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The Hair of Dorian Gray

So, there’s a new film adaptation of The Picture of Dorian Gray due out later this year (although naturally, such a title is far too long for movie audiences to handle, so it’s simply called Dorian Gray). It stars Ben Barnes, of Prince Caspian fame - not necessarily a bad bit of casting, as he is something of a pretty boy, although I’d argue he’s perhaps five or six years too old (still, given that Anthony Andrews circa 1982 no longer exists, it’s arguable that casting the perfect Dorian is pretty much impossible). Sadly, it’s fallen prey to something that almost every film version of the character has stumbled on so far - in that yet again, Dorian has been given dark hair.

Now, before you start, this isn’t your standard bit of internet-comic-book-movie-nerdery, or anything like that. In most instances, changing something - especially something superficial - about a character is part of what an adaptation is all about. But in Wilde’s novel, so much is made of Dorian’s appearance, and in particular his hair colour. Here are just a few extracts from the book :

Yes, he was certainly wonderfully handsome, with his finely curved scarlet lips, his frank blue eyes, his crisp gold hair.

The scarlet would pass away from his lips and the gold steal from his hair.

Dorian Gray lifted his golden head from the pillow

Suddenly she caught a glimpse of golden hair and laughing lips, and in an open carriage with two ladies Dorian Gray drove past.

Was it to become a monstrous and loathsome thing, to be hidden away in a locked room, to be shut out from the sunlight that had so often touched to brighter gold the waving wonder of its hair?

Gold hair, blue eyes, and rose-red lips — they all were there.

(in fact, the word “gold” actually appears an almost ludicrous number of times throughout the book, and not just in reference to Dorian’s hair - you might say it’s something of a theme)

And yet it’s something that the major cinematic versions simply don’t seem to be able to get right. The most notable film version, prior to this year’s, was probably the famed 1945 version. Here’s Hurd Hatfield in that one :

There was plenty wrong with 2003’s League of Extraordinary Gentlemen film, but their Johnny Depp-esque version of Dorian was particularly inaccurate :

… and made all the more ironic by the fact that actor Stuart Townsend is naturally blond. And now we have Barnes :

(along with Colin Firth, who seems to get cast in Wilde films irrespective of whether he’s right for the part; Jack Worthing, yes, but surely Henry Wotton should have been Rupert Everett?)

Ironically enough, it seems that if the film is a particularly wretched, limited-release adaptation (of which there appear to be a slew, according to IMDb), the chances of Dorian having the right hair colour increase - Transformers’ Josh Duhamel even dyed his hair for this one :

See, not so hard to get right, is it?

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I ascribe this to the ‘author as star’ phenomenon. The same one that gives the McKellen Gandalf Tolkien’s voice and Connery’s 007 a smattering of Fleming himself. There’s a perception - and its from the books long before the films - that the characters represent idealised self-reflections, and with Wilde being an actual ‘celebrity’ that perception only gets heightened…and the image all the more recognisable.

Andrew's picture

By Andrew
August 18, 2009 @ 7:46 pm

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Not a bad point, although of course if people are projecting Wilde onto Dorian, they’ve got the right book but the wrong character - Wilde was Henry Wotton, because Dorian was John Gray…

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By Seb Patrick
August 18, 2009 @ 8:34 pm

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So, when are you going to start

By Julian Hazeldine
August 18, 2009 @ 8:36 pm

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I know it’s only Wikipedia - ulp - but:

Wilde: “Basil Hallward is what I think I am: Lord Henry what the world thinks me: Dorian what I would like to be - in other ages, perhaps”

Wish-fulfilment daydream stuff for the writer, of course…but then so was James Bond.

Andrew's picture

By Andrew
August 18, 2009 @ 9:47 pm

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> Tolkein’s

Shame on you, Andrew.

As for Dorian Gray’s hair colour… there’s also adaptations that get it right (…) - which still doesn’t make it good films. I’d personally pick a good film with the wrong hair colour over the other way round. And I think I’m the nitpicky type.

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By Marleen
August 18, 2009 @ 10:14 pm

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> Shame on you, Andrew.

Ha! I have corrected it! And now nobody will ever know! :-p

It’s possible I haven’t thought this through…

Andrew's picture

By Andrew
August 19, 2009 @ 4:00 am

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You can edit your comments? I can’t!

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By Marleen
August 19, 2009 @ 7:34 am

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I think the reason why film bosses insist on Dorian Gray having dark hair is because men with blonde hair on film are considered to be a bit ‘poofy’, which considering who’s work they are adapting means it rates high on the irony spectrum…

By Nick H
September 06, 2009 @ 3:45 pm

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