I watched Director Joseph Strick’s 1980s adaptation of James Joyce’s Ulysses a little while ago. It has been shown on TV a couple of times, and I saw it a couple of decades back, recording it to watch again later.
It says something about how underwhelmed I was at that first watching that I never got around to viewing the video-ed version, and so it was dvd that I ended up with. The second viewing though turned out to be rather a surprise. Though few images from the film had imprinted themselves on my mind, almost the whole of it seemed familiar when I watched again. I’ve read the book several times, which might have helped. On the dvd cover the blurb boasts – I think that’s the appropriate word – that every word is taken from the book and in one of those light-bulb moments, almost everything that I liked and disliked about the adaptation was illuminated.
Strick has been faithful to the book, valiantly so, though he has transposed the Dublin of Joyce’s 1904 to a nineteen-postwar sort of Dublin. I wasn’t sure if it was sixties, seventies, or eighties in intent. Perhaps scrutiny of the road vehicles, if you are into that sort of thing, would clarify. It was a present that he must have tried to strip of all its contemporary resonances.
The attempt leads to some curious losses in relation to Joyce’s story. Gerty MacDowell’s underwear, for example – not a bad place to begin – is less spectacular under its short shift dress than the Edwardian glories that Joyce no doubt had in mind! And when Bloom, later, stops to get an eyeful in that shop window there’s not much to mutely crave to adore on display.
The politics of the time are changed too. The soldiers that knock Stephen to the ground on the way home from the brothel are no longer the soldiers of the British Empire. Stephen, in the book, is beaten for insulting ‘my fucking king’, which neither we nor the Irish still had, not for insulting his girl – though that lady still gets excited that they are fighting for her! Earlier in the story, Mr Daisy’s significance too has been altered by the decades of history unraveled between novel and film.
The citizen is still the citizen, but the owld dog has become a German Shepherd, which is not at all the same as the Sykesian bruiser in the novel. And Bloom carried off in the back seat of a sports car, though still comic, is not the same as being carried off by horse carriage. Poor Paddy Dignam’s funeral is still horse-drawn though, which adds a curiously nostalgic touch to it, though I can remember, I think, post-war horse drawn hearses in my English hometown.
Even the Martello Tower, imagined, and shown, a piece of actual architecture that pre-dates the novel by a century, seems out of place when inhabited by mid twentieth century characters, and Haines is more of an upper-class twit than a ponderous Anglo-Saxon in a liberated Ireland.
In fact, the modernisation of the novel works directly against the spirit of Joyce’s attempt to re-create in words a Dublin of 1904 that could be re-imagined, re-constructed even, if the original were to vanish… which of course it has. There are still Edwardian pubs around of course, with their dark wood panelling and engraved glass, but now, and when the film was made, we cannot help perceive them as anything but ‘heritage’. For Joyce they were contemporary. When he looks into Davy Byrne’s, Leopold Bloom does not go into an old fashioned pub in the novel, but he does in the film.
Back I go again to my old hobby horse of showing and telling: Joyce has told us about his Dublin, and we can picture it…. Strick has shown us a later one, which, because he has done so, we do not need to.
And on I come to my main point: The faithful adaptation – and it is faithful, for all its transposing the time of the place – shows us one version of what the original telling might have led us to imagine. That’s what adaptations do. They save us the trouble, and the challenge, and ultimately the joy, and the discovery (the self-discovery), that the telling demands of us.
There is an interesting change at the end too, where, as in the John Huston adaptation of The Dead, there can be no better way of finishing the story than by using the words in which Joyce finished it. On Howth Head, among the Rhododendrons, with the warm mush of the seed-cake in his mouth, Bloom is asked to ask, once again…..and Molly answers ‘yes’. The scene is word perfect, and well imagined – though my Molly Bloom was always more Rubenesque – but in fact it doesn’t end as the book does.
It’s well attested that Molly Bloom’s monologue was a late addition to the novel, and in purely dramatic terms the story finds a definite closure when Bloom sees Stephen safely off into the night, and re-enters his Abode of Bliss, Plumtree’s Potted Meat notwithstanding (why is it one can never write about Ulysses without pumping it up with quotes, puns and literary how-d’yee dos!), and this is true to some extent in both the novel and the film. But, whereas the novel ends entirely at Molly’s final yes, the film does not. There is a moment of reflection, during which the camera runs on, and we see her face: what is she contemplating, reflecting upon, as we watch? In the book there is no such moment. It is we who must contemplate and reflect, upon what we have been told. In the film we cannot help but watch what we are shown, and it is upon that that we must reflect. Strick, almost certainly without meaning to, has moved the ending of the book on into an untold future, albeit a momentary one; and in doing so he has moved us on, taking our focus away from Joyce’s told ‘yes’, and placing it on his shown moment.