Right Ho, Jeeves: A Double ReviewSpencer J. Quinn
It’s a rare thing to discover a work of art transposed impeccably across genres. How this can be accomplished has always fascinated me. Peter Jackson’s film adaptation of J. R. R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings is a great example because it captures not just the substance of Tolkien’s story but its spirit as well. Comic book writer Chuck Dixon and illustrator Gary Kwapisz have recently accomplished a similar feat, transitioning literature into the graphic novel format. But where Tolkien and Jackson give us thrills and chills, Dixon and Kwapisz give us laughter in their adaptation of P. G. Wodehouse’s 1934 novel Right Ho, Jeeves.
For those not familiar with Wodehouse’s Jeeves novels, I find they can best be described in two words: “epic petty.” The contradiction therein, coupled with Wodehouse’s adroit prose, leads to most of the humor. As the numinously astute valet of the feckless young nob Bertie Wooster, Jeeves often finds himself formulating clever stratagems to extricate Bertie and his silly friends and relations from whatever silly troubles they have found themselves in. And often the source of all the trouble is a smug, meddling Bertie.
Right Ho, Jeeves starts with Bertie in London being called upon by his old school chum Gussie Fink-Nottle—only Gussie wishes to see Jeeves since Jeeves’ reputation as the Solon of Central London precedes him. Gussie wishes to muster up the courage to propose to one Madeline Bassett (known disdainfully by Bertie as “the Bassett”), a silly girl who believes the night stars are God’s own daisy chain. Gussie’s problem is that he has no social graces and is only competent to speak about his one true passion in life: newts. Indeed, whenever he becomes nervous, all Gussie can do is jibber-jabber about newts. Jeeves devises a plan to dress this train wreck of a lover as Mephistopheles (complete with scarlet tights and “a pretty frightful false beard”) and then send him to a costume ball where he is to amorously proposition the Bassett.
The plan backfires however when Gussie takes a cab to the wrong address and later discovers that he had left his wallet in the house where he is staying—his Mephistopheles costume afforded him no pockets, you see. To his horror, he finds that he is locked out of his house as well, causing him to flee for his life on the London streets from the enraged cabbie. When Bertie finds what’s left of his friend the next day (“The face was pale, the eyes gooseberry-like, the ears drooping, and the whole aspect that of a man who has passed through the furnace and been caught in the machinery.”) he announces that he, Bertram Wooster, whose ancestor fought bravely at Agincourt and who does not readily sheathe the sword after putting his hand to the plough, is replacing Jeeves and thenceforth will handle Gussie’s case viz. the Bassett.
Bertie describes Gussie’s reaction to this stupendous news:
The jaws fell, the ears drooped more limply. He had been looking like a dead fish. He now looked like a deader fish, one of last year’s, cast up on some lonely beach and left there at the mercy of the wind and tides.
Gussie, of course, knows something that our insufferably pretentious narrator does not—that with Bertie Wooster on the case, things are about to get infinitely worse.
So this is the kind of frolicking nonsense that Wodehouse treats us to for two hundred pages. And it’s gloriously funny.
Aside from Bertie Wooster’s inflated opinion of himself as a perspicacious man of nobility and importance, another theme of the novel is psychology. Jeeves understands it, and Bertie does not. Bertie will concoct a plan to get this lover to reassess her love for that lover but neglect to consider a certain disastrous consequence which, of course, always happens. For example, his cousin Angela Travers has broken off with her fiancé Tuppy Glossop. Why? Because Angela once pointed out that Tuppy has a double chin, and Tuppy responded by characterizing the so-called shark which supposedly tried to eat her at Cannes as a mere flatfish. (Indeed, the level of petty with these people is off the charts.)
Bertie’s idea is for Tuppy, a notoriously eager epicurean, to curtail his Herculean appetite at the dinner table in front of Angela as a sign of how he is pining for her (in fact, Bertie makes the same suggestion to Gussie and his Aunt Dahlia to solve their problems as well). Sadly, Bertie does not take into account how refusing dinner would offend Anatole, Dahlia’s brilliant yet temperamental French chef, who turns in his notice that very evening. So not only does Bertie’s subterfuge fall flat—Angela is no more smitten with Tuppy than she was before and everyone is cranky for having missed another culinary masterpiece from Anatole—but now the family must deal with a new crisis: the apocalyptic possibility of living without their Gallic genius in the kitchen.
Here is Wodehouse comically overstating this tragic state of affairs in perhaps one of the most hilarious passages ever written in English:
What with having, on top of her other troubles, to rein herself back from the trough, Aunt Dahlia was a total loss as far as anything in the shape of brilliant badinage was concerned. The fact that he was fifty quid in the red and expecting Civilisation to take a toss at any moment had caused Uncle Tom, who always looked a bit like a pterodactyl with a secret sorrow, to take on a deeper melancholy. The Bassett was a silent bread crumbler. Angela might have been hewn from the living rock. Tuppy had the air of a condemned murderer refusing to make the usual hearty breakfast before tooling off to the execution shed.
And as for Gussie Fink-Nottle, many an experienced undertaker would have been deceived by his appearance and started embalming him on sight.
And, of course, the person most to blame for this catastrophe is Bertie. Dahlia perfectly sums it up with characteristic scorn for her nephew:
“You may well say ‘Golly!’ Anatole, God’s gift to the gastric juices, gone like the dew off the petal of a rose, all through your idiocy. Perhaps you understand now why I want you to go and jump in that pond. I might have known that some hideous disaster would strike this house like a thunderbolt if once you wriggled your way into it and started trying to be clever.”
Despite being well-meaning and deserving of the reader’s sympathy, Bertie deserves this overstated yet quite hilarious abuse. His understanding of people is so superficial he believes that crude ruses can solve their problems. And when his ruses only compound their problems, what does he do? He resorts to more ruses, of course. This is a person so out of touch he uses meals as units of time. Things never happen at three-thirty in the afternoon for Bertie. No, they happen after breakfast or at lunchtime or “shortly before the hour of the evening cocktail.” The only person rooted in reality in this story is Jeeves, and so it makes perfect sense when Jeeves saves the day in the end with a masterstroke of psychology. It’s what we’ve come to expect and love about the Jeeves stories by P. G. Wodehouse.
Some adaptations are mere homages to the original material, and others take the original in unexpected directions. Dixon and Kwapisz do neither and instead create a graphic novel that is every bit the equal in quality to the original. Thanks to their labor, this champagne bubble of a novel is now a champagne bubble of a comic—and the result is a pure delight.
Of course, one can appreciate the comic without knowing a thing about Wodehouse or his Jeeves novels. It stands perfectly fine on its own. But knowing both allows a reader to examine exactly how the adaptation took place and how the intangibles of literature (such as its spirit or feel) can be translated into similar intangibles of a different medium. In this case, the feat has been accomplished mostly through the art (including creative uses of coloring and paneling) and through story editing (or, perhaps, story shuffling, as we will see).
Below we have the perfect pictorial rendition of the shark-flatfish dispute between the erstwhile lovers Angela and Tuppy:
I love how the flights of fancy appear in traditional paneling in the background with the real-life characters imposed in front of them, angled against each other, cold shoulder versus cold shoulder. The eyebrows on the shark is a stroke of genius in my opinion and perfectly encapsulates Angela’s hysterical remembrances of her alleged aquatic encounter. Her hand reaching out of the second panel is a nice touch as well. Wodehouse would have approved.
Here is Dixon and Kwapisz’s depiction of the moment when Tuppy pounces on Bertie after overhearing his friend badmouth him in front of Angela:
This page is a tour de force of paneling and coloring. From Tuppy surrounded in verdant green while still in the bush and deep scarlet when seething mad to Bertie ensconced in what seems like a royal purple, this art captures both the exo- and esoteric themes from Wodehouse’s prose. We get that Tuppy wants to get his hands on Bertie and why. But from the exaggerated mannerism and expressions, we also get how silly and petty this all is. Note also how the angled paneling adds dynamism to the page and foreshadows Bertie’s mode of escape, which is to climb up a wall for dear life.
Of course, Dixon and Kwapisz could not have included all the jokes in Wodehouse’s novel. One of my favorites occurs during the very scene shown above in which Tuppy chases Bertie around the bench. As Bertie describes it, they’re a couple of ships passing in the night: “He began to move round the bench in a nor’-nor’-easterly direction. I followed his example, setting a course sou’-sou’-west.”
On the other hand, Dixon and Kwapisz illustrate jokes that Wodehouse himself hadn’t told—or told just barely. For example, in the novel, Aunt Dahlia mentions how she regretted once pulling a pacifier out of baby Bertie’s mouth years ago when it appeared he would suffocate. This was a passing line in the novel, yet Dixon and Kwapisz dedicate three facetious panels to the occurrence. They also crack wise where wise was not cracked in the novel. For example, they illustrate Bertie’s noble lineage with hysterical scenes of a Wooster (not) fighting during famous battles of the past, namely, Hastings, Agincourt, and Waterloo. (All three featuring, of course, likenesses of Bertie.) These jokes as they were rendered in comic form do not appear in Right Ho, Jeeves but could possibly have appeared elsewhere in Wodehouse’s vast Jeeves canon.
One final point about the adaptation. Dixon and Kwapisz play loosey-goosey with the plot—a lot—and surprisingly it works. Events or dialogue or exposition that appear early in the novel will pop up halfway through the comic, or vice versa. Publisher Vox Day is also listed as the comic’s editor, so perhaps he had something to do with it. In either case, the comic book adaptation of Right Ho, Jeeves is a masterwork of story detail arrangement which preserves as much as possible from the original while condensing it into comic form.
Right Ho, Jeeves, whether in literary or comic form, should appear with a tinge of melancholy these days despite its consummate humor. It’s a reminder of what England once was back when it was white. White people could afford to obsess over such trivial matters (or laugh at those who do) since they were enjoying the wealth and real estate left to them by their ancestors. This is no longer the case as whites in England are ceding both to non-white invaders posing as immigrants. Early in the story, Bertie claims that London at night is no place for a person wearing scarlet tights. “It invites comment,” he warns solemnly. In 1934, maybe. Eighty-five years later it would invite a knife attack from some heathen from Pakistan or North Africa.
And why? Because, in part, white people, especially their elites, have failed to heed the underlying warning behind Wodehouse’s Jeeves stories—they should laugh at Bertie Wooster, but never become Bertie Wooster. Elite whites in England and pretty much everywhere else in the West have become Bertie Wooster: feckless, effete, well-meaning, out of touch, and vulnerable to bad ideas. It’s funny in the novel or comic form, partially because Bertie has good old Jeeves to save him in the end. But in real life we don’t have a Jeeves, and so being Bertie Wooster has become the opposite of funny.
As a distant and somewhat disreputable descendant of Lord Peter Wimsey, whose eccentricities inspired Dorothy Sayers rather Bertie-ish detective character, I hope I may be allowed to add a few bits to your excellent review.
I recall that when some beastly journos were makin’ a fuss about Old Plum’s (as we called Wodehouse) supposed “collaboration” with the nazzies, someone replied that he had done a great service for the war effort. Seems Hitler and his Brown Shorts had assumed Britain would be a pushover, having gained their meager knowledge of the country from Wodehouse books, and thought it was run by Bertie Woosters. As usual, the joke was on the Huns, although, as you point out, Hitler turns out to have been as so often, ahead of this time.
I might also observe that Hugh Laurie, in addition to having played Bertie to Stephen Fry’s Jeeves on the BBC series, recently published a spy novel (The Hired Gun) which does a remarkable job of reproducing Plum’s style, although it goes on far too long; proving, as did Die Meistersinger, that brevity is the soul of wit.
Excellent news that a new adaptation is available!
The last one that was more or less impeccable was the early 1990s “Jeeves and Wooster” TV series. As good, in its own way, as the Poirot serial of the same time.
I’ll have to disagree with Mr. Quinn about the mentioned cinematic adaptation of Lord of the Rings, though.
Jackson’s films are Wagnerian, they ooze Nibelungian pathos. Whereas Tolkien’s books are anti-Wagnerian, they are an attempted antidote to a populist Wagnerianism that had at the time taken over the whole civilized world–Italy, Russia, Germany, Hungary, Japan–everyone, really.
Hence the great pains to which Tolkien goes to make the POV heroes the petty bourgeois hobbits, and not the elves, wizards, warriors, and kings. In terms of atmosphere, Tolkien takes the Edwardian cast of the Wind in the Willows, and drops them in the middle of an epic saga of giants, while making every effort to keep it all from becoming Wagnerian, but rather remain on the pastoral level of Toady and Ratty.
So in this sense, Jackson’s Tolkien adaptations are a total inversion of the original anti-Wagnerian spirit. Great fun, but total inversion.
I commend you for thinking a heck of lot more about Tolkien and Wagner than I have. Despite being anti-Wagnerian, wouldn’t you agree that Tolkien took at least some inspiration Wagner? Or would you say he took inspiration more from Wagner *sources* than from the great man himself?
I’m pretty sure this anti-Wagnerian spirit was strong in music as well, with Debussy (and perhaps Ravel) doing everything they could to resist the gravitational pull from Bayreuth. At the same time, however, they were influenced by RW in the way they tried so hard not to be influenced him. Could there be some of that in Tolkien too?
From a casual fan’s perspective, however, all of this gets lost in the wash. The film adaptations are pretty good approximations of the adventures of Frodo and his Fellowship. You may be correct, but I would imagine your dichotomy would be too subtle for most to follow.
For another musical example, if you were to play Wagner’s overtures alongside Brahms’ First or Fourth Symphonies to a person not too familiar with classical music, they would notice the similarities (they’re both classical) before their differences (Brahms and Wagner represented opposing schools of music in Romantic Period). It’s kind of the same with me and the LotR original and film adaptations.
Although now, I am going to think a lot more about their *differences* thanks to you! Thanks.
A pleasure reading your delightful and well thought out reply over a hot cup of covfefe. Your comment served as a springboard for very interesting additional musing on my side, so thanks. Have a very successful and jolly 2020!
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