It is always a great risk taking a popular play from the stage and transferring it onto the silver screen. If you can endure the criticism from theater purists and dumb it down enough for mainstream America to be entertained, then there is room for a bit of success. Rob Marshall found great mainstream success with Chicago, infusing it with Hollywood talent that blew audiences away. Other stage to screen adaptations, such as Joel Shumacher’s The Phantom of the Opera have been well received by critics, but shunned by the American audience in that they were too difficult to follow on the silver screen. In cases like these, and many others, it often rests on the vision of the director and how he or she decides to interpret the small world of screen into the vast realm of film. With The History Boys, director Nicholas Hynter shows plenty of vision in making a film that does the play justice, he just may not capture the minds and hearts of the American moviegoer.
The History Boys tells the story of a troupe of young students in England, who are preparing to make their way to either Cambridge or Oxford, the beacon’s of Britain’s educational system. They are crass and unruly, yet they are very gifted. Instead of attempting to retrofit new talent into the roles of these boys, Hynter brought in the original cast of the play that ran in London’s National Theater in 2004. The result is one of the more natural ensembles of the year. It is easy to see that these young men are very comfortable in these characters and comfortable with each other. The dialogue is seamless, the musical interludes are expertly placed and the film takes on a welcomed air of lightheartedness and irreverence.
It is that sense of lightheartedness that makes this film enjoyable, but it may still be a bit too much for the American mainstream. While the trailer of the film may lead one to believe that it is just a casual schoolyard romp about learning life’s lessons, there is more too it. It does deal with themes such as the passage into adulthood, seen through the journey to University, and understanding the relevance of history and how it impacts our present and future. But it also possesses a strong underlying sexual theme about it, particularly in that some of the students have relations with their male teachers. While this theme adds to the story’s air of innocence, it becomes something that is somewhat uncomfortable, something that will not sit well with the average American moviegoer.
But uncomfortable sexual themes aside, there is much to be celebrated about Nicholas Hynter’s adaptation of Alan Bennett’s popular play. The History Boys is a sensational silver screen revision, capturing the spirit of the play and transferring it almost seamlessly through the eyes of familiar characters and unto the American mainstream. Fans of the play will appreciate the director’s reverence and the cast’s familiarity, while first time viewers may find it difficult to swallow. Either way, The History Boys is enjoyable, even if you don’t quite get it.