Show, don’t Tell: the Representation of Homoeroticism in the Movie Dorian Gray

Maja Petek | October 8, 2018

Oscar Wilde

What comes to mind when hearing about Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray (1891)? It is probably not the flowery language or witty social commentary, but the homoeroticism present throughout the novel, especially in the portrayal of the friendship between male characters. The implicit homoeroticism of the novel was greatly augmented in the latest reincarnation of the story, the movie Dorian Gray (2009). Directed by Oliver Parker and starring Colin Firth as Lord Henry and Ben Barnes as Dorian, the movie failed to attract a lasting audience, despite adapting Wilde’s subtlety to the modern audience’s demands for sensation. Despite the unfiltered portrayal of sexual exploits, the emotional connection between the characters, especially between the painter Basil Hallward (Ben Chaplin) and Dorian Gray, which builds the backbone of the story, is never addressed.

The most explicit scene in the novel is Basil’s confessional monologue in a private salon, where he professes his devotion to Dorian. The confession is pivotal for revealing Basil’s love for Dorian, since it creates an intimate link between the characters and implicitly gives Dorian power over Basil. In the film, however, this scene is transported into a decadent party, with both characters partaking in the sensual activities and alcohol consumption, erasing the gravity of the act. Instead of subtly leading Basil to his confession, Dorian steers the conversation away by kissing Basil, who eventually gives in to his passion and succumbs to a sexual encounter. Basil is pushed into a subjugated, almost submissive position, while Dorian stands above him, preparing for a sexual act. The adaptation to a new medium also omits the verbal confession present in the novel. Despite the overt sexuality of the scene, the complete omission of a verbal exchange and its re-positioning in a decadent, sexually fluid setting, mitigate the poignancy of the moment, since sexual acts were expected in such a setting. Basil is pushed to a submissive position: he is actively seduced by Dorian, who makes the physical first step, but his true artistic and emotional dependence on Dorian remains secret. By being silenced, Basil is prevented from baring his soul and from admitting his willing submission.

A stark contrast to Basil’s forced subjugation is Dorian’s subsequent abandon, seeking a sadomasochistic lifestyle after he murders the painter. Again, the torment driving Dorian to subject himself to violent sexual encounters is not verbalised –  rather, the connection is created by the thematic use of the red colour. By blending scenes from a respectable salon breakfast with scenes of decadent, violent and bloody sexual acts, the use of red elements implies a link between Dorian’s guilt over the murder and him seeking self-punishment in the hope of atonement.

Their sexual encounter and Dorian’s guilt over Basil’s murder are thus thematically linked by the text’s silence. Omitting the verbal confession of Basil’s devotion or Dorian’s torment draws attention to the scandalous visual images, inviting the viewers to draw their own inferences of the characters’ feelings and thoughts. By focusing on the shocking visuals, Dorian’s emerging apathy and corruptive nature, which lead to his ultimate doom, are never expressed aloud. Similarly, Basil’s love for the young man, who dominated his art and whose growing corruption disillusioned the painter, is never verbalised.

The first indication of this non-verbal link is visible in the scene when Basil is painting Dorian. By soundlessly shifting between close-ups of Dorian’s face – focusing on his lips and cheeks – and Basil’s almost sensual act of painting, the true magnitude and effect of Dorian’s beauty on the painter is revealed. While in the novel homoerotic desire enters the story through Basil’s admiration of Dorian’s beauty, critic Ed Cohen sees a disparity between this desire and its experience, since homoerotic acts are never portrayed. The movie breaks away from the source, by only implying this admiration through visual cues and focusing on the sexual act. Therefore, the emotional connection that greatly influences both their lives is lost.

In this way, the latest incarnation of the story transforms the story as it passes from the verbal to a visual medium, depicting the pivotal homoerotic moments between Dorian Gray and Basil Hallward in explicit detail, without commenting on them or offering insight into the characters’ minds. By breaking away from the restrictive mould of heteronormativity and Victorian censure, the movie could freely depict what was only implied in the novel, but in the attempt to scandalise the modern, jaded viewers with sensational and decadent representations, the true gravity of the acts could not be fully realised.

About Maja

I am currently studying English literature, focusing on the 19th century. My main research interest is the expression on sexuality in Victorian literature as well as the perception of homosexuality in European culture and society. I hold a degree in translation, but my passion for literature is also profound. On any given day, I can be found in a quiet corner with a book in hand, usually accompanied by a cup of tea.

Works cited

Cohen, Ed. “Writing Gone Wilde: Homoerotic Desire in the Closet of Representation.” PMLA, vol. 102, no. 5, 1987, pp. 801-813.

Edited by Clara Ng and Chris Jardine

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