OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIf you’ve been following my blog, you’ll know that film/text adaptation interests me. Especially, that D.W.Griffiths cited Dickens as the source of his inspiration for the techniques of movie making that Griffiths became famous for.
A commonplace idea about movies is that they can do, at a glance, what it takes pages of text to achieve. Most obviously, this relates to the backgrounds against which the foregroound action or dialogue takes place. Authors are left with the choice between heavy handed description, which is said to bring narrative to a halt, or the provision of vague statements and very narrow details, leaving the reader to fill in the gaps.
So it was a surprise, when approaching the Oxen of the Sun chapter in Joyce’s Ulysses, that I found the movie backgrounds, in Strick’s film, to be much less detailed that the text in Joyce’s original. There’s a strange reversal here and it reveals something about the way the novel Ulysses works, a methodology that gives to the text a sense of real life – what perhaps Joyce was referring to when he talked about ‘refining himself out of existence’ – that we might more easily associate with a moving, and sounding, picture.
This is that Joyce builds up the reality of his novel by a series of repetitions. Sometimes whole sentences, often phrases or even single words, these references to times present and past, if we notice them, become like the echoes of memory in our own lives, being triggered later by other events. Text, in this case, triggers our recollections of text. The unusual word or phrase, the striking sentence, takes its meaning from a previous reading, gives meaning to a later one. Of course, this can be done in film too, but, unless I’m missing something – always a distinct possibility – Strick’s film doesn’t do it on anything like the scale, of variety and frequency, that Joyce’s novel does. In fact, if it tried to, we would be cutting so often, and so briefly, to visual equivalents of Joyce’s well placed prompts in the background of the scenes, that it would obscure the actions, and lines of the actors in the foreground. Some, I suspect, might say that Joyce’s writing itself suffers in places, from this tendency.
Stuart Gilbert, in his study, makes the point, that in the fantasies of the Circe chapter – which our little group will tackle, unaided by alcohol, next week – experienced by Bloom, and Stephen, (and us!), all the images have been drawn from these earlier references. Fantastical they may be, but each one is grounded in a verbal theme that Joyce had already planted in our minds. The line by line, one word at a time, telling of a story in language is difficult enough to follow. For a film to attempt the same depth and intensity in the showing of one might be completely overwhelming.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA