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Wednesday, November 25, 1998

A Merry War

Posted By on Wed, Nov 25, 1998 at 12:00 AM

In Britain, A Merry War was released as Keep the Aspidistra Flying, which is also the name of the 1936 George Orwell novel from which it was adapted. The name change is both understandable -- few Americans would know that an aspidistra is a sturdy little plant which Orwell latched onto as a symbol of lower-middle-class longing for respectability -- and appropriate, as the movie shifts away from the novel's emphasis on its hero's neurotic and complicated relationship to money and toward a more conventional and lighthearted story.

Gordon Comstock (Richard E. Grant) is an aspiring poet who writes ad copy for a living. After his first slim volume of verse -- called Mice -- is published, he decides to chuck his secure and promising job to pursue poetry full time; better the uncertain prospects of an artist than to have to come up with more slogans like "new hope for the ruptured."

Gordon's girlfriend, Rosemary (Helena Bonham Carter), who also works at the ad agency, disapproves, though mildly. Knowing he must have some sort of job to live on as he pursues his dream, he takes a position as a clerk in a bookstore, effectively cutting his income in half.

In the novel, Orwell makes it clear that Gordon wants a job, but not a "good job" -- that he's obsessed with money, hates and desires it, and will only work at a job that humiliates him. In the movie, Gordon is less masochistic and his rather rapid descent down the economic ladder is presented as a result of his foolish desire to be a poet.

Grant is perfectly cast in the lead. He has the lean and manic look of someone who's perpetually self-deluded, his features flickering between despair and secret amusement. But since the movie has excised most of Orwell's critique of capitalism, his behavior doesn't resonate. When he savages the aspidistra in his boarding room or savors yet another economic downturn with extravagant relish, there's no larger context. He's just that old stereotype, a young man caught in the phase between the innocence of idealism and the resignation of cynicism.

We know Gordon is going to end up back with Rosemary, probably back at the ad agency, his youthful fling over and order restored. In the novel, Gordon's capitulation to what he calls "the money god" has the same pathetic inevitability as Winton Smith's surrender to Big Brother in 1984. In the movie, it's merely another happy ending.

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