“No, but I read the book.”

Barry Lyndon

directed by Stanley Kubrick

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest

directed by Miloš Forman

The Story of Adèle H

directed by François Truffaut

Marisa Berenson
Marisa Berenson; drawing by David Levine

“My object,” Thackeray said of Vanity Fair, “is to indicate, in cheerful terms, that we are for the most part an abominably foolish and selfish people…all eager after vanities. Everybody is you see in that book….” Everybody is in The Luck of Barry Lyndon too, the novel Thackeray had published three years earlier. Although eager may be too strong a word. Barry Lyndon is anemic picaresque, something like a novel by Smollett without Smollett’s rage and energy, a languid, rambling narrative redeemed only by the grace of Thackeray’s writing and the poise of his throwaway comments (“He was an admirable soldier, dissolute, and a drunkard.” “He was quite in the wrong…. But, like a gentleman, he scorned to apologize”). There is a very funny scene in which Barry, not the brightest of fellows, tussles verbally with Dr. Johnson—“he was accompanied by a Mr. Buswell of Scotland, and I was presented to the club by a Mr. Goldsmith, a countryman of my own”—and there is one extraordinary sequence in which Thackeray outdoes even Stendhal on the disasters of war:

I hate bragging, but I cannot help saying that I made a very close acquaintance with the colonel of the Cravates, for I drove my bayonet into his body, and finished off a poor little ensign, so young, slender, and small, that a blow from my pigtail would have despatched him, I think, in place of the butt of my musket, with which I clubbed him down. I killed, besides, four more officers and men, and in the poor ensign’s pocket found a purse of fourteen louis-d’or, and a silver box of sugar-plums, of which the former present was very agreeable to me. If people would tell their stories of battles in this simple way, I think the cause of truth would not suffer by it.

But for the rest, the novel is a portrait of an Irish rascal who is just not lively enough to be appealing, or even unappealing. The eighteenth century is seen through weary nineteenth-century eyes. “You needn’t read Barry Lyndon,” Thackeray told his daughter. “You won’t like it.”

Kubrick, obviously drawn to Thackeray’s bleak views and pallid characters, has made a film which is in one sense a perfect version of the novel: austere, stately, beautiful, faintly inhuman. But it lacks the wit and occasional indignation which are the only reasons for reading the book, and so it just hangs there on the screen for three hours, a monument to Kubrick’s patience and pedantry and rather laborious good taste, but signifying very little else.

Thackeray delivered large, sad truths in cheerful terms, as he said. Kubrick’s method is to say the same things in the manner of a professional mourner, and so Thackeray’s counterpoint becomes Kubrick’s tautology: gloom on gloom, solemnity everywhere. Everything in the movie conspires to create this effect: shots consistently set up to…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your nybooks.com account.