Onstage, The History Boys crackled; onscreen, it merely hums. This is a puzzle, as writer Alan Bennett and director Nicholas Hytner successfully adapted the playwright's The Madness of King George III to film in 1994. But, just as that show lost its III when it went to movies, so, too, has The History Boys , which Fox Searchlight opened On Nov. 21, lost some of its essence in translation. Not that it hasn't gained a few things. Filmed in five weeks between the close of the National Theatre production and the start of its international tour, the primary location is an actual school, in Hertfordshire, with a bit of opening out to Cambridge and Fountains Abbey. To give the piece more of a schoolroom flavor two new characters, a head-in-the-clouds art history teacher (Penelope Wilton) and a sternly religious gym instructor( Adrian Scarborough ), have been added for brief sequences. And the boys, who were on the cusp of adulthood by the time the show reached the Broadhurst. are more boy-ish; if I'm not mistaken, it was their filming-period selves who appeared in the Broadway production's projections.
With the gains, however, come the deletions. To keep the film under two hours scenes have been condensed, and the narrative, save for a flash-forward at the end, has been made linear. Frances De La Tour 's beloved monolgue has, as might be expected, been pretty much packed away into a dialogue sequence, retaining it sharpness and bite but losing its impact. [ With another female teacher in the cast her Mrs Linott isn't quite so special anymore, either.] The play's cinematic transitions, through Mark Henderson's lighting and projections, are of course gone, replaced with a few too many expository moments for headmaster Clive Merrison who, as the one actor who has failed to modulate his stage performance, chews the screen annoyingly. More problematic is that the opening of the second act, where Posner (Samuel Barnett) worms his way onto the set of the TV show Irwin (Stephen Campbell Moore) is shooting, has been sacrificed. Barnett's show-stopping Act 1 song sequence made the final cut, but without this sad and pathetic display the film audience will have less of an idea what Posner is so bewitched, bothered, and bewildered about. His Tony-nominated performance feels incomplete on film. And I missed the Madness songs, the movie rights to which could not perhaps be obtained.
More maddening is the overall lack of style. Henderson and set designer Bob Crowley won Tonys for their work, feats they weren't able to duplicate at the Oscars. For raw immediacy, the cinematographer, Andrew Dunn, chose to shoot in Super 16, an unflattering stock that makes the film version of this crisply designed play look grainy, gray and cheap. Hector's classroom has the same lively photos on the wall but not even Rita Hayworth pops out of the pallor of the production. Warts and all, I'm glad there is a film of the wise and witty The History Boys, and some record of its performances, led by an undiminished Richard Griffiths. But audiences unfamiliar with the play won't understand what all the fuss was about, and why those of us who loved it wish the movie were better. ( If you missed it at the theater, The History Boys will turn up on DVD on April 17, with a Bennett- Hytner commentary track and features about the boys themselves.)