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By Gregg Shapiro
The “Dreamgirls” aren’t the only Tony Award winners to make the transition from the stage to the screen this holiday season. “The History Boys,” which cleaned up at the Tony Awards this past summer, can also be seen in all its cinematic glory, featuring the entire original stage cast, on Dec. 22. Out director Nicholas Hytner is at the helm of the film version and has a lesson to teach in the film’s journey from stage to screen.
Gregg Shapiro: You directed both the stage and screen versions of “The History Boys.” Was it always in the works that you would direct the movie adaptation?
Nicholas Hytner: There was no film adaptation planned. And it took us a while to start to think about one. I run the theater that it was produced at, so my priority was and always is and will remain, for many years, the repertoire of the National Theatre. I’ve been asking Alan Bennett, because we’ve worked together many times, for a play ever since I became the director of the National in 2003. I think the first time I read this play, it did not seem to me that there would be a film in it. I did not think it would be that successful a play. I thought it would be successful with our core audience, but I thought it was probably too esoteric to have a wide audience. And it was only at the first preview at the National that we realized what a huge emotional effect it was having. And then it was quite simply never on the cards that a film would be made unless it was made by the original.
GS: That’s an interesting point because the entire cast did make the transition from stage to screen in the movie version of “The History Boys.” Was that an essential component of the process?
NH: We simply wouldn’t have made it otherwise. To say that it wasn’t that big a deal to make the film slightly undersells it. The film we wanted to make was the film that we made. An acknowledgement that what we had on stage was in large part due to the twelve performances that audiences were responding to.
GS: That makes sense. Did you appreciate the opportunity to expand the play’s settings and locations?
NH: Well, we’d done this once before, Alan Bennett and I, on “The Madness of King George,” which also started at the National as a play. That very much was an opportunity to expand it and open it out. To give him a whole country to be the king of. For this, in many respects, we went in the other direction. We never had any desire, really, to expand the world of the play. The world of the play is the school. We therefore didn’t bust a gut to open it up physically. What we wanted to do was go deeper physically. It was always going to be character and dialogue driven. It’s not got a tense thundering narrative; it’s about ideas and people. By and large, we stayed as we did on stage, in the school. And those are my favorite kinds of films, anyway, so that was no hardship.
GS: When you were a student, did any of the teachers that you had have an impact or make a similar impression on you in the way that Hector, Irwin or Mrs. Lintott did for the boys?
NH: Yes, very much so. And I went to a school very similar to the one that the play’s about. A grammar school in the North of England. And grammar schools in my day, in the ’70s, were state run. They weren’t private, but they were selective entry for bright kids. There was a teacher who was all of the good bits of Hector and none of the bad bits, because of whom I work in the theater.
GS: Oprah Winfrey has been known to pay tribute to teachers on her show. Do you think they get the recognition that they deserve?
NH: No, I don’t. They certainly don’t back in Britain and I suspect they don’t here (in the States), but I don’t know about here. I think it’s symptomatic that they have to give recognition on the “Oprah Winfrey Show.” They should obviously be much better paid. They should be recognized for what they are, which is central to the future and health of our societies. Back in Britain, many, many teachers have seen the show. Almost universally their response is to lament that they can’t teach like Hector anymore. They can’t teach their enthusiasms. They are so target driven and bound by the curriculum and by the results that they have to deliver. They’re pressured from so many different directions. They’re not paid enough. It’s not a profession that is recognized socially for being as valuable as it is. You read daily what greedy CEOs are given, or what they give themselves, and then you see what teachers are given (laughs). Obviously, it’s a sick society that not point one per cent of what it gives a CEO of company on the stock market.
GS: The gay cable network Logo was recently running the BBC film “The Line of Beauty,” which begins in 1983, and “The History Boys” is also set in 1983. What do you think is the significance of 1983?
NH: “The Line of Beauty” is about the `80s. I think that what Hollinghurst, who is a major novelist, was doing, and what 20 years later other artists are doing, is taking the measure of an era. I think what Hollinghurst is doing in that novel is revisiting that era, redefining it and wondering how it shapes up now. This (“The History Boys”) is set in the `80s for one big and one small reason. The big reason – it was the last time that teachers were able to teach the way Hector teaches. There is a conceptual battle in the film and play between utilitarian education, as exemplified by the headmaster, target driven, results driven. And the romantic ideal of education as something that broadens the mind and expands the soul. In the `80s, the headmaster won. If you want to dramatize that struggle, you have to go back to the `80s because it was the last time that a teacher like Hector found room in any school at all, even a private school. The `80s was the battleground and the headmaster won. But the film is about a clash of ideas that survives now and which seems more important than ever now. But you couldn’t tell this story now because Hector doesn’t exist anymore. The small reason that it’s set in the `80s is that it was the last time that Oxford and Cambridge had their own entrance exams. They abolished it in the late `80s. This is not a film about the `80s, but “The Line of Beauty” was a novel about the `80s.
GS: Earlier, you mentioned that you’ve worked with playwright Alan Bennett before on “The Madness of King George.” What is it about his work that appeals to you as a director?
NH: I respond entirely to his sensibility. I respond to his voice, really, which is ironic, melancholy and very funny, and always aware of the tragicomic gap between aspiration and reality. I’m very fortunate that he gives me all his stuff.
GS: Like 2005, the 2006 movie schedule features numerous films with gay subject matter and gay characters. The History Boys takes its place among them with characters such as gay student Posner and teachers Hector and Irwin, and also in the way that it addresses homophobia and same sex issues. What do you think this continued inclusion says about the current state of film?
NH: We produce at the National 17, 18 shows a year, and in programming the National, in responding to the new stuff that we commission and that gets sent to us, it’s not something that I look for and it’s not something that I take into account. But I don’t know about movies. My world is the theater. There’s a long history of gay writers, gay actors, gay directors making disproportionately huge contributions to the theater. It’s been a long time since they weren’t able to write about their own experience, and therefore much of what lands on my desk has some kind of gay content. All I can tell you is that as both producer and director, my first response to this play, when I came in the morning after I read it to tell my colleagues what it was about, I said it was about the purpose of education, the meaning of history. That’s what it’s about. It’s an all-male environment, therefore all the emotional and erotic undercurrents have an inevitable homoerotic tinge to them. But I think that all it says is that gay artists don’t have to pretend anymore. This play is the biggest hit that the National Theatre has ever had. At the National, there are other plays that have gone on, like I hope this will continue to do, to have a big success in the West End and on Broadway. But this play is up there with “Amadeus” and Tom Stoppard’s “Arcadia” and “The Madness of King George.” It has huge popular appeal, and that probably says something.