Can modern adaptations of classic works of literature be regarded as welcome additions to the original text? Or are they merely an insult to the author? That’s the question I am asking today having recently finished reading Will Self’s Dorian – a contemporary reworking of Wilde’s wonderfully witty The Picture of Dorian Gray. To say that the text is an insult to Wilde is an understatement and one can’t help wondering why Self could not have left well enough alone.
A loose adaptation is the kindest way to describe Self’s version of Wilde’s work, although the words ‘off’ and ‘rip’ could easily be rearranged. The phrase ‘if it aint broke, don’t fix it’ springs to mind, though Self tries his hardest to fix it at every opportunity.
Fast forward 100 years and Self’s text is set in London against the backdrop of the Aids epidemic of the 1980s. The portrait is updated to a video installation and the impossible beautiful Dorian remains eternally so, ageing only on tape.
Meanwhile those around him – ravished by the demons of sexual disease and drugs, lie dying in hospital wards. Yet despite all attempts to make this into a groovy, hip version of our most significant myth, Dorian ends up being a mess of quite nasty proportions.
Subtlety has never been Self’s strongest point. However his constant barrage of four letter obscenities and graphic portrayals of gay sex fail to shock – something Self intended. Instead his work is so blatantly sensationalist and in yer face, to simply cause the reader to switch off. An obvious example is the opening paragraph. The final sentence – one that need not be repeated here – leaves the reader cringing at Self’s transparency.
A good book should aim to instruct, amuse and entertain but Dorian fails on all three scores. The novel is a desert of dull, dreary dross of the highest degree and ultimately defeated me. I dutifully attempted to struggle on but Self’s weighty tome labours along at a snail’s pace and is about as lively as a man with lumbago lowering himself into a chair.
This is the type of book that should never have been published: the author’s accumulated verbiage is merely an exercise in arrogance and sheer self indulgence.
With regular appearances on television shows such as Shooting Stars and Grumpy Old Men under his belt, a critically acclaimed cannon of literary work and a website to boot, Self clearly has a legion of devoted fans. However, on the basis of this book he hasn’t found one here.
As for Wilde, no one need go near his grave with a seismograph.