and I knew what was coming, yet it still startled me. I didn’t post a picture of the painting in case you haven’t seen the movie before. I don’t want to totally ruin the shock for you!
The painting itself is actually hanging at the Art Institute of Chicago. If you are in the area you should check it out! Whenever I visit Chicago I will be sure to go see it!
They further the relationship between Dorian and Gladys and they become engaged. But after the death of James Vane, Dorian writes to her telling her he can’t marry her even though he truly does love her. This is his “good” act, so rather than breaking things off with a girl in the country like in the book, he breaks things off with Gladys.
When he then goes to see if the painting has changed, he sees a positive change. Definitely making him more likable than in the book. When he sees the change, he is motivated and stabs the picture, not to be rid of evidence, but at a way to be rid of the person he once was. However, once again when he stabs it he himself dies. The painting goes to normal and he becomes old.
While this was happening, David went to Lord Henry and Gladys and told them he was able to get into the room at the top of the stairs that Dorian always keeps locked. But all that was up there were old school things and a creepy painting. When he tells them of the cat in the picture and the signature, Gladys and Harry realize it must be the same one Basil had painted of Dorian. They run to his house to check, and they find him old and dead, and the painting normal.
Book or Movie?
As I said above, I have read this book and seen this movie before. Clearly I thought each was good enough to revisit. In the end, even though I think this is a great movie and is worth watching whether you read the book or not-I still like the book better. It just has so many great lines and beautiful passages. The movie didn’t make any changes that I hated, though David was an unnecessary addition. Nonetheless, it was a great adaptation and I would like to think Wilde would have been pleased with it. I would like to see yet another movie made, of the same caliber as this one but with someone even better playing Dorian. I have no doubt there will be future retellings of this book, as it is a classic story that will continue to inspire others.