John Schlesinger's 1963 film version of Billy Liar is a largely faithful adaptation of Keith Waterhouse's 1959 novel. The changes are minor, often done for the sake of condensing the narrative and adding moments that are alluded too in the novel but are filled out in the film.The major difference (spoilers!) is that in the novel Liz encourages Billy to go to London, but she herself is going to Doncaster.
The film does a wonderful job of capturing the atmosphere of the novel, the black and white cinematography perfectly highlights the bleakness of Billy's Yorkshire home, with its grim industrial town and its windswept moors.
Despite his incessant lying, Billy's fantasies and desire to escape from the mundanity of his life are relatable, and the confusion his stories cause also create some rather humorous moments.
The youth of Billy and his friends, especially Liz, is contrasted by the overreaching hand of death that plays a subtle but prominent part in the story. Billy works at a funeral parlour, his fantasies about Ambrosia often involve wars, his Grandmother is ill, and passes away, even the songs sung at the pub are about dying. In contrast Billy plans peaceful futures with both Barbara and Liz, as all the while their Yorkshire home is being pulled down and modernised. The future is encroaching and Billy seems torn between longing for change and living in fear of it.
As the novel closes it is hard not to want Billy to make his escape, but realistically we know he has to sort out his problems. His final decision is sensible, if disappointing to our sense of adventure, though it is somehow heartening to know that he retains his vivid imagination.
Billy Liar is a humorous and poignant story, and I really recommend both novel and film.
"I had a feeling, one that I wanted to keep. It was a feeling of peace and melancholy" p. 93
"I was amazed and intrigued that they should all be content to be nobody but themselves" p. 112
"I wish it was something you could tear up and start again. Life I mean. You know like starting a new page in an exercise book." p. 144
"What I'd like is to be invisible...You know, to do everything without people knowing, and not having to worry about them, not having to explain all the time." p. 151