By Michael Gray
In a short and boisterous writing career that generated more notoriety than finished books and plays, Brendan Behan presented the world with a rowdy dramatis person’ of balladeering gunmen, hapless squaddies and motherly hookers. But the most memorable character to emerge on his crowded stage was the writer himself, and almost four decades after his untimely death, he remains a household name, more for his earthy humor and drunken TV appearances than his writing. Behan’s uninhibited public behavior stood out in bold color against the grim monochrome of pre-Beatles England and Ireland, and tales of his drunken exploits in the bars of Dublin are still quoted by generations of people who have neither read his books nor seen his plays.
His abiding appeal lies in his ferocious honesty and his flagrant disregard for authority, often aired under the influence, and in the rich cadence of working-class Dublin. The reading public was introduced to the burgeoning Behan persona in his 1958 autobiography, “Borstal Boy,” an account of his experiences as a 17-year-old incarcerated for IRA activities in the juvenile prison system of England during World War II. Written in the argot of inner-city Liverpool, Glasgow and London, as well as Behan’s native Dublin, the book is a frank and red-blooded literary debut, full of cinematic potential.
Now, after years of negotiation, director Peter Sheridan brings his fellow Northsider’s jail bio to the big screen. By his own admission, Sheridan has long been a great admirer of Behan, and therein lies the trouble: the movie “Borstal Boy” is so worshipful of its main protagonist — Behan would not have considered the teenager he used to be a hero — that the author would scarcely recognize himself in the noble protector of the weak that actor Shawn Hatosy plays in the title role.
Sheridan’s valiant young Brendan defends an excessively rainbow coalition of misfit prisoners (a Canadian, a Scot, a Jewish boy from Poland, and a gay sailor) against a crew of dastardly cockney ruffians. His golden-boy Behan declines offers to play rugby because it’s an English game, preferring instead to throw profiles on the sidelines while reading Oscar Wilde. But when his fellow prisoners are struggling in a challenge match against the army, he gallantly dashes onto the pitch to score the winning try, converting it effortlessly even though he’s never kicked an oval ball before.
Behan’s unflinching honesty compelled him to set down in print the devious and cowardly things he did as well as the brave, and a big part of the original book’s appeal is the author’s willingness to present himself as a flawed human being, warts and all. Sheridan, by contrast, busies himself troweling on the Compound W to sanitize the young reprobate, and cleans up Behan’s famously ripe language in the interests of more wholesome ratings.
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Any book that is adapted for the screen will undergo changes based on cost, expediency and functional differences between the two media. But when the work is an autobiographical account of real events, the filmmakers have a duty to their subject to minimize the embellishments. Is there a prison anywhere on this planet in which the kindly governor’s vivacious daughter mingles freely with the inmates, and visits them in their dorms? There’s one in this film, but none in Behan’s book.
“Borstal Boy” is the second film released this winter that portrays a boy with a reputation, sent to a strict facility where he excels in his first attempt at an unfamiliar sport, takes on the bullies, and wins the respect of everyone from the hired help to the wise and gentle headmaster. The previous film was “Harry Potter and The Sorceror’s Stone.” Sheridan’s film has about as much to do with Behan’s reality as the wizard movie, and by bleaching the life out of Behan’s personality and language in pursuit of a heroic illusion, he does his subject a great disservice.
“Borstal Boy” opens Friday, March 1, at the Quad Cinema on 13th Street in Manhattan.