In 1993, US TV company HBO produced a made-for-television film based on Barbarians, with James Garner starring as RJR boss Ross Johnson and Jonathan Pryce as dealmaker Henry Kravis. Although at some points the film passes too quickly to separate whimsy from fact, the light-hearted satire of private equity's first buyout boom stands up 20 years after the deal.
When considering actors you would want to portray you in the hypothetical biopic about your life, the imaginary casting call usually involves some sort of exercise in self-serving vanity. Claims of a hidden resemblance to George Clooney or Scarlett Johansson or a host of other Hollywood starlets usually results in a good-natured ribbing from sceptical friends and family.
Welsh actor Jonathan Pryce typically does not make that initial list of beautiful people that would adorn the credits of such never-to-be produced films. Although his most recent turn as father to Keira Knightly in Pirates of the Caribbean was admittedly light-hearted, Pryce is better known for playing more chilling, sinister roles and doing so with such effectiveness that in 1997 he was cast as one of James Bond's vaunted villains in Die Another Day. Unfortunately for Kohlberg Kravis Roberts co-founder Henry Kravis, Pryce was tapped to portray the buyout titan in the film Barbarians at the Gate, which HBO produced based on the book of the same name.
Throughout the film, Pryce brings his impressive reservoir of unnerving cool and calculation to bear on Kravis' on-screen persona. Unlike in the book, where Kravis is reported to have had at least a few humanising emotional outbursts, Pryce's Kravis is steel-eyed and cold throughout, seeming to be motivated solely by money and ego in his dramatic buyout bid for RJR.
The only pang of sympathy we feel with the on-screen Kravis takes place during a fictional bedroom conversation between Kravis and his wife, in which Kravis explains why he absolutely must beat all competing bids for RJR Nabisco to preserve his reputation in the unrepentantly cut-throat world of leveraged buyouts.
Pryce's soft-spoken, hard-nosed Kravis is deliberately squared against the film's characterisation of RJR Nabisco chief executive Ross Johnson, played by the irrepressible James Garner.
The contrast between Pryce's Kravis and Garner's Johnson, who steadfastly defends his and his dog's rights to as many private jets as the company can afford, is inherently comedic and accounts for much of the successfully whimsical feel of the film as a whole. The depiction of Johnson is seismically different from the treatment he receives in the book, which is much less forgiving of his taste for excess.
The film bears poor comparison with the book in chronicling the suspense filled twists and turns of Kravis' and Johnson's escalating bids, as well as neglecting the crucial undercurrent explored in the book as to what will actually happen to the company and its employees after the buyout.
Although perhaps woefully simplistic, Barbarians the movie is still a fun rent for those with too many earnings reports to pore over to get round to reading the book.