Original Cast of Graduates to Big Screen

Nicholas Hytner's "day job" doesn't leave much leeway for media-mixing--at 50, he is the youngest artistic director ever of the Royal National Theatre in London--and, like the worthies he has succeeded (Trevor Nunn, Richard Eyre, Peter Hall and Laurence Olivier), he finds himself pretty much confined to an isolated Olympus, shaping and administering.

But for Alan Bennett, the playwright-screenwriter and ever-Beyond the Fringe-wit, Hytner has found the time and probably always will. His 1994 film-directing debut was made with a Bennett work he launched on the London stage in 1991 and toured in the U.S., The Madness of King George. The results got Oscar nominations for Bennett, his title royal and queen (Nigel Hawthorne and Helen Mirren) and won the prize for sets.

Hytner's latest film, his fifth, is his second Bennett on film--Fox Searchlight's The History Boys--and it has also gone Oscar-courtin', relatively fresh from a six-win Tony triumph six months ago when it made off awards for Hytner and Bennett and two of their principal players (Richard Griffiths and Frances de la Tour). All four are worth the Oscar once-over.

Like Billy Elliot passing the barre exam, The History Boys is the story of eight super-savvy working-class English teens preparing for a life-determining college entrance exam in Sheffield of 1983. Operation: Oxbridge--meaning Oxford and Cambridge are the only viable options--actually existed in test form in the British school system until 20 years ago, when it was abolished amid debates that it put the poorer schools at a disadvantage.

Bennett personifies this argument. On one side--the side of the slightly tarnished angels--is Hector (Griffiths), a freewheeling intellectual dispensing across-the-board learning to his boys to prepare them for life. His gamut goes from A.E. Houseman to Gracie Fields and embraces Brief Encounter and Now, Voyager. Subscribing to a narrower, shorter-term view is the new young teacher in school, Mr. Irwin (Stephen Campbell Moore), brought in by the results-obsessed headmaster to help the applicants over the admissions hurdle any way he can. Irwin's method is to teach the boys to talk the talk, jazz up their correct-but-dull papers with glib rhetoric ("Stalin was a sweetie," etc.).

What the two teachers have in common is a telltale streak of lavender. Hector confines his to fondling lads on his moped--an infraction that costs him dearly and drives Irwin farther back in his own closet. Turns out Irwin's not as sexually brave as his heady banter.

These are the two schools of thought--or, rather, two thoughts of school--clanging together on the playing field of The History Boys. And they are rather familiar turf for Hytner, who himself is a history boy. "Well, I was an English boy, actually," he amends.
"I was at a 'target-driven' school not unlike the school in the play. Mine was called Manchester Grammar School. Grammar schools are age 11 upwards in England. In fact, it's mentioned in the play. It was a very, very good school, and I did have a teacher just like--well, I had a teacher who was all the good bits of Hector and none of the bad bits. One of the things he was obsessed by was getting people into Oxford and Cambridge."

Hytner did his teacher proud by getting into Cambridge, emerging from his schooling with a decided bent for directing and gaining prominence in that field at the Kent Opera and the English National Opera. He became associate director first of the Royal Exchange Theatre in Manchester in 1985 and then of the Royal National Theatre in 1989.

His career really got in gear with his first encounter with Bennett-a stage adaptation of Kenneth Grahame's The Wind in the Willows. He also directed The Lady in the Van (i.e., Maggie Smith), a play Bennett based on his real-life brush with a vagrant parked in front of his home. Neither made it across the Atlantic to Broadway, but Hytner's proud of both.
Indeed, "The four plays I've done with Alan are the best things I've ever done," he declares without hesitation, "and he is the best thing to happen in my professional life."

Bennett's play The Madness of George III brought Hytner to films. (Its title change to The Madness of King George was to still the fear that the Yanks would think there had been a Part I and a Part II.) The raison d'être of that film, now that it can be told, was to preserve the great, Olivier Award-winning title performance of the late Nigel Hawthorne.

And even that motive met with major resistance. "Sam Goldwyn was literally the only movie guy who was prepared to have Nigel do it," recalls Hytner. "A helluva lot of that cast originated their roles on stage. About half the cast, I guess, was fresh for the movie. That was pretty good, I thought. But, to do it, we kept the cost down to $8 million."

There were rumors that an American producer would bankroll a History Boys movie if Sir Anthony Hopkins (who had ensnared the lead in the film of Shadowlands, Hawthorne’s other Olivier Award-winning vehicle) played Hector, but Hytner is fast to shoot them down: "It didn't get anywhere near that. We had some exploratory talks during the run of the play at the National, and it became clear there were film companies who would have been happy to talk to us, but they wanted to get involved with casting--and quite properly, I have to say.

"Keeping the original cast together was how we wanted to make it--that was the big concern for me and for Alan--so we made it very simply. It's not a glossy film. We made it in six weeks more than a year ago for two million pounds [3.8 million in U.S. dollars].

"We wanted to make it in a way that made sense for a film company to allow us to go ahead and do it with this cast. It was a straightforward financial proposition: How much can we spend on a cast that, in film terms, meant nothing to the financing of the project?"
Not only does the original cast remain intact from stage to screen--a true rarity!--there are two new additions to the school staff, enabling Penelope Wilton and Adrian Scarborough to knock off quick cameos teaching art and gym. All eight of the title players are well beyond the 17-18 age bracket of their characters but still photograph convincingly young.

"At first, when we were in rehearsal for the play back in 2004, I don't think we thought there was a film in The History Boys," recalls Hytner. "It didn't have those opportunities for filmic spectacle that The Madness of King George did. Then what we realized during rehearsals and when we started playing in front of an audience was that what people were drawn to, above all, were the characters--and that felt like a very secure basis for a film.

"There was a very deliberate decision taken not to bust a gut to open the thing up. I wanted to retain the closed world of the school and get closer to those 12 characters--to the eight boys and the four teachers. That's always been my favorite kind of film, anyway.
"Alan and I kinda realized together this would work as a film as well. He was, at first, concerned that he didn't have much to add to the play, but we both felt there is a strong genre of stage-to-screen adaptations that remain mostly faithful to the source material--things like Streetcar and Virginia Woolf--that don't stray outside of the world the play created."

The rapid-fire classroom repartee is covered by Hytner with fast editing and a floating camera. "You try to reproduce the speed of their thoughts. That's one of the things that's about--really smart people jousting with each other, intellects sparking off each other. That's what I was trying to do--have the camera reflect the quickness of their minds."

Speeches delivered directly to the audience in the theatre presented a different cinematic problem. "We considered doing something similar on film," Hytner admits. "We shot a lot of those monologues to the audience, but, all the time, we shot alternatives because I was never confident I could make it work. A different kind of film might have found a way of incorporating some of those stage devices, but I couldn't think of a way of doing it.

"I think what happens is that the camera can get closer and get behind the eyes and under the skin so that certain performances emerge differently on film, maybe in greater detail. For instance, Stephen Campbell Moore's performance is quite wonderful, I think, in the film--and partly because we cut the flash-forward scenes. We cut all the scenes that concern Irwin's future career. I think he's a much more sympathetic character on film."

The play's flashback framing has been eliminated in the film--and, with it, the tragedy that befalls Irwin. (Interestingly, similar screen surgery was committed on The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, another drama about an overly influential teacher, and filmgoers never know that Sandy the "assassin" becomes a nun.) "Alan's first draft tried a version of the flashback, but it felt very much like the obvious cut to make. The stage is more forgiving to manipulation of time and space, I find, but maybe that's because I'm a theatre person."

And don't think The History Boys is history just because it's a movie. "It's coming back to the West End with its third cast," says Hytner, who thinks his "advance film" may drum up some business for the play. "I hope so. It seems to be what happens nowadays."