Thursday, October 4, 2012

James Joyce’s “The Dead” and John Huston’s “The Dead”

Dr. Moreland’s Literature and Film students at Hockaday have just finished reading “The Dead” and then viewing Huston’s adaptation of it. Huston had been living in Ireland for years before he made this film, and his daughter, Angelica, plays Greta while his son, Tony, wrote the screenplay.  Although perhaps not form Joyce scholars, both John Huston and his son had read all of Joyce’s works, and their familiarity and respect for the writer and the country show in power of this film.  Significantly, Huston was at the end of his career as well as his life when he made it; a documentary on the film shows him breathing with the assistance of oxygen and moving about in a wheel chair as he went about the business directing this masterpiece (doing so without a storyboard!).  
Film adaptation involves strategies of “transcoding” a literary text (of words) to a filmic text (of sounds and images); scholarly discussion of adaptation does not concern itself with issues of “fidelity” or “improvement” – except perhaps in the reader response sense, in that each medium directs itself to a particular audience of a particular time and place. We might think of Joyce’s audience as timeless in that his themes are no doubt universal, but he still cannot escape his culture when writing his stories. Because of the nature of film (it was designed for a wide theatrical release), Huston more specifically considers his audience, people of the late 20thC for whom the issues of early 20thC Ireland are remote. Part of his challenge in making this film, then,  is to “transcode” what he finds in Joyce’s “Dead” to an aesthetic visual and aural vocabulary his audience will understand – in this way, he finds a “code” for his interpretation of the text.
Students are now comparing key scenes in the film with those in the text. In groups, they have posted on Haiku wikis individual images from the film, analyzing these “mises en scène” in relation to the specific passages in the text. As we continue discussion, I am hoping students will post comments here questions that both texts (film and story) raise, questions they (as 21stC viewers) see more easily by considering the texts in relation to each other.
Unfortunately, we do not have access to the film on you tube, but here you can see how Huston interprets and transcodes the final scene of Gabriel’s epiphany, and here you can view Huston’s version of the “staircase” scene, where Gabriel understands Greta as “Distant Music.” Let us know what you think!

1 comment:

  1. Thanks very much, Dr. Moreland, for posting those links.
    Re: the staircase scene. It occurs to me that Huston arrests the action and the editing for very lengthy passages there. With the exception of a couple of reaction shots on Gabriel, that clip consists of fifteen to twenty-second-long shots. Aside from the shot of Ingrid Bergman listening to As Time Goes By, I can't think of a moment like that in American cinema. I wonder how many filmmakers today would be that patient.

    Re: the closing scene. Part of what I didn't expect to like but liked was how literal is the text-to-image that Huston creates--the impending death, the landscapes Gabriel imagines. The viewer must imagine these as real rather than as abstract ideas in Gabriel's mind. Also, the actor's voice-over reinforces just how rich and subtle is Joyce's very poetic prose--consonance and caesurae, anaphora and chiasmus, rhythm and tone. Just masterful!