The History Boys is a film version of the award-winning play of the same name. The link between film and play is especially strong here, as not only was it adapted and directed by the original writer and stage director, but each member of the stage cast also reprised his or her role for the film.
Set in the early 80’s, The History Boys is about a group of bright young men preparing for their futures and the teachers helping them along. The boys have just received top marks at their grammar sch…ol, and the next step is studying for university entrance exams, on the subject of history. With Oxford or Cambridge in their sights, the students enter the new term ready to study under three remarkable teachers, one of whom wants to fondle their genitals, and another who’s new and barely more than a boy himself.
That the film is a close adaptation of the original play is both a strength and a weakness. Since these actors had been playing their parts for more than a year in various stage incarnations, they obviously brought a great understanding of the characters to the big screen. Surprisingly, nearly all of the cast pulled off the transition to film with aplomb, which is easier said than done. The exception here is Clive Merrison as the headmaster – he may be a fantastic stage actor, but he committed the classic mistake of neglecting to tone down his stage performance for the film.
The weakness is the writing. Stage and film are very different mediums in this respect, so dialogue that played so well on Broadway just doesn’t have the same effect on screen. It feels very much like a film presentation of a play, as the characters converse in an eloquent but entirely unrealistic manner, and about topics so consistently weighty they seem out of place in a grammar school setting.
Still, the material is certainly enough to hold viewers’ interest for the film’s duration. Unlike many stories set in school, The History Boys is actually about education, examining its methods, purpose and impact on students and teachers alike. The film also explores the intimate nature of the relationship between teachers and students, in fairly shocking ways.
So The History Boys is a hit-and-miss film adaptation of what I’m sure is a remarkable play. How’s DVD?
This review is based on a screener copy of the film. Audio and video quality may vary in the retail version.
The History Boys is presented on one disc, in 1.85:1 widescreen format. While there isn’t a great variety in the visual department, what’s here looks alright. The overall picture is a bit paler than one might expect, but colours are consistent in that context. However, there are a few occurrences of serious digital compression issues, which definitely mar the viewing experience. These issues are probably unique to my screener copy and not on the retail DVD, but I can’t make any promises.
English audio is Dolby Digital 5.1. As you might expect for a film based on a play, The History Boys is heavy on dialogue and light on score and effects. This track sounds nice and clear, and is of course focused on the front channels with most of the action in the centre.
Audio is also available in Spanish in Dolby Digital 2.0, while subtitles are offered in English, French and Spanish.
The History Boys offers up only a smattering of extras, with a focus on the relationship between the play and the film. Here’s the rundown:
- Audio Commentary by director Nicholas Hytner and writer Alan Bennett: boy, did these guys forget to bring the energy. I challenge you to stay awake during this track – it may be possible, but it won’t be easy.
- History Boys around the World: Tour Diary: this one’s a bit of a hodge-podge, assembled mostly from handheld footage shot by the cast members as they toured the world. There’s plenty of pointless joking around, but it’s worth watching for a few moments of interest.
- Pass It On: The History Boys on Screen: a relatively short making-of featurette, this piece covers the preparation of the play’s material for the transition to film, and how great it was to have the entire original cast.
The History Boys doesn’t succeed on film as it has on stage, due perhaps to the fact that the original stage director helmed the film – the two mediums are not as close as one might think, so I wish they would have handed the play over to the fresh eyes of a dedicated film director. As for the DVD, it’s a decent effort, though its digital compression issues are cause for concern. Recommended for rental only.
Special Features List
- Audio Commentary with director Nicholas Hytner and writer Alan Bennett
- History Boys around the World: Tour Diaries
- Pass it On: The History Boys on Screen