Weekend Film Recommendation: The History Boys

Adapting a stage script for the screen is not straightforward. For one thing, learning how to navigate the differences in pace between a live theatre performance and the screen screen requires tremendous skill. Every once in a while, however, a stage script is strong enough that it can be lifted almost verbatim and will still work as a splendid film. This week’s movie recommendation, Nicholas Hytner’s adaptation of Alan Bennett’s The History Boys (2006), is one such film.

Screen shot 2013-07-08 at 21.33.36The film is set in 1980s Yorkshire, in a small town outside of Bradford. Eight high school-age boys have done exceedingly well on their final examinations, and show some promise for university spots at Oxbridge. They are impossibly erudite, and uncontrollably hormonal. Thanks to their charming but unconventional teacher Hector (played by Richard Griffiths) they can recite the poetry of Hardy as fluently as they can procure the services of a French prostitute. While their minds are brilliant, they are also puerile. What they lack, according to the officious schoolmaster, is panache. In order to compete with the aristos against whom they’ll be pitted in the dreaded Oxbridge interviews, they must learn to rein in their bawdy schoolboy attitude. The schoolmaster therefore hires a temporary history teacher, Irwin (played by Stephen Campbell Moore), to whip the boys into shape.

The rest of the film deals with the boys’ (and teachers’) struggles with their friendships, their beliefs, and their sexualities. Those challenges play out in the context of two fundamentally different approaches to schooling: on one hand, the instrumentally-minded Irwin is focused on the ‘game’ of getting the boys accepted to Oxbridge; Hector, on the other hand, cares little for the boys’ destinations, and urges them to focus instead on the journey of learning.

Screen shot 2013-07-08 at 21.34.14Those familiar with Hytner’s earlier adaptations of stage scripts will notice a common theme: like his versions of Miller’s The Crucible (1996), and another Bennett play, The Madness of King George (1994), this isn’t a film one watches for the use of camera, lighting, or soundtrack. Sometimes one even gets the sense that the talented acting is being used merely as a vehicle to maximise the wit of the script. Nonetheless, sterling performances shine through on all counts. I’ll highlight Richard Griffiths in particular, only because Hytner successfully brings out in his portrayal of Hector that same quality that you notice in Nigel Hawthorne’s King George – despite all his flaws, he is instantaneously and unavoidably likeable.

The film never succeeded quite as well as the stage version. But, given that the play was one of the most well-received stage productions in the last 50 years, that isn’t saying all that much.


7 thoughts on “Weekend Film Recommendation: The History Boys”

  1. Fine review Johann, I will put this on my to see list.

    Alan Bennett is such an icon in Britain that everyone wants to have an Alan Bennett story (he has sort of succeeded Harold Pinter in that role). Stephen Fry’s was that he auditioned in front of him for a play and it made him so nervous that he did badly. When he explained why they had a second audition in which Fry did well without Bennett there. And then Bennett crawled out from his position on the ground between the seats where he had hidden so that Fry would not be nervous but he could still hear him do the part.

    My own is much more boring, being one table over in a London club, thinking of saying hello and then thinking that were I so famous I would hate to have strangers bothering me. As always, I let the latter impulse guide me.

    1. I had heard a few times that Bennett was an incorrigibly rude man, but I have no celebrity exposure to substantiate that assessment. After reading this interview , my opinion of him changed in a rather more positive direction.

  2. Since I’ve been a Netflix subscriber, once and only once have I watched a film on one of their CD’s and then watched it again the next day, start to finish. The film was this one. I love it desperately, and will probably order it up again, since it’s been a couple of years now since I saw it. Film versions of plays almost never work, largely because plays are all talk, and movies based on them tend to be all talk too. I guess it’s because, as you say, the talk is so good, that limitation seems to melt away in this movie.

    I endorse everything you say in your review, and would emphasize the magnificent performances of practically everyone on screen. Particularly affecting is Samuel Barnett as Posner, the Jewish gay kid (and he can sing). The film cast was brought over wholesale from the London and New York stage productions.

    One note: You may not have meant to imply that Hytner, who directed, wrote the screenplay for this, but you do leave that impression. Alan Bennett is credited with the screenplay for this film and for The Madness of King George.

    1. Thanks for your endorsement, and for your writing tip. The latter is always especially appreciated.

  3. I had the great luck to see ‘History Boys’ on stage. You’re right; the movie isn’t the equal of the performance I saw. I suspect Griffiths magnetism didn’t translate to film. At least the films and TV series I’ve seen. (I have ‘Withnal’ in my to be watched stack.) Seeing Griffiths in a short, minor play, ‘Heroes’, was simply overwhelming. I mourn his passing.

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