Great lit to great film? Well, there’s ‘The Dead’

Anjelica Huston and Donal McCann in 'The Dead'

How often have great literary works been made into great movies? Certainly more often than the Eagles have won the Super Bowl (never), but only slightly more often than the Phillies have won the National League championship (seven times).

What’s beautiful and fascinating on the page is usually lost in translation to the screen. One exception is the 1987 film of James Joyce’s short story “The Dead,” by director John Huston and screenwriter Tony Huston (John’s son), which was recently mini-reviewed in the NYT by Rodrigo Garcia, film director and son of novelist Gabriel García Márquez:

… It’s the tale of a dinner party and its aftermath on the Feast of the Epiphany in the home of the Morkan sisters on a snowy winter evening in Dublin in 1904… It’s devoid of much plot and deceivingly simple. The themes are ambitious: self-delusion, vanity, mortality, the effect of the passage of time on our feelings. All of it is told with humor and with affection for little human strengths and weaknesses, and with the tenderness and delicacy of a girl playing with a dollhouse…

… [John Huston] is responsible for “The Maltese Falcon,” “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre” and “The African Queen…” He made some of his best and youngest films the older he got, until finally, at 80, armed with a wheelchair and an oxygen tank and two of his children (Anjelica and Tony), he made the perfect film, “The Dead.” Now that, ladies and gentlemen, was a director.

Near the end of the short story, the protagonist’s wife tells him about a young man named Michael who had loved her long ago but died. He realizes he has never deeply loved anyone, including his wife. The last lines of the story, which is told from the protagonist’s point of view:

A few light taps upon the pane made him turn to the window. It had begun to snow again. He watched sleepily the flakes, silver and dark, falling obliquely against the lamplight. The time had come for him to set out on his journey westward. Yes, the newspapers were right: snow was general all over Ireland. It was falling on every part of the dark central plain, on the treeless hills, falling softly upon the Bog of Allen and, farther westward, softly falling into the dark mutinous Shannon waves. It was falling, too, upon every part of the lonely churchyard on the hill where Michael Furey lay buried. It lay thickly drifted on the crooked crosses and headstones, on the spears of the little gate, on the barren thorns. His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.

John and Tony Huston make slight alterations to Joyce’s text so that the voice-over is in first-person and conveys to viewers the shock of self-awareness felt by the protagonist, played with great reserve by Donal McCann.

I couldn’t embed the final scene, but here it is.

Footnote: If your idea of a great film is Transformers, this movie might not be for you.

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5 Responses to Great lit to great film? Well, there’s ‘The Dead’

  1. Pingback: Suburban Guerrilla » Blog Archive » Great lit to great film? Well, there’s ‘The Dead’

  2. guest says:

    I appreciated the film for setting the scene better for me so that when I reread the book I had a better grasp of the action, such as it was. One of the best short stories ever. As a film, it was better than most (although Angelica was not very good at all, IMO), but there was no comparison to the book. I stand with Milan Kundera who purposely wrote his greatest book, Immortality, in a way that it would be impossible to ever adapt to the screen (after witnessing the abomination that was done to Unbearable Lightness of Being). Another example was Brokeback Mountain, which was such a powerful, focused little story (like 15 pages, double spaced) yet the film was all over the place, and much too grand and sweeping (although I really liked the theme music, at least until I read the sappy lyrics that mercifully were left out of the film). Maybe Garcia is not a native speaker of English, so perhaps he can’t appreciate how great Joyce’s writing was, or how bad some of the acting was. Some authors are screenwriter/director-manques, and maybe their books can be adapted to something great. Joyce isn’t one of them.


  3. guest says:

    As for examples of good adaptations, I’d submit Brideshead Revisited as the best I’ve ever seen. But even there, a medium length book needed 8 hours to be adapted to the screen. I was so impressed back in my youth when I first saw it on PBS, that I picked up the book and was amazed to realize that almost everything in the book made it onto the screen. Watched it again on YouTube earlier this year, and all I could think was that it could have been cut down by an hour if they took out the footage of Charles Ryder or other characters lighting up in silence, smoking, and gazing pensively at one thing or another.


    • oddmanout215 says:

      Your point about Brideshead is a good one. A filmmaker has a much better chance of successfully adapting a great short story than a great novel, simply because of the time factor. With rare exceptions, great novels can’t be compressed into two- or three-hour movies. Mini-series adapted from great novels rarely get it right either, because directors and writers usually make the wrong decisions regarding what to leave in or cut out. In fact, most filmmakers have no use for “literary” fiction because they work in an entirely different medium. They’d rather adapt novels that are formulaic. They’re not interested in dazzling prose. They want story, period… And yet there are always a few directors who think they can translate great lit to great film. BTW, I completely agree with you about the film version of The Unbearable Lightness of Being. A noble effort, but …


  4. George says:

    What about “V for Vendetta?” Of course it’s an adaptation of a graphic novel, or maybe I’m just a dyed in the wool Liberal.


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