James Joyce: The Movie

Pictured: a photograph of the Volta Picture Theatre (est. 1909), Ireland’s first movie theater, briefly managed by none other than the great James Joyce.  Although Joyce soon gave up the project, his interest in cinema is apparent in nearly all of his major prose works.  The visual language of cinema, then a relatively newborn medium, informs his fiction as it did that of many of his fellow modernist writers.  In the opening pages of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916), Joyce renders the childhood memories of young Stephen Dedalus as an impressionistic montage of images.  Joyce was also keenly aware of cinema’s cheapness, its lowbrow pleasures, and its sentimentality, which lent themselves easily to parody and pastiche.  One of the funnier and more comprehensible passages of Finnegans Wake (1939) is his cheeky send-up of Hollywood romantic comedy (“he vows her to be his own honeylamb, swears they will be papa pals, by Sam, and share good times way down west in a guaranteed happy lovenest when May moon she shines and they twit twinkle all the night,” 65).  And while it’s common practice to read the “Aeolus” episode from Ulysses (1922) as a parody of screaming newspaper headlines, its subheadings (“IN THE HEART OF THE HIBERNIAN METROPOLIS”; “WE SEE THE CANVASSER AT WORK”; etc.), which continually interrupt the narrative action, also seem to me to function as silent-movie intertitles. 

Cinema, too, has taken its own cues from Joyce’s fiction.  It is well known that Joyce met with Sergei Eisenstein in 1929, possibly to discuss the possibility of a film version of Ulysses, which Eisenstein claimed as an influence on his own experiments with film editing.  Although Eisenstein never got around to adapting any of Joyce’s work for the screen, other adaptations have tricked in over the course of the last several decades: John Huston’s The Dead, Joseph Strick’s Portrait of the Artist, two different mountings of Ulysses, Mary Ellen Bute’s Passages from Finnegans Wake.  Films based on Joyce’s fiction effectively close the circle that Joyce himself opened by experimenting with cinematic prose in various ways throughout his career.  In their attempts to translate notoriously difficult works of modernist fiction for the cinematic audience, the film adaptations also allow us to make some observations about how, whether, and to what extent literary modernism is compatible with cinema as a medium. 

I’ll be spending these next several weeks reflecting on “the films of James Joyce,” thinking about the problems, challenges, and rewards that adapting Joyce have presented to contemporary filmmakers.  Because I’ll be proceeding in the order of the works on which the films are based, Huston’s film of “The Dead,” the last (and best) story from Joyce’s Dubliners (1914), is first up.  Brew yourself some grog and come along with me!

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