You may have noticed last Saturday was Bloomsday and once again in Dublin and other cities around the world, fans of James Joyce’s ‘Ulysees’ were celebrating his most famous novel on June 16.
As well as being a literary giant, Joyce has had a major influence on cinema and, indeed, had a direct involvement in the early days of film. As the manager of Ireland’s first cinema, he opened the Volta in Dublin’s Mary Street in December 1909 after he fell in love with moving pictures in Trieste.
Within a year, he grew disillusioned with the venture as Dubliners shunned the mostly European silent movies he showed.
However during his life, Joyce had many admirers in the movie world – none more so than the great Soviet director, Sergei Eisenstein who gave the world montage editing and the classic propaganda movie, ‘Battleship Potemkin’ with its much imitated Odessa Steps sequence.
Eisenstein was a fan of modernist literature and, in a revealing lecture about ‘Ulysees’ to the Soviet Union’s State Institute of Cinematography in 1934, raved about the way Joyce had adopted a scientific approach to the story of a day in the life of one man, Leopold Bloom – putting almost every aspect of that day under the microscope.
“Formally Joyce went as far as Literature could go,” he observed.
“And many things he did are now impossible; here he goes beyond the limits of literature, and a whole new series of thngs which are very difficult to do in a work of literature can now be done much more easily in another art form. From Joyce the next leap is to film, where it’s much easier (i.e. about a person’s inner struggle ) … this Joyce couldn’t show.”
The two men met in Paris in December 1929 and, depending on who you read, are purported to have discussed a film version of ‘Ulysees’ and how Karl Marx’s ‘Das Kapital’ could be depicted onscreen.
Joyce’s influence, however, extended beyond his cinematic contemporaries and can be seen in the work of a later generation of filmmakers like Woody Allen and Martin Scorsese.
Allen directly references the writer in a number of his movies. The most striking homage to Joyce is in his 1991 movie ‘Shadows and Fog’ – an affectionate tribute to the comedian’s cinematic and literary influences. These references range from the work of the writer Franz Kafka to Federico Fellini and the German expressionist cinema of FW Murnau, GW Pabst and Fritz Lang.
Fleeing a vigilante mob which mistakenly believes he is a serial killer, Allen’s character Kleinman seeks refuge in a brothel where he engages in a ‘Ulysees’ conversation with a Stephen Dedalus-style character, Jack (John Cusack).
Joyce also features in one of the best throwaway lines from Allen’s 1989 drama, ‘Crimes and Misdemeanors’ when his character, a documentary filmmaker Clifford Stern confesses to the object of his desire, Halley Reed (Mia Farrow) that he had plagiarised the novelist in the love letters he had sent to her.
“You probably wondered, why all the references to Dublin?” he quips.
Joyce featured very briefly in Martin Scorsese’s recent 3-D love letter to the pioneers of early cinema ‘Hugo’, during a chase sequence through the Paris train station where much of the movie is set.
The Observer’s film critic, Philip French noted: “The camera briefly alights on a startled James Joyce, then a resident of Paris, who had returned in 1909 to Dublin to open the city’s first purpose-built cinema, the Volta. Appropriately its premiere kicked off with a short called ‘The First Paris Orphanage’. At the time Hugo is set, Joyce was writing ‘Finnegan’s Wake’, a novel in the form of a dream in which he refers to the Marx brothers.”
There are also links to Joyce in William Monahan’s screenplay for Scorsese’s Oscar winning 2006 Boston thriller, ‘The Departed’.
Jack Nicholson’s gangster Frank Costello, modelled on real life hoodlum Whitey Bulger, uses the phrase “Non Serviam” (often used by those declaring their rejection of God) when explaining to his protege Colin Sullivan (Matt Damon) that gangsters need to be independent and a slave to no-one.
“Church wants you on your place. Kneel, stand, kneel, stand. If you go for that sort of thing, I don’t know what to do for you. A man makes his own way. No one gives it to you. You have to take it. Non serviam,” he says.
Costello is taken aback when Sullivan retorts this is a quote from James Joyce – it features in ‘A Portrait of the Artist As A Young Man’.
Some critics have also noted Mark Whalberg’s tough Boston cop Dignam in the movie shares the same name as the character whose funeral features in ‘Ulysees’ and it has been suggested the very name of the movie, ‘The Departed’ is a reworking of the title of Joyce’s celebrated short story, ‘The Dead’.
There is also a trace of ‘Ulysees’ in Martin Scorsese’s ‘After Hours’, with it’s central character Paul Hackett’s (Griffin Dunne) trekking around New York’s Soho and encountering a variety of grotesque characters.
The great Italian director Federico Fellini was also an avid reader of Joyce and is believed to have drawn inspiration from the writer’s fictional alter ego Stephen Dedalus for his own alter ego, the fictional moviemaker with writer’s block, Guido Anselmi (Marcello Mastroianni) in ‘Eight and A Half’.
Some critics also detected similar traits between Anselmi and Leopold Bloom – particularly his eroticisation of women.
The French New Wave’s innovator Jean Luc Godard has often been compared to Joyce in the way he has pushed the boundaries of film narrative with complex, challenging movies which play with form and often alienate the majority of audiences (much like their literary equivalents, ‘Ulysees’ and ‘Finnegan’s Wake’).
But how have adaptations of Joyce’s work fared onscreen?
In 1967, the American filmmaker Joseph Strick bravely adapted ‘Ulysees’ for the big screen, shooting it in Dublin in black and white on a modest budget with a largely Irish cast. He cast Milo O’Shea in the role of Bloom, TP McKenna as Buck Mulligan and the English actors, Barbara Jefford as Molly Bloom and Maurice Roeves as Stephen Dedalus.
As adaptations go, it is a decent stab at a difficult novel and O’Shea is particularly good in the anchor role.
The screenplay earned Strick and Fred Haines an Oscar nomination but it was given an X certificate in Britain for its use of the “F word” and was not approved for general release in the Irish Republic until 2000.
Strick had another go at adapting Joyce with his 1977 movie version of ‘A Portrait of the Artist As A Young Man’ with the Irish actor, Bosco Hogan taking on the role of Stephen Dedalus, TP McKenna as his father, Simon and John Geilgud as The Preacher.
Again shot in Dublin with a largely Irish cast, the movie is an interesting, if not always successful experiment – sometimes capturing the passion of Joyce’s novel (especially the dinner table debate about the treatment of the fallen nationalist hero Charles Stewart Parnell) but losing momentum particularly in the latter stages.
‘Ulysees’ was adapted again for the cinema in 2003 by Dublin writer-director Sean Walsh with Stephen Rea taking on the role of Leopold Bloom, Angeline Ball as Molly and Hugh O’Connor as Stephen Dedalus.
While Rea and Ball acquit themselves well, the movie is another laudable attempt to adapt a complex and rich novel but it struggles to compress the story into two hours.
Joyce’s personal life and, in particular, his intense romance with Nora Barnacle was the focus of one movie – Pat Murphy’s 2000 film, ‘Nora’.
The movie, which follows the couple’s relationship in Dublin and Trieste, is beautifully shot (full marks to Murphy and her cinematographer Jean-Francois Robin) and features a barnstorming performance from Newry actress Susan Lynch in the title role.
But if there is one movie associated with Joyce that stands out it has to be veteran US director, John Huston’s beautiful and intensely personal adaptation of ‘The Dead’.
Huston was dying from emphysema when he directed the movie while confined to a wheelchair, hooked up to an oxygen tank.
This meant the movie, which was made in 1987, had to be shot largely in Los Angeles, with Huston convincingly recreating a wintery Dublin in 1904 on a sound stage.
The film boasts a tremendous central performance by Donal McCann as the academic Gabriel Conroy who, after an Epiphany dinner party hosted by his aunts, learns about a tragedy in his wife, Gretta’s life.
Gretta is brilliantly portrayed by Anjelica Huston, the director’s daughter, working from a clever screenplay by her brother Tony which remains mostly faithful to Joyce’s short story.
There are strong supporting performances too from the mostly Irish cast – in particular, Donal Donnelly as the inebriated Freddie Malins, Marie Kean as his mother, Dan O’Herlihy as Mr Browne, Ingrid Craigie, Cathleen Delany and Helena Carroll as the hosts of the party and Colm Meaney as Mr Bergin.
One of the most moving sequences is when Gretta stands alone on the stairs of the Georgian house at the end of the dinner party, engrossed in a traditional song sung by Bartell D’Ardy (the tenor Frank Patterson in a rare acting role).
The movie looks terrific, thanks to Fred Murphy’s cinematography and Rachael Dowling and Dorothy Jeakins’ costume design which earned them an Oscar nomination. Those of you familiar with Guinness’s Christmas television advertising campaign will realise how much its look is influenced by Huston’s film.
But it is McCann’s final monologue at the end of the movie, sombre and humble, which leaves a lasting imprint and is all the more poignant given the fact that it was Huston’s last film. ‘The Dead’ is quite simply the finest James Joyce adaptation to make it onto the big screen.