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To adapt the words of some venerable Austrian nuns, how do you solve a
problem like 'Ulysses'? Considered by most to be the greatest book of the
20th century, it is also, notoriously, one of its most difficult. How do
you film a book where each character exists in a narrative set on 16 June,
1904, but also corresponds parodically to Greek mythology. Where each
chapter is a parody, pastiche, interrogation of a whole host of literary
styles and conventions, where almost every line is an allusion, crucially
mutated, to literature, theology, philosophy, history etc. Where each
character, event, setting, is subject to rigorous verbal deconstruction, so
that they can seem to dissolve in front of our eyes, and put back in
playfully different combinations; or where whole episodes evolve from word
games. Where each setting is rich in historical significance, providing a
meta-narrative to all the squabbling narratives that comprise
Take, for example, the episode 'Proteus', where Stephen Dedalus walks on the beach. In the book, his mixture of observation and thought creates an unsettling, difficult text, where what he sees and what he thinks meld indistinguishably into one another, and the reader risks getting lost, fixed as he is in the flux of Stephen's head, not guided by an impartial narrator. We travel in fragments, on a Dublin beach, through the centuries, from Elsinore to the Renaissance to Paris, from literature and politics to memory, all the while doused in vast philosophical imponderables. Strick shows us a young man walking on a beach chased by a dog to the bathetic recitation of the novel's words. On paper, the dog inspires a number of puns, including colonialism, intellectual slavery and man's mortality. Here it's just a dog. The words are full of soundbites such as 'ineluctable modality of the visible', phrases that have to be gone over, worked out, understood, necessitating maybe even a dictionary. To have them sped read seems self-defeating, unless you know the book, and if you are only making a film for people who've read the book, than what's the point?
Strick films the formal landmine of 'Ulysses' with a studied focus on narrative. He avoids structural rupture, or any attempt to translate the novel's techniques, many borrowed from cinema, into film. A true 'Ulysses' would require someone with fiendish formal daring, a massive intellect, a sense of history and place, but also someone with a love of stories, resonant sentimentality, and popular culture, and, especially, a taste for farce. Godard of the 60s, maybe, or Richard Lester. Or some unholy mixture of Welles, Huston and Gerald Thomas.
ULYSSES is redundant, full of scenes slavishly recreated with dialogue spouted verbatim, but arbitrarily selected so that they make no sense. It might have been an idea to take a couple of digestible narrative lines and create a film around them, but Strick wants to get everything, and, in a standard feature film, can only give a few minutes to each episode, which makes a nonsense of them. Even on this level, his filming is fizzleless, flat, cautious, as if what is said in 'Ulysses' is crucial, when, of course, it's how it's said that counts. The crucial dichotomy of the novel, between Stephen's intellectualism and Bloom's corporeality, is fudged, and the triangle between Stephen (man), Bloom (womanly man) and Molly (woman) only comes about by pilfering the book's structure.
This is the accepted view of the film, and it is theoretically accurate. It makes the film sound inept, which, as Joyce, it may be, but it is very entertaining. Milo O'Shea is an incomparable Bloom, transcending the leaving cert level script, capturing this hero's multifaceted humanity in all its inglorious glory, his decency and desire, his tragedy and sense of exclusion (the mirroring of virulent racism in Bloom's time with our own more sophisticated age is chilling), and his peerless good humour.
He is supported by an extraordinary cast, many of whom are familiar from TV or theatre, and anyone who is not Irish will completely miss the frisson of seeing Dinny Byrne as a cheeky Lothario, on a birthday-suited pedestal, or, most alarming of all, Mrs. Cadogon as a leather-booted, whip-wielding Madame. Barbara Jefford is an extraordinary Molly Bloom, that hothouse flower spending the day in bed, voluptuously ordinary; her soliloquy is one of the best things in the film - it completely bypasses Joyce's intentions, but in its mixture of voiceover and silent, literal imagery it achieves a dreamlike power reminiscent of Perec/Queysanne's later UN HOMME QUI DORT.
There is great humour throughout, usually courtesy of Bloom, my favourite being his entry into a cafe of uncommonly audible munchers; the Nightown sequence, though again a travesty, is great fun, more Nabokov or Flann O'Brien in its Carrollian topsy-turvy, even if you wish, as did John Devitt who introduced the film, that it had been magicked by Fellini.
This was a Bloomsday treat at the Irish Film Centre. And the print itself was of historic interest, in that it was a censored one from the 1960s. Instead of cutting offending scenes, the sound was simply turned down, signalled by an amusing warning noise, or the picture being blacked out. Luckily I have the video (and the book!) so I went to check what I'd missed, which wasn't very much, some innuendo, a few choice epithets and Molly's orgasmic face. The decisions behind the censoring were erratic, as some scenes left intact seemed more fruity than some of the victims. In a film based on words, this vandalism, interrupting especially a soliloquy of snowballing impact, made me increasingly furious, and reminded me that relative liberalisation in this country after decades of Franco-like repression, was not all that distantly achieved.
There was real pleasure, as a Dubliner, though, in seeing the city of my parents in clean monochrome - due presumably to budgetary constrictions, Strick made no attempt to recreate turn-of-the-century Dublin, making another evasion of Joyce, but achieving something pleasantly different none the less. And as I could never have hoped, Martin Dempsey is perfect as my favourite Joycean character, Simon Dedalus, like all his friends mean-minded, selfish, dreadful, but capable of great humour, and in his recitation of a heartmeltingly sad melody, emotional beauty.
Having enjoyed Joyce's complex novel so keenly I was prepared to be
disappointed by Joseph Strick's and Fred Haines's screenplay, given the
fabulous complexity of the original text. However, the film turned out to
very well done and a fine translation of the tone, naturalism, and levity
It certainly helps to have read the original text before viewing the film. I imagine the latter would seem disjointed, with very odd episodes apparently randomly stitched together, without a prior reading of the text to help grasp the plot.
It's amazing to see how "filthy" the film is, given that it was shot in Dublin in 1967. The Irish film censors only, finally, unbanned it for viewing by general audiences in Ireland as late as 2000 (it was shown to restricted audiences in a private cinema club, the Irish Film Theatre, in the late 1970s). Joyce's eroticism is not simply naturalistic and raunchy, it offers many wildly "perverse" episodes. Never mind that so many of these fetishes were unacceptable when the book was published in 1922 - they were still utterly taboo when the film was made in 1967.
It is astonishing and heartening to watch the cream of the Irish acting profession of the 1960s, respected players all, daring to utter and enact Joyce's hugely transgressive text with such gusto.
I saw this film, the adaptation of James Joyce's most famous novel
which is one of the most important and complex works of the 20th
century literature, in the early 90s. The Videotape was on the shelf in
the local library where I worked at the time. When I saw the title, I
could not believe my eyes, and said to myself: "This just can't happen
because it is impossible." But I held in my hands the evidence to the
fact that the epitome of the unfilmable book had indeed been adapted to
the screen. Even before I started watching, I was fascinated with
audacity of the film's creators who were not afraid to aim a blow at
the most famous literary "stream of consciousness" of the 20th century.
The film left many parts of the books out and could not capture the
whole realm of book's richness, it would be impossible, but the attempt
still made me feel respect and appreciation to the film
director/co-writer Joseph Strick and everyone involved for making an
interesting and entertaining motion picture from the incredibly
complex, versatile, polyphonic novel which is filled with the dizzying
flight of thought, for which there is no limit in either space or time.
What "Ulysses"- the film did right, it is certainly a cinematic portrait of Dublin, James Joyce's city that lives, sounds and moves during a single day, known in literature as Bloomsday, June 16, 1904. Joyce once wrote that he wanted to describe Dublin in in such way that even in hundred years if the city disappears from the face of the earth, it could be restored based on the novel "Ulysses". Now, in addition to the Joyce's prose, there is a movie portrait of Joyce's Dublin carefully reproduced with its streets, avenues, harbor, docks, quays, pubs, the "red lights" district, cathedrals, cemetery, etc.
I was very impressed by Milo O 'Shea in the role of Leopold Bloom. That's how I always imagined Bloom's appearance, body language, behavior, the whole persona.
The best and most memorable are last two scenes of the film; a long surreal "Circe" depicting Bloom's and Stephen Daedalus visit to a brothel, and of course, the culmination of the film and the novel, 'Penelope'. Molly Bloom, (Barbara Jefford) , caught on a thin line between waking and dreaming just the moments before she falls asleep, thinks about very intimate events in her life, recent and long gone. She reminisces about her and Bloom's present and past and finally falls asleep with the most beautiful and life affirming thoughts ever captured in English language: "...I was a Flower of the mountain yes when I put the rose in my hair like the Andalusian girls used or shall I wear a red yes and how he kissed me under the Moorish wall and I thought well as well him as another and then I asked him with my eyes to ask again yes and then he asked me would I yes to say yes my mountain flower and first I put my arms around him yes and drew him down to me so he could feel my breasts all perfume yes and his heart was going like mad and yes I said yes I will Yes." Molly's inner monologue takes almost 30 minutes in the film but it is rich, playful, feminine, wave-like spiral and soothing. It is so beautiful, and Jefford made it her own yet relating to any viewer regardless of gender that I could listen to it again and again.
In my opinion, "Ulysses" (1967) adapted by Joseph Strick is interesting, even if not completely successful film experiment, which was awarded the Oscar nomination for adapted screenplay. Incidentally, I have quite a seditious idea that "Ulysses" has been successfully transferred to the screen and the film has turned out amazingly captivating, entertaining and profound. He has another title and is the adaptation of another work of literature. I mean the posthumous Stanley Kubrick's film, his swan song "Eyes Wide Shut." But this is a topic for another review.
As if the film were not of value in itself, this is an excellent way to get an overview of the novel as a preface to reading it. In the summer of 1968 I saw the film in NYC; that fall in graduate school, I read the book for the first time. Some of the pleasure in reading the novel was my memory of the scrupulously detailed film. And for better or worse--and I've now read and taught the novel for over three decades--Milo O'Shea is still Leopold Bloom.
Norman Mailer once observed, "There is a particular type of really bad novel that makes a great motion picture." With that in mind, this feeble attempt to film the greatest 20th Century English novel falls flat, as pointless an exercise as dramatizing "The Leviathan" by Thomas Hobbes or the Declaration of Independence. It just can't be done. Joyce pioneered the plotless novel, concentrating on character development and situation, together with the melding of his characters' inner thoughts running in a hodge-podge of images and overlapping, run-on sentences. For those unfamiliar with the work, "Ulysses" is the story of an author in search of a character about whom he can write a novel: two men, one middle-aged, one young, wandering aimlessly through Dublin for 18 hours, finally meeting in a brothel, and then discussing their day over a cup of cocoa. That's it. Joyce himself joked that he had written a novel that would keep English professors busy for the next century, and the deciphering of his masterpiece has become a cottage industry. This is not a motion picture: rather, it is a tour de force in the nature of Charles Laughton reading from the New York Telephone directory: the presentation may be brilliant, but the exercise is pointless. The actors recite Joyce's prose brilliantly and Milo O'Shea, Maurice Reeves and Barbara Jefford, as Leopold Bloom, Stephen Daedalus and Molly Bloom respectively, look exactly like what one would imagine the characters to appear, but this is hardly enough to sustain the viewers' interests for an excess of two hours. Literary critic John Greenway observed, "To read it ['Ulysses'] with ease, one should have a PhD in comparative languages and literature." Indeed, Joyce himself spoke some 15 languages fluently and his work abounds with multiple lingual puns. Caveat: unless you have at least majored in English Literature and taken a graduate course in James Joyce, you won't have the slightest idea what is going on here - nor will you care.
The film adaptation of James Joyce's Ulysses is excellent. The actors, the voice overs, the direction, it all captures the feel of the novel without sacrificing its own merits. The Milo O'Shea does an excellent job as Leopold Bloom, the cuckolded man married to the sassy Molly. I absolutely love this picture.
To attempt to film this major body of work is indeed senseless. To film one page of Ulysses would take almost 2 hours to complete. This version does not represent the complete novel, it offers only flimsy elements that keep it amusing and lucid. If you are attempting to read the novel for the first time, then watch this film first, it won't hurt...it won't help either! I wanted very much to like this film, but felt a bit cheated because of the indulgence of the director. I was expecting an enigmatic piece of work...what I got was, let's film the good parts and stuff the complexities. I could not relate to the actors...maybe that's the problem. A bold attempt nonetheless!
Ulysses as a film should in no way be compared with the novel, for they are two entirely different entities. However, that being said, the film still manages to maintain many of the elements that made the book work, but since it is a visual medium, it is more difficult to pull of stream-of-consciousness. I think this is the best film they could have made with the material... and this is from someone that routinely rants about films not being like their literary counterparts. I recommend the book, but the movie is still entertaining.
It has always been said that cinema as an art form is yet to develop into an autonomous expression, because the way film is mostly assumed today (with notable exceptions) is as a subordinate of narrative literature. As film industries are structured today, it is going to take a long time until cinema reaches a level of evolution as literature, and in this case, as James Joyce's writings. But I do not agree that works as "Ulysses" cannot be transferred to film. What seems more obvious to me is that narrative cinema, as it evolved in the past 20th century, is too a primitive art form to equal a work as "Ulysses". I do not mean that there are no masterpieces in cinema, but in my opinion- possibly they are not as complex, highly evolved or sophisticated as some literary works. Even a novel like Bram Stoker's "Dracula" is yet to be filmed in form and spirit that make justice to Stoker's prose. This considered, I reassert my belief that all written works can be translated into moving images. In adapting the written word, the scriptwriter has to find equivalents in film resources to put on the same level of the text, Joyce's being one of great richness and novelty. As T.S. Eliot wrote in 1922, instead of the narrative method, James Joyce used in "Ulysses" the mythical method, meaning a "technique of ironically juxtaposing modernity against traditional narrative structures". In their attempt to express this method in moving images, Americans Joseph Strick and Fred Haines did not make a fine job in their adaptation of Joyce. Both men were inclined to literary works: Strick also worked on Genet's "The Balcony", Durrell's "Alexandria Quartet" (filmed as "Justine"), Miller's "Tropic of Cancer", and revisited Joyce with "A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man"; while Haines adapted and directed a film version of Hesse's "Steppenwolf". For "Ulysses" they resorted to long fragments of monologues by Stephen Dedalus (stiff Maurice Roëves), Leopold Bloom (Milo O'Shea in a breakthrough performance), and Molly Bloom (a pale characterization by Barbara Jefford), while illustrating them with images and more images (beautifully shot by Wolfgang Suschitzky in wide-screen black and white), that total a very dull film, something that is neither literature nor film, even if it is captured on celluloid. Moving images are young, the electronic ways to manipulate them are even younger Until film reaches a stage of maturity similar to the level achieved by literature and, moreover, in a case like James Joyce's "Ulysses"- please read the book in the meantime.
Could Ulysses be filmed? A tremendous novel becomes an atmospheric, entertaining, and generally absorbing film, losing none of the humour or the pathos. Perhaps a little slowly paced to start with, but filming around Dublin in black and white with an interesting cast and a variety of interesting approaches means the film is well worth seeing. Much better than expected.
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