Oscar Wilde’s literary legacy is too often reduced to reciting his pithy witticisms, but Wilde’s works have inspired many film adaptations (and plays, musicals, operas and television shows).
Wilde’s most well-known work, his play The Importance Of Being Earnest, is subtitled: A Trivial Comedy For Serious People. It was first performed in 1895. Commenting, and working within the social conventions of Victorian London, this play’s major theme is the triviality with which society treats its most serious institutions. And yet, it is a farce with sublimely witty dialogue.
It was freezing cold on opening night, but Wilde arrived dressed in “florid sobriety”, and wearing a green carnation. The audience included many members of the government, as well as actors, writers, academics, and theatre enthusiasts. Actor Allan Aynesworth, who played Algernon, later said that “In my fifty-three years of acting, I never remember a greater triumph than that first night.”
The plays fantastically successful opening night was triumph for Wilde’s career but also hinted at the trouble ahead for the playwright. The Marquess of Queensberry, whose son Lord Alfred Douglas was Wilde’s lover, had arranged to present Wilde with a bouquet of rotten vegetables and disrupt the show. When Wilde heard of the plan, he had the St. James Theatre staff refuse admission to Queensberry.
Despite the play’s early success, Wilde’s conviction for Gross Indecency caused the play to close after 86 performances. After his release from prison, he published the play from exile in Paris, but he wrote no more plays.
The play as been revived more times than I could ever count. The first was in Dublin in 1895. Ten years ago, the Roundabout Theatre Company produced a Broadway revival featuring gay actor Brian Bedford as director and as Lady Bracknell. It was nominated for three Tony Awards.
There have been several made-for-television versions. The Importance Of Being Earnest was adapted to film in 1952 by Anthony Asquith who did the screenplay and directed. The cast includes bisexual actor Michael Redgrave, Edith Evans, and Margaret Rutherford. Kurt Baker directed an all-Black version in 1992 that is set in modern Los Angles. Oliver Parker, a filmmaker who had already adapted Wilde’s An Ideal Husband, made a film version in 2004; it stars Colin Firth, Rupert Everett, Judi Dench, Reese Witherspoon, and Tom Wilkinson. Parker’s adaptation includes material from Wilde’s original draft but cut by the play’s first producer.
Here are other worthwhile film adaptations of Works by Wilde:
The Selfish Giant (2013), directed by Clio Barnard, is inspired by the Wilde short story from 1888 of the same name. This version is deeply, deeply sad. That’s okay, Wilde could be quite sad.
Velvet Goldmine (1998), Todd Haynes’s masterpiece doesn’t look like a Wilde work, even if it is a wild work. This Glam-Rock musical is influenced by the life and writings of Wilde. Sure, the characters are based on David Bowie and Marc Bolan, Wilde’s ideas and writing are hinted at all over the film, and he’s often quoted in the screenplay.
The Canterville Ghost (1944) is a combination of fantasy, realism, comedy, and horror, Jules Dassin’s film showcases the wit of Wilde, and just how tried and true tropes (a haunted a castle!) can be turned upside down by Wilde’s point of view. It stars gay actor Charles Laughton as a ghost doomed to haunt an English castle and handsome Robert Young as his American relative called upon to perform an act of bravery to redeem him.
Wilde Salomé (2011), Al Pacino’s highly amusing documentary about the making of his staging of Wilde’s 1891 play, Salomé. It is lively, smart, with just a pinch of insanity. Pacino starred in a theatrical production of the play, and he dug deep into the life and world of Wilde. The film made quite a splash at the 68th Venice International Film Festival, where Pacino was presented with the Glory to the Filmmaker! Award, and the film won the Queer Lion award. It has a jaw-dropping performance by Jessica Chastain.
The play is a loose retelling of the Biblical story of King Herod and his execution of John the Baptist at the request of his stepdaughter, Salomé, who he lusts after.
The USA premiere of Wilde Salomé was held at the Castro Theatre in San Francisco. In conjunction with the 130th anniversary of Wilde’s visit to San Francisco, the premiere was a fundraiser for the LGBTQ Historical Society.
Also notable is Salomé (1923), a silent film starring daring lesbian star, Alla Nazimova.
Lady Windermere’s Fan, A Play About A Good Woman is a comedy by Wilde, performed for the first time in 1892, followed by a famous speech by Wilde. When Wilde answered the calls of “Author! Author!”, he appeared in front the curtains, and the critics were more offended by the cigarette in his hand than his ironically egotistical speech:
“Ladies and Gentlemen. I have enjoyed this evening immensely. The actors have given us a charming rendering of a delightful play, and your appreciation has been most intelligent. I congratulate you on the great success of your performance, which persuades me that you think almost as highly of the play as I do myself.”
A 1925 silent film version of Lady Windermere’s Fan, stars Ronald Colman, directed by Ernst Lubitsch.
In 1949, Otto Preminger directed an adaptation with the shortened title The Fan starring Jeanne Crain, Madeleine Carroll, and George Sanders. The screenplay is by Dorothy Parker.
A film adaptation, A Good Woman (2004), sets the story in 1930 on the Amalfi coast of Italy. This film stars Helen Hunt and Scarlett Johansson.
The Picture Of Dorian Gray (1915) was first filmed as an American silent starring Wallace Reid. There were five more silent film versions before an MGM production in 1945. It stars gay actor Hurd Hatfield as Dorian Gray with help from George Sanders, Donna Reed, Angela Lansbury (who was Academy Award-nominated), and Peter Lawford. Shot in black-and-white, the film does feature four color inserts in Technicolor of Dorian’s portrait.
There is a 1970 movie adaptation of Wilde’s novel The Picture Of Dorian Gray starring bisexual actor Helmut Berger. Directed by Massimo Dallamano, the film stresses the decadence and eroticism of the story and changes the setting to early 1970s London. The sexual liberation of the early 1970s provides a fitting backdrop for Dorian’s escapades in this version, and the clothing and fashion style of the 1970s were inspired of the aesthetic, decadent world of the 1890s novel.
Another film adaptation was made in 2009, directed by Oliver Parker, and stars Ben Barnes as Dorian Gray, and Colin Firth.
Flesh And Fantasy (1943), is an anthology film, starring Edward G. Robinson, Charles Boyer, and Barbara Stanwyck. It tells three stories, unrelated but with a supernatural theme, by Wilde, Ellis St. Joseph, and László Vadnay.
An Ideal Husband (1999) is film based on Wilde’s play of the same name that revolves around blackmail and political corruption, starring Julianne Moore, Minnie Driver, Jeremy Northam, Cate Blanchett, and Rupert Everett. The play was first produced in 1895. There have been at least five film adaptations, including in 1935 in German; in 1947 starring Paulette Goddard and Michael Wilding; a 1980 a Soviet version; and in 2000, a British film starring James Wilby and Sadie Frost.
The Trials Of Oscar Wilde (1960), chronicles of Wilde’s libel suit against the Marquis of Queensberry and the tragic turn his life takes because of it. With Peter Finch as Wilde and gay actor John Fraser as Lord Alfred Douglas. The same year, because you can’t have too much Wilde, was Robert Morley as Oscar Wilde and John Neville as Lord Alfred Douglas in Oscar Wilde. A scene where Morley (as Wilde) tried to pick up a newspaper boy on a foggy London street was cut by the censors in Britain and the USA. Both films were released in the same week in May 1960.
Also worth our attention is Wilde (1997), directed by Brian Gilbert and starring gay polymath Stephen Fry in the title role. It’s hard to imagine a more appropriate actor to play Wilde. The screenplay by Julian Mitchell is based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning 1987 biography of Oscar Wilde (1987) by Richard Ellmann. It also has young Jude Law as Lord Alfred Douglas, with Vanessa Redgrave as Wilde’s mother, Jennifer Ehle as his wife, Michael Sheen as his best friend Robbie Ross, and Tom Wilkinson as Marquess of Queensberry.
The Happy Prince (2018), written by, directed by, and starring Rupert Everett (the consummate Wilde actor) in his directorial debut. The film stars Everett, Colin Firth, Colin Morgan, Emily Watson, and Tom Wilkinson.