Between Pages and Frames: Examining The Picture of Dorian Gray

By Claire Wilson

November 27, 2023

This article contains spoilers for the book, The Picture of Dorian Gray, and the movie, Dorian Gray.

The Picture of Dorian Grey is a classic, written by Oscar Wilde and published in 1890. Its terrifying themes of vanity, youth, beauty, and the consequences of excess come together in the fascinating story of Dorian Gray, a young London aristocrat, who trades his soul for the eternal beauty of his portrait. When he realizes that nothing can mar his youth and beauty, he indulges in socially unacceptable behavior, such as opium use, sexual promiscuity, blackmail, and even murder. 

One of the biggest themes in the book is the danger of vanity. Before Dorian meets Henry, he is unaware of his extraordinary beauty. It is only after Henry influences Dorian through his philosophies about pleasure and self-indulgence, and his belief that beauty is the most important thing one can have, and when Basil finishes Dorian’s portrait, that Dorian realizes his true beauty. His beauty is suddenly of much more importance than ever before, and Dorian wishes that the painting could age instead of him. This beauty is, at first, his greatest asset. He can do anything he wants, and only the Dorian in the painting suffers. Gradually, however, Dorian’s terrible sins begin to eat away at his soul, condemning him to a life of misery and paranoia, which he escapes through his indulgences. Wilde masterfully paints the image of Dorian’s decaying soul, especially through his use of dramatic and morbid imagery. 

Dorian Gray discovers his beauty (Dorian Gray 2009)

Dorian Gray and Lord Henry (Dorian Gray 2009)

The picture of Dorian Gray is sometimes viewed as a representation of the ills of Victorian society; vanity, opium dens, crime, social class division, etc. But even though the story was written over 130 years ago, it still holds incredibly valuable relevance today. In an age of consumption in excess and obsession with appearances, this book carries an exaggerated warning of the destruction that our own self-indulgences can bring. It is also an increasingly important message in our fast-paced, social media driven world. “There is only one thing in the world worse than being talked about,” says Lord Henry in chapter 1, “and that is not being talked about.” 

In 2009, the film, Dorian Gray was released. Although it follows the original storyline with a reasonable degree of accuracy, I don’t think it does the book justice. For starters, the addition of Lord Henry’s daughter, Emily, is absolutely unnecessary and adds nothing to the plot of the film. Whereas in the book, Dorian’s second love interest, Hetty, serves to relieve him of some of the guilt of his life, Dorian’s relationship with Emily Wotton only damages the relationship between Dorian and Henry. 

The way Dorian and Henry’s relationship sours in the movie is so unfortunate, and does not reflect the book in any way. The way Henry influences Dorian through his hedonistic and contrarian philosophies is what makes Dorian’s descent into sin and self-indulgence possible. Their friendship is the foundation for the story, but in the movie, they begin as friends but quickly become enemies, probably because Dorian dates his daughter, kills his friend, and tries to strangle him. 

In the last chapter of the book, Dorian has become desperate, knowing that his life and soul are ruined and that the painting has brought him nothing but misery. With the knife he used to kill Basil, he stabs the painting in the heart, and becomes old and ugly, dead with a knife in his chest, while the painting has become the young and beautiful version of Dorian. This ending is absolutely spectacular. It is the perfect, jaw-dropping ending to a thrilling book. Unfortunately, the movie doesn’t capture this moment as well as it could have. At one point, Dorian tries to stab the painting with a fire poker, but hits the mirror instead. At the end, Henry has set the painting on fire, and left Dorian to burn in the attic. Dorian stabs it and becomes the horrible creature in the painting. It’s a dramatic ending, but lacks the sharp simplicity and horrifying surprise of Wilde’s ending. The film is overly dramatic, and full of twists and turns that make Dorian’s final transformation predictable. 

The addition of Henry to the scene makes it worse, because he sets the painting on fire. This takes some of the destruction of the portrait out of Dorian’s hands, whereas in the book, it is only Dorian who has the power to destroy his own soul. This was one of the main points that the book made; that we have the power to bring destruction upon our own souls, and that we are held accountable for our choices. When Henry lights the painting on fire, he leads Dorian to a desperation to kill the painting, not a desperation to finally kill his ruined soul. 

The Picture of Dorian Gray is an absolutely riveting book about the relationship between sin and beauty. Its characters are each deeply flawed, making them all the more alluring. Wilde’s use of witty dialogues and clever paradoxes make for a thought-provoking and generally entertaining story. The movie, on the other hand, strays too far from the original plot, causing it to lose many of Wilde’s intended meanings. I would highly recommend reading the book, and although I would not advise against watching the movie, I think it is frustrating for those who value accuracy in film adaptations of books. 

The Earl of Dalhousie by John Singer Sargent, a painting often used on the cover of The Picture of Dorian Gray