Barry Lyndon: Comparing the Movie and the Book

Comparing a movie to a book that was written more than one-hundred years before highlights not just the different platforms (book and film), but also the different sensibilities of the times in which they were produced.

Barry Lyndon, the movie, is a lush period piece about an Irish adventurer who rises to the height of European society and then suffers a precipitous fall because the very talents and activities that brought him to win a huge estate are the same ones by which he spends profligately and falls. The movie was directed by Stanley Kubrick, one of the most celebrated persons in cinema at the time (1975). In order to get as close as possible in his depiction of the age, he filmed most of the movie in natural light (including candle-light), even developing special lenses for the purpose. The characters, acted out by Ryan O'Neal as Redmond Barry Lyndon and Marisa Berenson as Honoria Lyndon have little to say in the movie. Most of the words spoken are by a narrator (Michael Hordern) who refers to Redmond Barry in the third person. This is the first striking difference between the movie and the book.

The book Barry Lyndon is written as a memoir. In it Redmond Barry describes his adventures in an intimate way, so much so that when he falters, his self-justification and delusion are made manifest. This closeness, getting inside the head of the protagonist, helps us to see clearly that Redmond Barry is molded by the pointed sense of honor instilled in him by his mother and the perceptions of society. But at the same time he is a hedonist. His desire for honor drives him in a very personal way to satisfy every base desire he can drum up within himself. This sense is so powerful that every evil he commits, every misstep he takes, he takes as the fault of another. By the end of the book, the reader can have no sympathy for the man.

On the other hand, the highly-stylized, distant presentation in the movie, allows the viewer to maintain some sympathy for Redmond Barry Lyndon. Nevertheless, the aloofness and formality of the movie seems to serve another purpose. It forces a contrast with the very human occurrences which surround the characters. When emotions and actions come forth, they are all the more stark. When Barry Lyndon beats his step-son, Lord Bullingdon, before a company gathered together to watch a musical performance it seems brutal in the extreme. The polite company gathered there disintegrates as blows fly. This has the effect of setting off the difference between the veneer of society and the basic animal emotions constantly bubbling up in humans.

Reviewers have speculated that the movie is really about predestination. Everything that happens to Barry Lyndon, nearly every action he takes, is inevitable. The narration points this up as the voice generally tells us what is going to happen before it happens. The cinematography, which is majestic, yet static, with a few exceptions paints pictures rather than records scenes.

One of the few prominent scenes is the duel between a grown-up Lord Bullingdon and Redmond Barry. It is entirely of Kubrick's making. There is no such confrontation in Thackeray's book. In fact, in the book, Bullingdon joins the army and goes off to fight in America where his step-father hopes the meddlesome lad will meet his demise. The movie duel shows Bullingdon as a seething, resentful fool bent on revenge for the beatings he sustained in his youth at the hands of Barry Lyndon. In the book he grows to be a man looking out for the interest of his family and that of his mother. The scene in the movie is a highly redeeming moment for Barry Lyndon who refuses this opportunity of disposing of his pesky step-son. Instead of killing the weak-kneed rascal, Barry lets him off by shooting into the ground when it is his turn to fire.

Thus the movie makes Barry Lyndon to be a hero of sorts, almost a Job-like figure imposed upon by God, facing his fate stoically in spite of a hedonistic lifestyle. But how can the viewer feel sympathy for a man who squandered hundreds and thousands of opportunities to turn his life around? In the book we see more clearly that Barry Lyndon might easily have made his wife love him by a few acts of kindness. He might have preserved his wealth and position by not over-reaching and grasping. He might have saved his son, Brian, by imposing a modicum of discipline upon the child. Kubrick would have us believe that Barry Lyndon is a mere puppet. But those who peruse the memoir can read behind the scenes. Barry Lyndon has no one to blame for his destruction than himself. To the very end of the book it is plain to the reader, Barry never understands this salient fact.

As far as film adaptations of novels go, there are not really all that many differences in plot or scene between movie and book. The significant one is the duel. Yet the emphasis and message are polar opposites. Where Thackeray makes plain that Barry Lyndon has imprisoned his wife for fear that she will divorce him, it is barely alluded to in the movie. The movie hints at a reconciliation of the two that never really occurred in the book. The movie leaves out the shabby treatment of Barry Lyndon's uncle, the Chevalier de Balibari, the man who rescued him from Prussian service.

Strangely enough, the novel, though written 125 years before the movie was made, seems far more modern than the film. Its style, thoughtfulness, and specifically its ability to effectively address issues of spousal abuse and the ill-effects of elitism, bullying and (a problem at the time) the code duello, give it an immediacy lacking in the movie. Though quite artful and moving, the film's core is about an age-old issue of determinism vs. free will. It seems rooted in 18th century. The book connects the present age with the past, while the movie seems to build a wall between them.

Both film and novel are classic works that defied the genres of their time, the historical film and the picaresque adventure, respectively. As both entertainment and study these works are worth the time spent to absorb and contemplate.

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