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Nicholas Hytner on “The History Boys”

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By Dan Persons

IFC News

[Photo: “The History Boys,” Fox Searchlight, 2006]

It’s a new spin on the phrase “no child left behind.” In “The History Boys,” based on the Tony award-winning play by Alan Bennett, a group of British teachers in the 1980s — the idealistic Hector (Richard Griffiths); the pragmatic Mrs. Lintott (Frances de la Tour); and the ambitious newcomer, Irwin (Stephen Campbell Moore) — debate the purpose of art, education and history, even as they prepare eight young students of an industrial-region public school for an unprecedented opportunity to enroll at one of England’s two top universities. Nicholas Hytner, who directed the original London performance and also directs the whole of England’s National Theatre, shot the film, with original cast intact, while the play was prepping for its world tour.

You essentially have all the plays of the National Theatre at your access. What made you say, “Yes, this is the one that deserves to go to film?”

Well, I’d only done it once before, which was also with an Alan Bennett play, “The Madness of King George.” I think most plays aren’t going to gain anything different through the exploration of the camera. But this is character-driven and dialogue-driven — not a fashionable kind of filmmaking, but a kind of filmmaking that I like. It’s talky and literate and articulate. I felt that getting a camera to participate with these twelve actors as these twelve characters would reveal something more about them. And, finally, it’s just a really, really marvelous play — good writing is good writing.

Why set the film in this time period?

It’s not about the 80s. It’s set in the 80s, though to me the sensibilities are a little more contemporary. But it’s set in the 80s because that’s the last time a teacher like Hector could teach the way he does. The big debate at the center of the film is about the purpose of education, whether it’s idealistic and romantic (in Hector’s mold), about the expansion of the mind and the addressing of the soul, or whether it’s utilitarian, whether it’s about the achievement of targets, the getting of results, the getting on in life, which is the headmaster’s [Clive Merrison] version. It’s why the headmaster hires Irwin, although Irwin’s more complex than simply representative of a utilitarian education.

What happened in the 80s was that schools changed in England. The national curriculum was imposed, the target culture was imposed, and you just can’t teach like Hector anymore. To dramatize the conflict, you have to have a Hector, as well as a headmaster and an Irwin. The conflict, the debate, still rages, because teachers, parents, and kids feel that something has gone missing. You have to set the film in the 80s to show, to embody, what it is that’s gone missing.

Is there a subtlety to the class issue that might not be readily perceived in America?

It’s exactly the same [in America]. You can buy an education [in the U.S.] as you can in England. This school, though, is not a school where the education is bought. It’s a selective school, but it’s a state school. They’re bright kids, but they’re from humble backgrounds, ordinary backgrounds. It’s touched on, but it’s not important to them. For them, the class issue is only that they’ll be competing against kids who have been expensively educated and will therefore be more cultivated than them, and maybe more self-confident in interviews. But there’s no essential difference between an American private education and an English one.

Making this film character-based and dialogue-based runs the risk of turning it into a straight transcription. How did you avoid that pitfall?

There are lots of different kinds of stage-to-screen adaptations. With “The Madness of King George,” where the world of the play was England, where the central character was the king and his world was his country, there was obviously the opportunity to take the camera all around the country and give an intimate story a big, sweeping backdrop. Therefore, the experience of the film was physically more spectacular than the spirit of the play. But this felt like a different kind of movie, a kind exemplified by — I’ll mention three really great movies, not because “The History Boys” compares to them, but because they show a way of adapting from stage to screen — “The Philadelphia Story,” “[A] Streetcar [Named Desire],” and “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” They’re all based on plays, and the films retain the closed world of the plays, they don’t venture far and wide. What you’re trying to do in that kind of film is use the camera to get closer, to participate in the action, to get behind the eyes and under the skin. That, to me, is very cinematic. It’s not the current fashion of commercial filmmaking. Used to be — I’d be very happy to say that “The History Boys” is, in that way, a throwback.

You’ve mentioned that you and the cast essentially had a year of rehearsal in performing this play on-stage. There’s a risk to that, though: becoming so entrenched in the material that the life goes out of it. How did you avoid that danger?

It’s not really for me to say whether we managed that. It was all [the cast] as far as I was concerned, the fact that they knew themselves, each other, the material so well. There are a series of devices that I use all the time — questions to ask, new ways of looking at little things — to try and keep actors fresh over a long run. I think just the fact that they were able to do it for each other, rather than including 2000 people in the conversation, and do it in the concrete surroundings of a school was a great liberation.

“The History Boys” opens in New York, Los Angeles, and San Francisco on November 21, adding additional cities starting on December 8, and going into wide release on December 22 ((official site)

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