James Joyce, The Movie, Part III: "A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man" (1977)

Bosco Hogan (left) as Stephen Dedalus in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.

In his attempt to translate A Portrait of the Artist to the screen, Joseph Strick—who had earlier done a film of Ulysses, to be discussed later—renders Joyce’s great autobiographical novel as a series of talky episodes that appear to have little to do with one another.  There’s a dull flicker of potential in the short opening sequence of the film, in which we’re given a series of impressionistic glimpses of young Stephen Dedalus’s child’s-eye perspective on the world, but it’s over before it has even begun.  Strick’s decision to dispatch with the novel’s astonishing first chapter in a matter of minutes is his first misstep.  (It occurs to me that Terrence Malick, with his rapturous editing rhythms and sensitivity to the sensuous textures of childhood experience, would be the right person for this job.) 

The later episodes are no less clumsily handled.  The film often feels like a not-very-well-constructed stage play in which long dialogue scenes follow one another lumberingly.  One of the overarching problems seems to be that nothing carries any real weight, so that we have no idea whether, when Stephen encounters a beautiful girl on the beach, this is meant to be an epiphanic moment or merely an incident of little consequence.  In Joyce’s novel, of course, we understand this scene to be a turning point in Stephen’s consciousness, an encounter that catalyzes his feelings about art and religion, the conflict between the spiritual world and the world of the senses.  But everything gets flattened out in Strick’s film, so that no single exchange or event has any more significance than any other. 

I’ll confess that the Portrait has never been my favorite of Joyce’s works.  While it has moments of virtuosity (such as the hellfire-and-brimstone speech, here very capably performed by John Gielgud, who appears in a glorified cameo) its final sections inevitably get bogged down by Stephen’s angsty philosophizing.  It’s not until Ulysses that Joyce’s prose really begins to soar.  But the Portrait is still a far richer novel than Strick’s film is able to comprehend.  Might this be the problem that the modern novel presents to filmmakers?  Modernism’s careful modulations of tone and style, its conscious attempts to resist the familiar narratives of the nineteenth-century novel, don’t easily lend themselves to cinematic adaptation. The joys of Joyce’s novel don’t have very much to do with dialogue or with plot, the only elements with which Strick appears to be able to work.  A properly ambitious attempt to adapt Joyce would require the willingness to experiment radically with editing, sound, music, and voice-over narration in a way that Strick shows no interest in doing.  (Strangely, it’s a more stylistically conservative film than his Ulysses, even though it was made nearly ten years later.)  In the end, we’re left with a Great Illustrated Classics version of the novel—Joyce’s vibrant Portrait crudely reduced to a set of static illustrations. 

No comments:

Post a Comment