Might it be possible to make a good film of Ulysses—one that actually goes to the trouble of not only “converting” the novel into cinematic terms but also channels its fullness, its exuberance, its virtuosity, and its density? Perhaps, but Joseph Strick’s Ulysses (1967) isn’t that film. (The most significant thing about it may be that it is supposedly the first major film in which the word “fuck” was spoken.) Strick’s film feels somehow ambitious and lazy at the same time. He appears to have thought, however cursorily, about how to use various cinematic effects, such as voice-over narration, editing, and mise-en-scene (sets, props, etc.), to reproduce the effects of Joyce’s novel. Strick films the “Ithaca” section, for instance, by putting Joyce’s question-and-answer dialogue on the soundtrack in voice-over while we see Bloom and Stephen sitting at the kitchen table together (pictured above). But if “Ithaca” is one of the more successful episodes in the film, others are far clumsier, such as “Aeolus,” in which Joyce’s screaming newspaper headlines have been literally shoved into the background of shots, where they’re so hard to see that they lose all sense of purpose (see below).
It’s this kind of half-hearted attention to detail that ruins this film, as well-meaning as it may be, so that some of the gimmicks might have worked, had they been mounted correctly, but in their current form they simply wilt. (The fantasy sequences of “Circe” are here rendered in a vaguely Fellinian style, but without any of Fellini’s humor or bumptious charm.) Here, as in his adaptation of the Portrait, Strick shows absolutely no sensitivity to the poetry, the drama, or the emotional weight of Joyce’s work. And so we are briskly shuttled through each of Ulysses’s eighteen chapters, many of which are dispensed with in a matter of minutes, without knowing why they’re significant or even what is happening in them. I suggested in an earlier post that Malick might be a possible interpreter of Joyce who could do justice to the material, in part because Malick and Joyce are both sensualists; Bertolucci, another great sensualist, might have attempted it, too, earlier in his career. But for the time being we’re left with Strick and his bloodless, mechanical transcriptions. He even drains Molly Bloom’s climactic soliloquy of any erotic vigor. When the final credits roll—to the strains of a turgid instrumental version of “Love’s Old Sweet Song,” the significance of which the film hasn’t bothered to establish—those familiar with the novel will feel cheated, and those unfamiliar with it will likely be confused: this is supposed to be one of the great novels of the twentieth century? I know it’s a cliché, but trust me when I say that the book is better.