James Joyce, The Movie, Part VI: "Passages from Finnegans Wake" (1966)
It shouldn’t come as a surprise that one of the better cinematic adaptations of Joyce, and the only one to effectively capture the density of his late style, was directed by the avant-garde filmmaker Mary Ellen Bute. Her ninety-minute interpretation of Finnegans Wake makes no attempt to flatten or straighten out the jaggedness of that notoriously difficult work; instead, it gives us a film that’s just as assaultive, raucous, and schizophrenic as its source. Bute is perhaps best known for her formalist experimentations with shapes and colors, so even though her rendering of the Wake features live actors she seems to know instinctively how to handle Joyce’s abstract patterns and repetitive structures. And she’s attuned to his humor, too, especially when it lends itself to translation into her own medium, as in the very clever TV commercial sequences. Passages from Finnegans Wake doesn’t literalize Joyce’s text (how could any film do so?); it keeps it full, messy, and loud.