Someone finally recommended a book! And it was total gold! Today we are going to examine some of the terrible book covers that art departments slapped on Oscar Wilde's 1891 novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray. Previous covers include Pride and Prejudice, Jane Eyre, The Moonstone, Dracula, East Lynne, Lady Audley's Secret, and Wuthering Heights.
WARNING FOR EXCESSIVE CUSSING
For those of you who don't know the story, let's recap:
There are these two friends, Lord Henry Wotton, who is a debauched, cynical, aristocratic fuckface (but loveable–he's played by Colin Firth in the movie, so you can never be too mad at him), and Basil Hallward, who is an innocent, sensitive artist and the gayest gay to ever gay the gay, and this was actually a BIG DEAL to have a character be so open about it. Of course Oscar Wilde couldn't come right out and say it in so many words, but he alludes to it so many times that it is actually canon, not just conjecture. Homosexuality and homoeroticism are very central to this book.
Basil is painting his beautiful new muse, Dorian Gray, who is straight-up comely as shit, and Basil is clearly in love with him. Lord Henry waxes philosophical about being hedonistic, and about how nothing is important in the entire world, except maybe for beauty. Since innocent young Dorian has to hold still for the painting, he has nothing to do but listen to this asshole talk, and Dorian eventually is convinced by Lord Henry's way of thinking. Dorian wants to retain his beauty forever, and then wishes super duper hard that Basil's painting of him would age, instead of his physical body. It's been a while since I read the book, but if I remember accurately, the implication is that Dorian, in some weird way, managed to sell his soul to Satan in this brief moment.
Lord Henry is like, "Painting's done, want to go party and maybe put your penis in things?" and Dorian goes, "SHIT YES" and they proceed to single-handedly give every single person in London VD (just kidding, although Will Self's re-write of this novel, Dorian, envisions them as part of the gay community in the '80s and everyone gets AIDS).
So Dorian is wandering around London going, "Where should I put my penis on this fine day?", until he goes to a play and sees this actress named Sibyl Vane, who is not only babe-alicious, but also an excellent thespian. They quickly fall in love and Dorian even proposes marriage. He goes to see another play she's in and is like, "Why is she acting so terribly? This is SUCH a turn-off." When he meets her in her dressing room, she's all, "Darling! My love! My prince!" and he goes, "WHY WERE YOU SO SHITTY TONIGHT?" Sibyl says that she pours all of her energy into her acting, but now that she's in love, all her energy goes towards Dorian.
He goes, "Well, your talent was your beauty, and if you're giving that up to be with me . . . uh . . . it's not you, it's me . . . don't call me, I'll call you . . . bye." Instead of realizing what a douchebag move this was, he just thinks, "Phew! Dodged a bullet, amirite?", shattering any last vestiges of innocence and humanity that Lord Henry hadn't managed to drive out of him. When Dorian gets home, he looks at his painting and notices that the expression has changed and his image is no longer as beautiful as it was.
Instead of being TREMENDOUSLY FUCKING CONCERNED that his painting is changing shapes (I would be all "The power of Christ compels you!", but that's just me), Dorian goes, "WHEEE! I can do whatever I want!" And he does. He even reads an unspecified French novel that poisons his mind with vice; though not stated in the book, Oscar Wilde later said that the French novel was A Rebours, which I recapped on this blog before. Dorian briefly decides to reconcile with Sibyl, but finds out that she killed herself. Dorian shrugs and goes, "Can't make an omelette, etc."
RIP one of the only decent characters in this book. We hardly knew ye.
One day, decades later, Dorian shows Basil the now-fugly painting and explains his satanic wish-upon-a-star pact, saying that Dorian blames Basil for this life of enforced debauchery, since Basil painted such a gorgeous picture and turned Dorian's head with his own beauty. Okay, 1.) No one forced you to put your penis in things, and 2.) It was Lord Henry who turned your head talking about beauty, so at least accuse the right person.
But Dorian dont' have no time for logic, because he's too busy STABBING Basil. RIP, the only other decent character in this book. We hardly knew ye.
Slightly shaken by this unprecedented stabbing, Dorian goes to an opium den to smoke away his feels. While there, he runs into Sibyl Vane's brother, who has (unbeknownst to Dorian) been searching for him for years in order to avenge his sister's death, possibly with a flame-thrower, and 10,000 paper cuts, and maybe some fire ants. Sibyl's brother is at first like, "How can you be the guy who seduced and abandoned my sister 18 years ago? You're so luminous!" and Dorian tosses his hair glamorously and walks out. Another person at the opium den is like, "No, that is definitely the guy, he's just aging really well. He's the Rob Lowe of Victorian England." And Sibyl's brother goes, "DAMMIT!"
Sibyl's brother starts hunting Dorian, but is doing a really shitty job of it, because first he just lurks around Dorian's house for a while, and then he stalks Dorian up to someone's estate, where they're having a hunting party, and the brother hangs out IN A THICKET, and gets unsurprisingly shot by one of the hunters and dies. Dorian is slightly shaken and thinks, "Maybe I'll be good from now on. You know, for basic motives of self-preservation? And also maybe so my ugly portrait will get less ugly?"
He turns all respectable and starts courting a nice girl named Hetty, only to discover that his painting has gotten even uglier, because his motives for being good are not pure motives. He's mostly just bored with hedonism and decided to try this strange new life experience called 'being a decent human.'
Enraged that he has corrupted himself beyond all repair, he stabs his picture. All his servants wake up in the middle of the night to hear a scream, and discover this nasty old man in the attic, stabbed through the heart, next to the perfect painting of their eminently bangable master. They identify the old man as their master from the rings he wears, and everyone is very fucking confused.
On to the covers!
As usual, the good stuff first.
This is something they're contemplating designing for e-books: the cover changes based on your progress within the novel, to help enhance the current mood of the story. Brilliant. Dorian Gray is the perfect book to use when pitching this idea.
I always enjoy covers with a sense of humor. On top of that, it's a really refreshing use of the picture frame motif. As I'll rant about below, SO MANY of these covers just depict a literal portrait on a wall, say 'That's what the book's about!", and call it a day. Here, the portrait is actually connected to Dorian in a deeper way. It is him, it's always with him, it's affecting other people, etc. Also, nice use of the heavy red theatre curtains, considering how much of the book is about vision and performance and theatricality.
Normally I hate it when art departments put a random olde timey painting on a book jacket. This one of Narcissus is particularly apt. It captures so many themes of the novel without alluding directly to anything in the novel. It's not a random selection, and it's not an obvious, boring one, either.
While this isn't the most riveting cover ever, it's the only one I managed to find that depicts a group of men. This book is CHOk-A-BLOK full of homoeroticism. Let's get a good shot of the lads partying and maybe sitting a bit too close to each other.
Rather than showing a hunky Dorian on one side and a disgusting Dorian on the other, they chose to keep him sweet and innocent looking, with that innocuous smile, and yet signify through other, cleverer means that something ain't right with this guy. He's one of those stupid slidey puzzles everyone plays with as a kid, but no one ever solves. Dorian will never be put back together again. I love this.
And then, just for fun, the movie poster. It's a fairly boring poster, but at least they manage not to do anything cliched in this. And also because I have a major thing for Ben Barnes, and this is my blog, and if I want to include pretty pictures of him, no one's going to stop me.
Now for the less-than stellar covers.
Oscar Wilde writes in this novel, "Every portrait that is painted with feeling is a portrait of the artist, not of the sitter.” When it comes to the covers below . . . dear god, I hope not.
The first crime of the day: "Literal Cover is Literal".
I like every single one of these. That doesn't make them interesting, though.
With these below, "Literal Covers are Literal AND Fug".
Special cases in the "Literal Covers are Literal" category:
The Picture of Humphrey Bogart Monkey
The Picture of 17th-Century Explorer Zorro
The Picture of Absolutely Nothing At All.
Next Category! One that I like to call "It's Just a Dude". They have put an image of a man on the cover, telling us nothing about the book except that there is likely a man in it. Well done. The worst part is that with half of these covers, they didn't even find attractive men. Guys? Did you read the book? No? Okay. Carry on.
"It's Just a Dude" Bonus Round: Snot-Nosed Children and Sulky Adolescents!
"My daddy could beat up your daddy."
"Ugh, Mom, I told you. I'm not going by 'Dorian' anymore. Everyone calls me 'Big D' now, okay? 'Big D', Mom. It's cool."
"No, Mom, I don't want to smile for the camera. I can't believe you made me dress like this. No, I don't care if grandma will be disappointed. I hate grandma. Call me 'Big D', mom! Christ!"
Well, that whole Peter Pan 'never grow up' thing is fairly appropriate, thematically.
Some strange entries in the "It's Just a Dude" category:
I don't remember Dorian Gray getting the world's brassiest dye job, but that might have been in the subtext.
In this version, Basil and Dorian met at the gym. Dorian's been standing there naked for 6 hours. Basil is only pretending to paint him. Dorian is too stupid to notice.
The next category is called "Taking Lazy to a New Level":
I would like you to note that on the first cover, they couldn't be bothered to check the spelling of "Gray".
New category: "Tells Us Nothing About the Book".
Becuase drab pseudo-paisley captures the spirit of the novel so well.
"Hey, Ted, what should I put on this cover?"
"What's the book about?"
"Uhh, fancy Victorian drunks?"
"I guess you could put some swirly shit on it. Because they're fancy. And drunk."
What even is that? Is that supposed to be nature? Is there even any nature in this book?
This would be a perfectly fine cover, if John Atkinson Grimshaw's painting wasn't used for EVERYTHING.
The Picture of Door-ian Gray, amirite? Also, "Gray" is spelled wrong AGAIN.
But honestly, why is there a picture of a door on the cover?
LIGHTING ROUND: "Tells Us Nothing About the Book AND is Confusing". I don't know what to think about these covers, because I don't know what's happening.
Potentially apporpriate, considering how many substances they abuse in this book.
Is this another representation of a bad drug trip? "Why is the text melting? Lord Henry, can you see the text melting, too? Are we melting?"
A Dorian Gray/Goodnight, Moon mashup.
Good night, paint. Good night, brush. Good night, Henry, you great big lush.
Good night, Basil. Good night, Sibyl. Good night to murders done without a quibble.
Good night, homoeroticism. Good night, Dorian. Good night to taboos that are so Victorian.
………………………..guys, who is that supposed to be?
…………………………………………………………………………not Dorian, surely.
…………………………………………………………………………………………………….Dorian's ugly portrait? Okay, I'll buy that.
WHAT IS HAPPENING
GO BACK FROM WHENCE YOU CAME, BLOOD NYMPH
Is his head in front of or behind the curtain? Maybe it's in front of the curtain, and he just has a really bad sunburn?
Poldark's really let himself go, you guys.
The next category is "Eyeballs: People Have Them, and Maybe Someone Sees Something."
I really, really like the last one. It's the only one that actually shows Dorian being 'created' by both Basil (on canvas) and Lord Henry (in terms of philosophy), and is probably at the critical moment when Dorian sells his soul.
Next is an ooooooooold favorite, by which I mean the category that makes me want punt something. Possibly the book, but more likely the entire art department, one by one: "WRONG FUCKING TIME PERIOD".
Is that Dorian as a . . . Conquistador?
Out of date by a good 50 years.
Lord Henry and Dorian, right after Henry founded Jamestown, Virginia.
Ichabod Crane is confused how he ended up on this cover. Aren't we all, Ichabod. Aren't we all.
I know Dorian is supposed to be ageless, but this is getting ri-goddamned-diculous.
The final category is "Lurking Creeps and Specter Heads".
"My psychiarist and I are very close. He says it's good for my self-esteem to be the big spoon."
I can't stop laughing at this one. I don't even have anything to say about it.
Dorian, why is Cary Elwes's head floating behind you? And why is he so mad?
The love child of Draco Malfoy and Dobby.
I guess the specter that haunts sexy young Dorian is forgetting how to use a comb once he's old.
That's it for now! Let me know if you come across any other truly crack-tastic covers that I can work into a post!