Friday, January 3, 2014

Royal Flash vs. Flashman and the Meaning Thereof

A digression.

George Macdonald Fraiser created one of the greatest characters of the 20th Century, even though Harry Piaget Flashman is from the 19th. The Flashman series is an unending delight of English bigotry, misogyny, and cowardice, the curtain drawn back on the Imperial experiment to get a look at the pulsing muscles underneath. You can't help but love Flashy, even though he is literally the worst. In the 70s, a movie was made out of the second Flashman book. It wasn't great.

Though it was written by George Macdonald Fraiser and acted by the inestimable Malcolm McDowell, it failed to capture the spirit of old Flashy. I've a litany of problems with it, starting the common adaptation blues (Rudi is too old, Flashman too weedy, Bismarck not scary enough, Krafstein turned into a Bond villain, de Gautet barely present, Lola not young enough, etc., etc.)

Let us cut right to the most damning change at the heart of the matter: nothing is serious. The Flashman novels are undoubtedly comedy. There's no denying that they are meant to be a cruel and biting satire. We are encouraged to laugh with and at Harry and his contemporaries without mercy. But, at the end of the day, the Flashman books contain real human emotion and tragically moving segments. When the Residency is overwhelmed in Kabul or Flashman is languishing at Piper's Fort, when he's upside-down in the pipe under the Jotunberg or Carl Gustav is learning that his best and oldest friend has been casually slaughtered by the grinning Rudi—these are real, human, and heartbreaking. Flashman's tales are built on heartbreak: he's an arm of the Imperial government, and he witnesses the darkest parts of the 19th century first hand.

Royal Flash (the film) has none of that. The tone is more like Dumb and Dumber. Flashman, far from being a cunning evil coward, is portrayed as a bumbling fool. Things happen to Flashman, not because of him. Tellingly, in the Jotunberg when Rudi is outlining a plan for Flashy to go back into the fire for the sake of money and good ole Harry decides the safer thing to do is hit Rudi with a bottle and run away (later lamenting that he didn't kill the bastard when he was down and he had the chance), McDowell's Flashy accidentally brains him and then actively decides not to hit him again. Who's this Harry? A dope, not a coward and murderer.

It seems that Fraiser (who wrote the screenplay) tried to steer away from the darker parts of his novel: the torture Harry inflicts on de Gautet, the accusations of rape, the true baseness of Henry Piaget Flashman's character. He's a hapless dope, not a murderer! the movie screams. Because of that, the true spirit of Harry Flashman is lost. It's a fun enough movie, and it fills a few hours, but it has none of the lasting impact of reading a Flashman novel.

Ah well. Maybe HBO and the BBC will team up to make a miniseries.

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