Ever since I heard of this adaptation I had wondered how it would deal with the ending. Short stories, as someone said, ‘are all about their endings,’ and this ending in particular includes what is probably my favourite paragraph of fiction.
We’ll leave that thought hanging, like a cliff-edge storyline and turn to other issues. I had previously watched the adaptation of Brideshead Revisited, not the recent one, but the dreamy 1981 version. There’s an episode in this story where Charles Ryder and Julia cross the Atlantic in a storm. While Ryder’s wife is confined to her cabin with sea-sickness, Charles and Julia roam the decks, re-building their friendship, and recalling the past. What is interesting about this episode is the way it is presented: we are not shown only what they are doing in present time, but are told, with voice-over narration. For film-makers this sort of voice-over montage is seen as a negation of the cinematic art. For writers it might rather be interpreted as the point at which the words cannot be reduced to visuals: the point at which the story has to be told, rather than be shown. If story is a triangle of action, character, and thought, then this is the case where ‘thought’ is dominant.
I’m no film-maker, but I couldn’t imagine how John Huston would present those final lines of James Joyce’s story. How else, I wondered, could you do it, but by some sort of montage, of the images the words evoked, with the voice-over narration of the words themselves?
So, when I finally got to watch the film, you’ll not be surprised to read that I was pleasantly disappointed to find that Huston had done just that with the ending! Smug, as I’m sure you know, is just Smaug without the treasure!
I could leave it there, but that movie ending raised another question: the question of what adaptations are for. John Huston’s ‘The Dead’ is what I would think of as a ‘faithful’ one. Huston was was said to be contemplating his own death during the making of the film, a perhaps not inappropriate state of mind for such a task, and I found no detectable change of agenda, such as I have looked for, and found, in other adaptations. There were no great changes made for reasons of technical difficulties or economic limitations. That montage/voice-over technique is used elsewhere in the piece, notably during a song, where instead of lingering on the singer Huston lets his camera wander over the period details of the rooms, and thus of the lives, of his characters: an efficient translation of the snippets of detail Joyce has given us in words.
So what then has the adaptation done? What has it achieved? Sympathetic, evocative of the lives of its characters and of the story that Joyce told, sharing an ambience with that story perhaps, one might say it has paralleled the text. It has successfully translated the story from one medium into another. I enjoyed watching it, as I enjoyed reading the story. Huston has cleverly visualised what Joyce has written.
And here’s the key to understanding the nature of adaptation itself. Huston has visualised the story, and has brought that visualisation to life: he has brought his response to the language of Joyce into existence. I have not made a film of The Dead, but I have imagined it. His characters have different faces to mine. His rooms are not so darkly shadowed as mine. His characters are a little less shabby than mine too. His images were drawn from his imagination, and found in real life – as actors, props and sets, as camera angles and lighting, as sounds. Mine too were drawn from life: we can imagine nothing that we have not seen already. The words we read draw from us the memories that we have forgotten in our conscious everyday lives.
What the faithful adaptation does is share a single visualisation of a story. What a reading of the original text does is create within our minds such a visualisation. If we want to share that, we must either talk about it, or make our own adaptations.