Illustration of Jack Worthing in a top hat and formal attire, and a concerned expression on his face

The Importance of Being Earnest

by Oscar Wilde
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Contrast the play The Importance of Being Earnest with the 2002 film.

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The 2002 Miramax video production of The Importance of Being Earnest is remakably faithful to Wilde's original script. It does have some notable differences, however.

The film begins with Algy and Jack running into each other at a social gathering, where Jack reveals, after Algy presses him, that he is Ernest in the city but Jack in the country. The play begins with Jack visiting Algy at his flat. Lady Bracknell and Gwendolen arrive, and Jack proposes, which causes Lady Bracknell to launch into her interview of Jack. But in the film, Lady Bracknell requires Jack to appear at her luxurious home the next day to be interviewed. Great pomp is observed when he arrives, and Lady Bracknell is attended by two friends who take notes during the interview. Lady Bracknell has a bell that she nearly rings at several times during the interview to dismiss Jack, which builds tension in the scene.

The film makes use of other touches that increase interest, dramatic tension, and humor. Here are some of them:

  • Gwendolen receives a tattoo on her backside that reads "Ernest" before she motors to Jack's estate in an early model automobile. In the play, she travels by train.
  • Algy takes a hot air balloon to Jack's estate.
  • Cecily has medieval-themed daydreams, which are enacted for the viewer with Cecily in princess garb and Algy as a heroic knight.
  • Algy and Jack serenade the two women with a rendition of "Come Down," accompanied by a piano that servants carry from the lawn into the house.
  • Algy is expelled from Jack's estate and leaves in disgrace on the back of a wagon but finds his way back again.
  • Miss Prism calls on Reverend Chasuble in the rectory and discovers a series of sketches he has been making of her as a Roman goddess.
  • Lady Bracknell discovers Miss Prism in the rectory, and the guilt-ridden former nanny leads the whole group on a chase through the cemetery.
  • When Jack finds his father's name in the book of military officers, he throws the book down in joy, announcing that his father's name was Ernest. Lady Bracknell picks it up and finds that Jack's father's name was John. She views the elation before her and decides not to reveal the truth but tosses the book aside. In the play, there is no indication that Jack isn't telling the truth about what he finds in the book.
  • The movie ends with a funeral for the fictitious Bunbury.

Although these changes are significant, they don't detract from the witty brilliance of Wilde's masterpiece but only enhance it for the medium of film.

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In many films based upon written works, while the basic plot, major characters, style, and prominent themes are developed, the minor characters are often either ignored or only given cursory treatment. This is true in the 2002 film version of The Importance of Being Earnest as well, even though the omissions could be simply because of time limitations.

In the film version of Wilde's play, the characters of Miss Prism and the Reverend Chausible are presented merely as flat, comical personages. However, in the play, these two characters are tools of Wilde's more subtle satire on Victorian self-righteous behavior and religious hypocrisy. Certainly, their names are clues to these satiric depictions.

Interestingly, Miss Prism's name refers to a glass that is many-sided. If one looks through a prism, he or she obtains a different view from the reality. With this name, then, Wilde satirizes the Victorians' narrow-mindedness and hypocrisy. For Miss Prism, the tutor who often corrects Cecily's behavior, is certainly not one to be justifiably doing so since her own past behavior has been far more "improper." (She left Jack in a handbag at Victoria Station years ago.)

The Reverend Chausible is portrayed in the film as a farcical character, and the only religious satire that might be suggested is the pastor's surreptitious glancing at salacious pictures in magazines or books that he quickly hides when someone catches him in the act. Whereas the Reverend is a flat character in the film, in Wilde's play he is more developed, as he hypocritically finds a way to work a sermon into any context for his own advantage. Further, his name suggests Wilde's satiric attitude toward Anglicanism or Catholicism, as the nomenclature mocks the respected exterior vestment worn at the Mass. The minister's ineptness also satirizes the authority traditionally given to the Church.

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Personally, I really enjoyed Parker's take on the play.  The actual differences were in the interpretations behind the scenes.  Cecily is so hopelessly romantic that she is constantly in a dream state with the knight in shining armor.  Also, Jack and Gwendolyn get tattoos--this is quite amusing in our time period, but nothing like that would have occurred.  It helped create more irony in the end when Gwendolyn finds that he truly is Ernest. 

However, on a more cynical yet realistic note, the real focus of the play should have been on Lady Bracknell.  Instead, it was focused on both of the bachelors and their lives.  Wilde used Lady Bracknell to express his frustration with the Victorian era, and Lady Bracknell was the figure who represented all of absurdity of the time period.  She should have been the focus, and yet Parker had her play the controlling matriarch instead of a pompous and almost idiotic character.  The reason for Parker to create the movie in this light was most likely to keep up with the romantic comedies that take up so much of the movies that are presented to us every day.

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