This famous film is a faithful adaptation of Keith Waterhouse’s 1959 novel, a gritty ‘kitchen sink’ drama with some laugh-out-loud moments. The author himself wrote the screenplay with Willis Hall and it’s based on the stage play as well as the book.
The story is about 17-year-old Billy Fisher, a compulsive liar whose ambitions transcend dull provincial life in a Yorkshire town (named Stradhoughton in the book, unnamed in the film). He gets into trouble when his lies unravel. The story takes place in a single chaotic day, on which he also has to decide whether to leave and try his luck at scriptwriting in London.
There are three things I like about this adaptation. Firstly, the characters are spot-on, especially Tom Courtenay as Billy (whose previous role was in The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, another of those stories about ‘angry young men’), Julie Christie as Liz (one of his girlfriends) and Helen Fraser as Barbara (another girlfriend – in the book, Billy nicknames her ‘The Witch’). Secondly, Billy’s fantasy scenes of ‘Ambrosia’ (where he is the adored leader) are vividly brought to life. Thirdly, from a historical point of view it’s interesting to have this document of real town scenes in the early 60s, including the demolishing of old buildings in the name of progress (a theme and metaphor in the book).
I felt that there were some missed opportunities, however. What’s the point of showing us how Liz arranges to work in a record store for the afternoon if we then don’t have the actual record store scene later? The name ‘Billy Liar’ is used only once in the film but the book explains how that became the nickname his enemies use. We don’t see him perform stand-up shows either, so it’s not as immediately obvious why he wants to write comedy.
There are a few changes to the details of the story but it’s generally the same as the book. Some differences include Billy having attended grammar school on a scholarship (instead of technical school), writing a social novel instead of one set in a public school, not being so obsessed with the ‘passion pills’ he has obtained, keeping his incriminating evidence in a wardrobe instead of his ‘guilt chest’ and the ending of the story being more dramatic.
You can enjoy the film without reading the book, yet as with the majority of films based on books, the book is better.
Low-resolution image sourced from Wikipedia.