The 'Schooldays' of a Potter predecessor

Times Staff Writer

Nothing says Yuletide to an American like a story of Jolly Old England -- something about the top hats and scarves, perhaps, and the half-formed thought that there might be no Christmas at all without Charles Dickens. It is convenient, then, that Thursday night (Thanksgiving, the unofficial first day of Christmas) BBC America premieres a new production of Thomas Hughes' 1857 novel-for-boys, "Tom Brown's Schooldays." A tale of British boarding school in the 1830s, it's a well-made, sometimes exciting adaptation, with a solid performance by newcomer Alex Pettyfer in the title role. It's generally true to the spirit if not the letter of Hughes' book, though tweaked here and there to satisfy more modern ideas of justice and psychology and social order, not to mention dramatic motivation.

As the essential model for "Harry Potter," it was only a matter of time until the story would be remade. (It's been 33 years since a BBC miniseries that played here on "Masterpiece Theater"). Here, as in J.K. Rowling's books, we have the relationship of a wise and kindly, yet somewhat stern, headmaster and a boy with potential -- not the smartest kid on the block but full of native virtue and physical courage. There is also a rich bully, a sport with incomprehensible rules -- rugby football takes its name from Rugby School, where the story is set and where this adaptation was partially filmed -- and a slightly goofy, less handsome best friend. There are no broomsticks, but there are cricket bats, which have a roughly similar shape.

Stephen Fry, the only marquee name here, plays the real Rugby headmaster, Dr. Thomas Arnold, who hovers over the whole book but only occasionally appears in it. Ashley Pharoah's script makes Arnold's first term at Rugby concurrent with Tom's, and the story here is as much Tom Arnold's schooldays as it is Tom Brown's, as the doctor attempts to bring the school into the 19th century, establishing a program of "pastoral care and Christian love" to combat the social Darwinism at play nightly in its untended halls. (The educational priorities of the historical Arnold were "first, religious and moral principle; secondly, gentlemanly conduct; and thirdly intellectual ability.") Still, he is not above a little corporal punishment -- though, for our benefit, he frets about it afterward.

The new film is both more sensational and, surprisingly, more sentimental than its source, if only a fraction as pious. (Even so, there is more talk of God and heaven than one is used to hearing on TV.) As Hughes' book is less of a plotted novel than a kind of nostalgic, episodic fictionalized memoir, filtered through a character based on his brother George, the raw drama here has inevitably been amplified. The villain of the piece, the famous Flashman, moves to the center of the action and is promoted from mere bully to a thoroughly bad egg: smoking, drinking, gambling, reading erotic literature and seducing young girls when not busy torturing our hero and his friends. Joseph Beattie plays him as a bit of a cartoon -- all wild hair and vulpine smile, like a teenage Mr. Hyde -- but he is not so broadly drawn that you do not sincerely want to see the smirk wiped off his face.

Naturally, it will be. The last straw comes when he attacks Arthur (Harry Smith), a strange, sensitive, sickly new boy put in Tom's charge.

"You're a very strange fellow, Arthur, and strangeness does not flourish here," says Tom, who has had a little experience by then.

"It would be a dull old world if we all had to be the same," Arthur says, planting a seed of wisdom in our hero. He also claims not to believe in violence.

"Of course you believe in violence," sneers Tom, with a sudden irony a tad too contemporary to believe. "You're British."

And yet violence turns out to be the answer -- as it usually does in stories about bullies, which tend to incline toward the long-deserved sound thrashing that will put an end to the tyranny forever. ("Fighting with fists is the natural and English way for English boys to settle their quarrels," Hughes wrote.) None of your Ghandi-esque passive resistance or namby-pamby cheek-turning here. It is necessary for the sake not only of the characters but also of audience expectation that the bully leave the field at least a little bloody. That's been a basic rule of entertainment at least since the days of the Coliseum.


'Tom Brown's Schooldays'

Where: BBC America

When: 6 and 10 p.m. Thursday

Ratings: TV-PG (may be unsuitable for young children).

Stephen Fry...Dr. Arnold

Alex Pettyfer...Tom Brown

Jemma Redgrave...Mary Arnold

Joseph Beattie...Flashman

Executive producers Charles Pattinson, George Faber, Steve Christian, Ashley Pharoah. Directed by Dave Moore. Adapted by Ashley Pharoah.

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