History Boys, The: Nicholas Hytner’s Version of Alan Bennett’s Tony Award Winning lay

Alan Bennett’s Tony Award-winning “The History Boys,” a sly, funny, thought-provoking comedy about the changing meaning of education, was too cinematic as a play, and now Nicholas Hytner‘s screen version is too theatrical as a movie, showing again that what works well on stage doesn’t necessarily work well on screen.

The unblinking camera magnifies one major problem, that all the actors are far too old to play high-school students; most American movies suffer from that problem, too. This, plus the fact that the movie is set in the early 1980s (and not in the present) turn the movie into an awkward, anachronistic work.

That said, since arguably the weakest aspects of current American moviemaking are poor narratives and weak dialogue, “History Boys” at least offers an entertaining evening at the movies in the classy British tradition of sharp banter peppered with witty and memorable lines.

“History Boys” follows an unruly bunch of talented but rough-edged British schoolboys whose worlds are changed forever when two teachers with opposing viewpoints on education engage in a battle to get them into Oxford and Cambridge.

The play is set at a small public boys school in industrial Northern England where eight students are about to pursue the ultimate British dream: to gain acceptance into one of Englands two legendary universities. Distracted by sex, sports and the chaos of growing up in the 1980s, the boys are helped, and hindered, in their quest by two teachers who are diametrically different in their methods.

New to the school is the slick Irwin (Stephen Campbell Moore), a recent graduate of Oxford who has been hired by the ambitious Headmaster to whip the boys into exam-ready shape with his aggressive focus on strategy and spin. Then there is the maverick literature teacher Hector (Richard Griffiths, who looks a bit like Charles Laughton), a self-perceived “fool” who breaks all the rules in trying to help the boys discover their own wisdom. Both teachers vie for the boys loyalty, minds, and hearts as they impart vital lessons and reveal their own flaws.

Through biting wit and rapid-fire dialogue–not to mention classic music, popular songs, vintage movie scenes, impassioned debates and moments of stark emotional truth, “History Boys” humorously brings to the fore the serious subject of how one generation passes its wisdom on to the next.

The play/film is imbued with gay, borderline campy sensibility. The boys converse comically in French, enact popular songs (“Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered”) and scenes from old Hollywood movies, such as Bette Davis vehicle, “Now, Voyager,” or British melodrama, “Brief Encounter.”

Hytner first brought the story to the stage at Londons National Theatre, where he serves as the director. As in the original production, the films cast is led by Richard Griffiths, Frances de la Tour, Stephen Campbell Moore, and Samuel Barnett, Dominic Cooper, James Corden, Jamie Parker, Russell Tovey, Samuel Anderson, Sacha Dhawan, and Andrew Knott reprising their roles as the eight diverse history boys.

Rife with mischievous wit, teenaged energy and insistent questions about everything from why anyone reads poetry to sexual ethics, the play/film may be trying to do too much. Take Hector’s sexual orientation (he’s a married homosexual), which feels like a plot device. Considering that the story takes place in 1983, it’s somehow strange that Hector’s tendency to caress his students while taking them for a ride is taken so lightly by them.

Ditto for the total acceptance of the main and brightest character, Posner (wonderfully acted by Samuel Barnett), who’s openly gay and Jewish, two attributes that would make him deviant and subject to harassment in any context, let alone early 1980s. In this and other respects, “History Boys” imposes a contemporary viewpoint on an historical piece, resulting in inaccuracies.

Bennett set his story in a 1980s public grammar school, where there’s tension between pop culture and high culture. It’s the place where questions are probed of how we reconcile the battle between style versus substance, and how human beings teach one another and are being taught. To achieve that goal, he has created two compelling and likable teachers at opposite ends of the spectrum: the eccentric, fun-loving General Studies teacher Hector and the polished, results-oriented history teacher Irwin.

Gentle, wise and expansive in girth as he is in his vibrant passion for knowledge, Hector comes off as an unconventional, underdog hero, but he also is beset by fatal flaws. His unsettling Achilles heel is his physical attraction to his pupils, which is portrayed as innocent and harmless.

The subtext of Bennett’s work suggests that ultimately the boys are wiser than Hector, which might explain their attitude to him as one of weary tolerance; the ineffectual groping they get on the back of his motorbike doesnt alarm or damage them; they just are bored with it. Since they like Hector, they dont stop him; they just put up with it as a fact of life.

Both Hector and Irwin prove themselves to be “too human” to serve as perfect role models, and it’s up to the boys to create their own paths towards what they really want in life. The boys ultimately know more than any of their teachers. They will go their own way and carve out their own futures. They will take from each of these teachers what they want. This becomes clear in the film’s last, sobering scene, in which the boys relate their fates since graduation. Neither nostalgic nor materialistic, they seem empirical and pragmatic.

With one major exception, Frances de la Tour, all the major characters are obviously male. Even so, as the veteran history teacher Dorothy Lintott, de la Tour appears rather late in the proceedings, but she is given some of the best lines. Describing the sexist nature of historyand history studies–Dorothy says with amused exasperation: “History is a commentary on the various and continuing incapabilities of men. History is women following behind men with buckets.”

Play Vs. Movie

In transforming the stage play to the screen, Bennett chose not to make any radical departures, leaving the already emotionally kinetic story largely intact. There are several new scenes that, as far as I am concerned, don’t add much. Hence, the headmaster is seen knocking about, and the teachers are seen in the staffroom scenes. There’s a brief scene in the art department with Penelope Wilton as the art mistress, and a religious P.E. instructor (Adrian Scarborough).

Movies about Teachers

There’s a whole cinematic tradition of inspirational classroom dramas about charismatic teachers, including “Dead Poet’s Society” with Robin Williams, “Dangerous Minds” with Michelle Pfeiffer, “Finding Forrester” with Sean Connery, “The Emperor’s Club” with Kevin Kline, and most recently, “Half Nelson” with Ryan Gosling.