Oliver Parker’s Importance of Being Earnest

By Taryn Hakala, University of California, Merced

From the very opening of Oliver Parker’s 2002 film adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest, we are aware that the filmmaker is not interested in fidelity to the text. Unlike Anthony Asquith’s 1952 film adaptation, which is effectively a filmedimportance of being earnest stage production, complete with a curtain opening onto Algy and Lane in Act I, Parker’s film opens with Algy, played by Rupert Everett, emerging from the shadows of a dark London alley, the law in close pursuit. This is just one of the many liberties Parker takes with Wilde’s text – liberties that some audiences do not approve of but that I find make the film an especially useful text for the classroom.

One of the liberties that has provoked negative reactions from viewers, including some of my students, is Parker’s choice to set the “cigarette case” scene not in the private space of Algy’s flat but rather in the public space of a cabaret. Such a private conversation, some of my students expressed, should not be held in such a public place, with so many people listening. Oliver Buckton suggests that this scene “emphasizes the heterosexuality of the men and dilutes the homoerotic frissons of the dialogue” (330). While I agree that the scene includes the performance of heterosexuality, I would argue that it nevertheless challenges heteronormativity in subtle yet important ways. I invite my students to pay particular attention to small details in the scene that bring to the fore the queer subtext of Wilde’s play. Yes, Algy is shown ogling showgirls, but when one throws a rose in his direction, it is caught by a man’s hand, soon revealed to be that of Jack. We might say that at this moment the showgirl’s attempt at heterosexual flirting is intercepted by a homoerotic encounter. What’s more, as Lucia Krämer has pointed out, the scene includes both female and male prostitutes, and Algy is played by the openly gay Everett, casting that contradicts his role of heterosexual philanderer. I would add that the presence of cross-dressed women further complicates any easy heteronormative reading of the scene. For example, the showgirls’ can-can is quickly followed by a drag king show, and while Algy questions Jack about his cigarette case, he is flanked by a feminine woman dressed in a black and white dress and an androgynous woman dressed in a tuxedo. In these ways, the scene simultaneously challenges and re-inscribes heteronormativity.

The other liberty that students react to strongly is Parker’s decision to change the play’s ending. Jack does not learn that his name “naturally is Ernest”; instead, he discovers that his name has been John all along. A close-up of a page in the army lists reveals to the audience what only Jack and Lady Bracknell have seen: that his father’s name reads “Moncrieff, John.” As Krämer discusses, Parker extends Wilde’s text by elaborating on the “theme of ambiguity of language” (145). Indeed, in Parker’s adaptation, Jack’s lie further emphasizes that there is no inherent link between the signifier and the signified. His name is not and cannot be “naturally” Ernest.

Other of Parker’s liberties include the use of Pre-Raphaelite imagery to animate Cecily’s fantasies and the depiction of Gwendolen driving a car and visiting a tattoo parlor. Initially puzzled by these choices, students eventually see how they allow us to explore both the play’s historical context and the cultural moment that produced the adaptation.

Questions for Discussion

Critics have argued about the role of queer subtext in Wilde’s play. Pay attention to the small details of the “cigarette case” scene. What strategies (narrative or filmic) does Parker use to participate in this debate? In what ways do the strategies suggest a heteronormative reading of the scene? What strategies suggest a homoerotic reading? Are there any other scenes that contribute to this debate? How so?

One of the themes of Wilde’s play is the unreliability of language. How do Parker’s choices emphasize or elaborate on that theme?

What can Parker’s adaptation tell us about the cultural moment in which it was made? Think, for example, about the characterization of Cecily and Gwendolen. What do you make of the use of Pre-Raphaelite imagery to animate Cecily’s fantasies? What do you think of Gwendolen’s choices and/or behavior?

If you were to adapt Wilde’s play for the screen, what choices would you make? For example, would you change the setting? Whom would you cast? Choose a short scene and imagine how you would film it. Why would you make these choices?

Further Reading

Asquith, Anthony, dir. The Importance of Being Earnest, 1952. Criterion Collection, 2010.

Buckton, Oliver S. “Oscar Goes to Hollywood: Wilde, Sexuality, and the Gaze of Contemporary Cinema.” Oscar Wilde and Modern Culture: The Making of a Legend. Ed. Joseph Bristow. Athens, OH: Ohio University Press, 2008.

Krämer, Lucia. “Subversion in Disguise: Oliver Parker’s Adaptations of Oscar Wilde’s An Ideal Husband and The Importance of Being Earnest.” Janespotting and Beyond: British Heritage Retrovisions Since the Mid-1990s. Ed. Eckart Voigts-Virchow. Tübingen: Gunter Narr Verlag, 2004.

Parker, Oliver, dir. The Importance of Being Earnest, 2002. Miramax Lionsgate, 2011.