This is a paper I wrote for a class this semester; ‘Short Stories on Film’. The class is great, the material very interesting, and the professor really excited to be teaching it. This was the first assignment we had to do. In lieu of a regular post I thought I would share this here while I work on some other ideas. This has been a busy semester, so I have several half-finished posts. Perhaps I’ll put up another paper or two. Needless to say the work is mine, and if anyone tries to highjack it I will hunt them down and hurt them badly.


Joyce and Huston: Poetry of Word and Image

            In the story “The Dead” James Joyce shows a night in Dublin through the inner world of his character Gabriel Conroy.  It is through partaking in Gabriel’s thoughts by the use of free indirect discourse that Joyce unfolds the story of Gabriel’s epiphany and the great themes he wishes to convey; the recognition of the passage of time, inevitable death, and what happens to the living.  Joyce gives to Gabriel a love of and a world bounded by words that is reflected in the narrative itself, and sets the tone for a story that moves between the mundane and transcendent.  In his pursuit of realism, Joyce employs an awkward yet resonant poetry to lift the narrative above mere description of a holiday party.  Above all to Joyce, and to Gabriel, it is the choice of words that is important, as can be seen in Gabriel’s constant fretting over his speech.  Joyce also shows this preciseness of word and poetic flow in his descriptions of the characters; “…on his hairless face there scintillated restlessly the polished lenses and bright guilt rims of the glasses which screened his delicate and restless eyes” (Joyce 8).  How, then, is the filmmaker to translate this exactness of phrase into the language of film? As Dudley Andrew asks: “…how is translation of poetic texts conceivable from one language to another…?” (Andrew 32).

In his essay “Adaptation” Andrew discusses the different languages of cinema and literature, and says that the symbology of film can be equally as powerful and expressive as that of literature (Andrew 32).  It is not enough, however, to merely go word for word by the original text, but the specific language of film must be used to capture and translate the meaning of the story.  The director John Huston, then, has taken on a difficult task to move the preciseness and poesy of Joyce’s vocabulary to the visual medium of the cinema in a way that loses none of the original power. In this task, Huston is successful.

Because of the nature of film Huston must move the narrative out of Gabriel’s thoughts rather than present us with two hours of voice-overs.  Huston is also allowed to fill in and give what is missed or passed over by Gabriel in Joyce’s text.  We hear Freddy Malins talk with Mr. Browne, rather than the conversation disappearing into the background in favor of the description of action that Joyce employed (Joyce 17).  Material that is added to a story runs the risk of distorting it and bending the original narrative out of shape.  In the hands of Huston, however, each addition was placed with as much precision as Joyce’s vocabulary.  The altering of Gabriel’s speeches, at the dinner table and the inner dialogue at the end, attempt to reach the viewer on the same emotional level as the story.  Simply parroting the lines would have been an easy thing to do but, as Andrew points out, it would appear “mechanical” (Andrew 31).

It is with the introduction of Mr. Grace, a new character, that we see Huston’s first attempt to reach for the poetry that filled Joyce’s work.  Even the use of the name Grace tips the viewer off, perhaps a little too obviously, that this gentleman brings something more to the story than just another piece of the background. Mr. Grace’s recitation of “Broken Vows” serves to elevate the moment.  The choice of this poem itself with its theme of youth and loss serves to move the narrative forward by unbalancing Gretta, setting her on the road to her own epiphany later in the story.  As she relaxes on the couch, she is confronted with the poem delivered in an accusatory recitation by Mr. Grace:

            “You promised me, and you said a lie to me,

            That you would be before me where the sheep are flocked.

            I gave a whistle and three hundred cries to you,

            But found nothing there but a bleating lamb”

In Mr. Grace’s reading, we hear the as yet unnamed voice of Michael Furey reaching out to Gretta.  She feels keenly the sense of responsibility and grief for his fate that she has buried over the years.  By including this work specifically, an ancient Irish ballad, Huston reaches for deeper meaning as well, for it is in Gretta’s “ancient past” where this memory lay.  It is a subtle tip to Gabriel’s, and Joyce’s, worry that the Ireland they know, the Ireland of the present, is fading and being overtaken by an Irishness of the past.  The viewer has a double meaning here, in keeping with Joyce’s writing style and use of subtext to confer multiple meanings.  Gretta’s past is reaching out to change her, and Gabriel’s, life utterly.  In an equal sense, this is something “general all over Ireland” (Joyce 70) as the present of the nation itself is being transformed permanently by an ancient sense of Irishness.  On each level sweeping changes in relationship are happening, and Huston does an excellent job of communicating this point by including “Broken Vows” and Mr. Grace.

At the end of the reading, Gretta appears almost in shock, and the rest of the group sits transfixed at this “very strange” poem.  Lily appears at the top of the stairs, cutting the emotion of the moment visually.  She signals and end to their collective revelry and brings them back into the present.

A challenge for Huston in moving the narrative out of Gabriel’s thoughts is how to maintain the momentum of the work, which is leading to his epiphany, without sacrificing the poetry of Joyce’s writing.  In answering this challenge, Huston gives a greater role to Gretta, allowing him to render her emotions in a visually poetic manner that cinematically echoes Joyce’s language.   In Joyce’s telling she is more foil than substance; a mirror through which Gabriel can see his revelation reflected back at him.  It is in the movie that her epiphany comes through more strongly.  Mr. Grace’s recitation serves to unsettle her, and give the impression that something is happening inside her as much as Gabriel.  She reaches her moment of enlightenment first when she is captured by the music as she is coming down the stairs.  Joyce’s original text hints at the importance of the moment, but it is filtered through Gabriel’s self-absorbed thoughts.  His description of her as standing in shadow removes her from the mundane and places her in another realm (Joyce 51), the realm of the dead and memory.  In his most visually poetic moment, Huston shows us a full shot of Gretta paused on the stairs silhouetted by the stained glass behind her.  She is veiled as a statue of the Virgin Mary, her face in light and body in shadow, all pointing to her being lost in this other world.  It is in this moment that Gretta feels the force of her revelation; the loss of her past love and how it colors her life to this day.  In both works it is Gretta’s epiphany on the stairs that is the engine for Gabriel’s own revelation to follow.  This is given more prominence in Huston’s film as it is a visual moment, where Gabriel’s moment comes through his thoughts and language.

After arriving at their hotel room, Gretta is unable to verbally convey her feelings to Gabriel, and he must interrogate her; he must use his words to draw forth the meaning of what she saw on the stairs.  In the film, the interrogation is rendered in another visually poetic gesture.  We see the couple move together and apart, alternating in light and darkness.  We see them also as shadows on the wall, evocative of the shadows of the past being called forth.  Gabriel and Gretta stand slightly apart (at 1:08:00) while their silhouettes embrace behind them.  In a moment of double symbolism it can be seen as Michael Furey and Gretta in an embrace from the past and also the coming together of Gabriel and his wife to a new shared understanding of their relationship.

For all Huston’s success in cinematically recreating the poetry and imagery of Joyce’s text, one moment remains inscrutable: the gap or passage of time towards the end of the story. In their hotel room, as Gretta sobs Gabriel takes her hand and then “…let it fall gently and walked quietly to the window.”  There is then a double space that indicates some time passing, and then “She was fast asleep.” (Joyce 67).  It is here in the text, unspoken, it can be inferred that Gabriel gathers his thoughts and processes what has happened.  The space is pregnant with unspoken meaning.  Action has taken place, since Gabriel and Gretta are now undressed and in bed.  What was said, if anything?  It remains a poetic silence, and allows Gabriel time to come to his epiphany.

Huston leaves this space untouched.  It is possible that he found no adequate way to translate the moment, considered insignificant, or unnecessary.  In the film Gretta is on the bed crying and then sleeping.  Gabriel stands at the window, staring at the snow “general all over Ireland” (Joyce 70) and finds the words to express his realization.  Huston uses the moment to move inside Gabriel’s mind in a voice-over.  Gabriel has synthesized the events of the evening, and has found his poetic language to give voice to his realization.  Here Huston, even with the editing and adding slightly to the soliloquy, ends with the language of Joyce and pays homage to the wordsmith while ensuring the audience is not left wanting for clarity of meaning.

Bringing James Joyce’s work to film may seem on the face of it to be a daunting task.  The precise use of language, both poetic and multilayered, that he employs does not lend itself to obvious visual interpretation.  A director may work word-for-word from the text, but the result would be mechanical at best and unintelligible at worst.  John Huston, in taking on the challenge of “The Dead”, reached deep into his considerable knowledge of cinematic and visual vocabulary.  He effectively translates the written word of Joyce into a visual language that is every bit as powerful and meaningful as the author intended.  This gives hope to other directors seeking to translate difficult literary works to the screen.  Huston shows us that cinema has the visual language to match the written word, even when those words do not immediately bring a visual equivalent to mind.  By taking Joyce, an author whose use of language was multilayered and precise, and moving him into the visual realm without sacrificing meaning or significance, John Huston makes it possible for other directors to attempt similar feats.

 Works Cited

Andrew, Dudley. “Adaptation”. Film Adaptation. James Naremore. New Brunswick, NJ:

Rutgers University Press, 2000. 30-37. Print

The Dead. Dir. John Huston. Perf. Donal McCann, Angelica Huston. Lions Gate, 1987. Film.

Joyce, James. The Dead. Claremont, CA: Coyote Canyon Press, 2008. Print.