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Joyce's Dubliners

Claudine Raynaud

Other Dubliners: John Huston's The Dead and Joyce's "The Dead"

Lesley Brill

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1Discussing Kurosawa's adaptation of Shakespeare's Macbeth for Throne of Blood, Mitsuhiro Yoshimoto observes that "fidelity is a misleading and unproductive notion because it establishes a hierarchical relation between original and adaptation… The discourse of adaptation is therefore less the discourse of aesthetics than that of power." (Yoshimoto, 2000, 258-9) Typical commentaries on Huston's The Dead – and I have selected as examples only critics who praise the movie – confirm Yoshimoto's assertion. James Naremore remarks that Joyce's "masterpiece of high modernism is turned into something more immediately accessible[…], like a well-made movie." (Naremor, 1991, 16). Steve Vineberg concludes that the film of The Dead stands as "proof that a man of talent, adapting the work of a man of genius, can create something unforgettable." (Vineberg, 1993, 307). Clive Hart, who served as "academic adviser to the James Joyce Estate" took it upon himself to "ensure that this film prove worthy of Joyce in general and that it should not, in particular, so misrepresent the tone and spirit of the story that Joyce's name could not creditably be associated with it." (Hart, 1988, 10-11). The discourse of power is barely concealed in such utterances; it becomes clear enough if one translates them by analogy to adaptations whose dominant positions are accepted without question. Who would argue that Shakespeare's As You Like It should be judged according to whether it is worthy of Lodge's Rosalind or that Hitchcock's Vertigo should have been supervised to make sure that it was sufficiently faithful to Boileau's and Narcejac's Entre deux mortes?

2It seems to me all but self-evident that we will understand Huston's movie better if we abandon attempts to assign priority to one or the other, if we approach it as we do the multitude of other movies that adapt literary properties, as a work of art in its own right, to be viewed and interpreted equally by those who know the precedent fiction and those who do not. Fidelities to or departures from literary sources sometimes offer clues as to where one might look in interpreting a film, but they can never serve as evidence of the sort that is found in cinematography, acting, writing, editing, or design. Hierarchizing, assigning values on the basis of fidelity or relative quality, does little if anything to illuminate either film or story. Principally,

3- 26 -such pronouncements assert the evaluator's authority. But which evaluator? There are already so many contesting interpretations of Joyce's Dubliners and "The Dead" that no film could fully please even a small plurality of the readers of the story. Revealingly, in discussing Huston's movie, Clive Hart could not resist beginning by setting forth his understanding of Joyce's book as a whole and Naremore, also discussing the film, could not resist contesting Hart's interpretation.

  • 1 Quoted from the Vestron Pictures press kit accompanying the initial release of the film in 1987, 2

4The Hustons – Tony, who got the credit for the screenplay on wich he collaborated with his father and John, the director – are, of course and of necessity, partly functioning as analysts of Joyce's text. Tony notes that "for most of the story, you don't know where the plot's going," (O'Shea, 1994) and John has declared both that "the story is about a man's being revealed to himself" (Sievernich, 1987) and that it is about "love, marriage, passion, and death."1

5Within such rather general understandings of Joyce's text, however, the screenplay deviates more in detail from the story than most viewers realize. In part, the fact those who have read the story don't realize the extent of the deviation probably reflects the degree to which the Hustons have retained the spirit of Joyce's story In part, it may have to do with the coherence and pacing of the film itself, which seems so apt that one assumes that it must derive from the immaculate pacing of Joyce's story. In fact, however, comparison of Joyce's "The Dead" to Huston's reveals that much of the dialogue of the movie has been rewritten, reassigned to different characters, or added; and that sequences of events were sometimes altered. A crucial character and incident, Mr Grace and his recitation, were created from nearly whole cloth, and the nascent romance between Barteil D'Arcy and Miss O'Callaghan has only the tiniest hint, if that, in Joyce's fiction. Various other characters increase or diminish in importance; the young people of Joyce's more heavily populated story disappear entirely; and significant imagery in the movie augments or increases in importance that which already exists in the story. Within the body of Huston's filmmaking, The Dead follows it fictional source less faithfully than some Huston films, The Maltese Falcon or Reflections in a Golden Eye, for example; but it is more faithful to its origin than Moby Dick, Heaven Knows, Mr Allison, or Moulin Rouge.

6In the course of his life, John Huston directed and shared in the writing of forty-three feature films, was the screenwriter for numerous others before he became a director, published his own short fiction and a play for marionettes, directed stage plays (including the first U.S. performance of Sartre's No Exit), and by his own testimony read thousands of novels and short stories. He was also a painter of life-long seriousness. We might ask, given the abundance and intensity of Huston's involvement with film, drama, art, and literature, what attracted him particularly to Joyce's "The Dead" – especially since he was well aware from the beginning of the project how unsuited the story appeared to be for adaptation to the movie screen.

7In the first place, Huston was deeply influenced by Joyce in general and by Ulysses in particular. His mother smuggled a copy of Ulysses to him from France when he was a young man – at that time the novel was banned in the United States – and that work so intensely affected him that he made a point of reading everything else that Joyce had published. His son Tony said when they were writing the screenplay for The Dead, they discussed the story as if it were the Bible.

8Many of the actions and themes of Joyce's "The Dead", moreover, are congenial to Huston's career-long preoccupations: people facing or avoiding the truths of their lives; hope and disappointment; vanity, in the senses both of futility and of overweening self-esteem; the illuminations of art and ritual; passing time; and the communion that human beings share along with the loneliness that they cannot escape. Add to these themes the importance of what Huston called "the company" and the relation of the private, inmost souls of central characters to their social settings. "One is pressed to recall in which of my films the heroes failed, in which they succeeded," Huston remarked. "Their end doesn't mean much to me. It is the company in itself that constitutes an adventure" (Benayoun, 1985, 28).

9Gabriel, more emphatically the central character of Joyce's "The Dead" than of Huston's, nonetheless belongs to a class of self-absorbed, emotionally starved figures who crop up repeatedly in the director's other movies from the Bette Davis character of his second film, In This Our Life, to Albert Finney's Geoffrey Firman in Under the Volcano. He may be thought of as a more complex, sympathetic version of Pilot in The Misfits. Like Pilot, he is better educated than most the people around him, more articulate, but painfully self-conscious and isolated. The cliché sonorities of Gabriel's speech resemble Pilot's poetic posturings. Both he and Pilot look to a woman for self-validation, but neither offers much emotional support in return. Gabriel's self-knowledge and desire to be in good faith, however, eventually distinguish him from the unalloyed egocentricity and anger of Pilot. Nonetheless, his tragedy remains the tragedy of someone who has lost or never found the comfort of truly embracing other people – among them, most sadly, his wife.

10Life and love on the one hand and mortality and the passing of time on the other are frequently associated with music and dance in Huston's filmmaking. Along with The Dead, Moulin Rouge perhaps best exemplifies this characteristic association. D'Arcy's singing of The Lass of Aughrim recalls for Gretta the long dead Michael Furey, who sang the same song; a current production of "Mignon" reminds Mary Jane of a young soprano who died. Her remembrance leads to Mr Grace's eulogy for the singers of a still earlier generation and to Aunt Kate's affecting recollection of the English tenor Parkinson. But although the remembered singers are gone, they live again in the memories and emotions of those who heard them sing, much as the café performers of fin de siècle Paris live in the memory and art of Toulouse-Lautrec in Moulin Rouge. In general, across Huston's career, love is entwined with mortality. The title of A Walk with Love and Death, his 1969 movie which also starred his daughter Angelica, accurately reflects its main concerns.

11Nostalgia for a past that cinema can partly revive is naturally more prominent in Huston's The Dead than in Joyce's. At the time Joyce was writing his story, the characters were of the present and the recent past; when Huston made his film, "the solid world itself which these dead had one time been reared and lived in" had dissolved and dwindled for an additional three-quarters of a century. Both the evocation of that world and the emphasis on its pastness have great importance for Huston's movie, and we know that the director took a keen interest in the authenticity of the smallest details of the set. "Karin, the script supervisor, had never worked with anyone like John, who wanted to know every detail - costume, hair, placement"( Grobel, 1989, 16).

12Τony Huston has spoken of creating a script on the basis of Joyce's story:

The story gave me about forty, forty-five minutes of script. My first draft was almost a literal transcription of the story into screenplay form. And then, I just looked at it and said what can I expand, where can I make the doorways and windows wider? And the first thing I was certain of was, it would be a good idea to have some more comedy. (O'Shea, 1994)

13An inviting source for such comedy is Freddy Malins, whose comic role the Hustons elaborated He declares himself unable to relieve himself in the presence of others; he tells a humorous story about "Old Man Gallaher and the young one" to Mr Brown, with whom he quarrels at dinner and when entering the cab later. By the end of the evening, he can't remember that he was present at his aunts' party the previous year, and then he stumbles clumsily downstairs, to the dismay of his mother.

14The most obvious addition to Joyce's story, Mr Grace, may be seen as a fragment split off and enlarged from Mr Brown, whose comic side is consequently more emphatic and whose more thoughtful side goes to the new character. Mr Grace inherits Brown's line about "old Parkinson," and most of his speech about "the old Italian companies that used to come to Dublin" and the tenor who introduced "a high C every time" in his "five encores to Let Me Like a Soldier Fall " His brief polemic about Parnell sends a breeze from elsewhere in Dubliners through the dining room in The Dead. His most important contribution, obviously, is his recitation of "Broken Vows," a re-titled fragment of a poem translated by Lady Gregory. His performance not only reinforces the themes of love, betrayal, and loss that run through the film more overtly than through Joyce's story, but it also allows Huston to move the camera slowly among Mr Grace's auditors, creating increased emphasis on "the company" and turning them into a series of expressive individual and group portraits. Indeed, watching this part of the film, one is aware that the addition of visual material at this point is at least as important as the words Mr Grace recites.

15Near the end of the sequence, Bartell D'Arcy declares that the poem "would make a lovely song." The Hustons inserted his summarizing comment, but it is only a small part of his greatly enlarged presence in the movie. His flirtation with Miss O'Callaghan further broadens the theme of love, while his (Frank Patterson's) rendition of The Lass of Aughrim not only adds more music to the film, but also emphasizes further the thematic connections among love, betrayal, and loss. Patterson's assured, elegant performance, readers of Joyce will notice, flatly contradicts the description in the story of his singing as uncertain and hoarse.

16The second major character added to the film is perhaps the more important one, if the less obvious, It is Huston's lively, inquisitive camera. Like Joyce's prose, Huston's camera often achieves a double perspective, at once revealing the interior of a character's mind and heart and maintaining an exterior point of view. Huston once remarked that he did not wish his audiences to identify with particular figures but to feel "a fascination for the whole …" What creates and unifies the whole in the movie The Dead, is above all else Huston's camera – as it is Joyce's prose in the story. Although Gabriel is the most frequent object of the camera and occasionally establishes its point of view, it nonetheless remains largely independent. It enters the party diffidently, like a new invitee, then becomes increasingly involved as it scrutinizes the other guests more and more intimately, and it finally penetrates the very mind of the central character.

17During the closing monologue, the camera is partly identified with Gabriel; but it also retains a separate identity, looking at him from outside the window and later tilting up to the snowy sky over the sea. We understand this final shot as coming equally from Gabriel's imagination and from the independent intelligence of the camera. Such a simultaneously empathetic and objective point of view is typical of Huston's cinematic art from the beginning of his career in film If he learned it from Joyce – as to some extent he might well have done - the lesson would not have come from his late adaptation of "The Dead," but from his early, intense involvement, with Ulysses and other of Joyce's works.

18Camera work, including editing, is the principal means by which Huston expresses the passing of time in The Dead. Conventionally, fades indicate a change in place and/or time. A wonderful example of Huston's use of this cinematic convention and of his independent camera's power to create meaning comes during Julia's singing of "Arrayed for the Bridal," a performance that has occasioned some unfavorable comment. We are less likely to criticize this moment, if we understand it as Huston did. The documentary on the making of the film provides some wonderful clues to the director's apprehension of this scene. Huston was deeply moved by Cathleen Delany's performance. Immediately after it he remarked: "It's funny and dear and ever so sad." He rejected a suggestion that the film show audience reaction, "You don't feel you need to show anybody feeling those things?" "No," he smiled, "I don't want to see any tears …" (Sievernich, 1987).

19The sequence as it was finally released incorporates a remarkable alternative to predictable "reaction shots." Until this moment in the film, all transitions from one shot to another have been achieved by straight cuts. The first dissolves occur after the camera leaves the room in which Julia is performing and goes to an upstairs bedroom. While her singing continues on the sound track, seven successive dissolves among her personal mementoes serve to compendiate her life. From porcelain angels, a vase, and a candlestick on a lace-covered table (which we may take as the present), the image gives way to a slow pan down a needlework sampler dated 1865. The first dissolve of the film thus carries us not forward in time but thirty-nine years backward. From that point, the images progress forward through objects that emblematize Julia's lifetime. The sampler is succeeded by an old-fashioned framed photo of a man in a uniform – perhaps Julia's father. Then a precise match-dissolve leads to another photo showing three young women – perhaps Julia and her sisters – which gives way to a third photograph of a young married couple with a baby who might, one supposes, be Mary Jane. Then back to another piece of needlework, embroidered with a verse that reflects what may be the desire of middle age to cope with impatience and disappointment: "Teach me to feel another's woe, / To hide the fault I see; / That mercy I to others show, / That mercy show to me." Next appears a collection of porcelain and glass slippers, traces of Cinderella that resonate ruefully with the singer and her song. The camera finally dissolves to a crucifix with beads resting on what is evidently a prayer book or volume of Scripture, a suitable emblem for Julia's old age. Since no more time remains to travel, the series of dissolves ends and Huston simply cuts back to Aunt Julia finishing her song.

20Life in Huston's The Dead is seen through windows and doorways; it is embodied in pictures and objects. Movies are made of pictures, of movement, of speech and other sounds, of objects and settings and people. The sensuality of books comes from words and their sounds and the images they mediate. Huston's The Dead approaches most closely the literary medium of Joyce's "The Dead" at its end, during Gabriel's soul-shaking meditation.

21Nonetheless, if we inspect the conclusion of the movie, we see how visual it remains, even as it reproduces Joyce's words When the clerk leads Gretta and Gabriel up to their hotel room, the camera holds the shot for several seconds after the people have disappeared We see three shadows move across the empty stairs, like spirits of the dead moving through spaces they have recently vacated. Within the hotel room, the shade of Michael Furey is very much present in Gretta's revelation. At the same time, Gretta and Gabriel share the screen with their mirror reflections and with their shadows projected on the walls. Those precisely projected shadows suggest both the couple's own pasts and a future when they, like everybody else, will be shades. In one eloquent shot, Gabriel embraces Gretta and asks her to tell him what is troubling her. She holds him off slightly as she begins to speak. At the same time, she shifts her head and thereby brings into contact the shadows of two heads on the wall behind them. Does this movement suggest that she and Gabriel are coming together in spirit as she begins her revelation? That the married couple had an intimacy in the past that exceeds that of the present7 Or does the shadow of Michael Furey replace the husband Gretta holds away? Other interpretations are possible, but picking among them is not terribly important. Of central significance is the evocation in a single image of past, present, and future – and the remarkable multiplication of meaning and emotional intensity that Huston achieves with the utmost economy of image and sound.

22A moment later, an equally precise and expressive framing shows Gretta sitting on the bed; as she speaks, her husband's shadow looms behind her on the wall. Gabriel himself, however, diminished by distance from the camera, stands in front of a mirror in which his image is rendered still smaller. Again, this complex composition suggests a multiplicity of meanings, among which we may include another evocation of Michael Furey and Gabriel's loss of visual stature. His reduction appropriately reflects his childishly petulant words and body language; it may also suggest his shrinking presence in his wife's consciousness.

23Similar cinematography and editing bring the film to a close. The dissolve that began the final sequence in the hotel room signified that time had passed. Those during Gabriel's internal soliloquy, however, first move him imaginatively back in time to his memory of dancing with Aunt Julia; then to the future with images of her wake; and finally back to the present in which he contemplates his own transience and that of the world itself.

24Huston's last images as a filmmaker recall those that mark his career from its beginning: faces that maintain their mystery even as they reveal deep and complex emotions; a lovely countryside, inscribed by people but finally offering them no particular pride of place; the sea and the sky; flecks of light against shadows that will finally assume dominion, both at the end of the film and at the end of life. Reading Joyce's story, we find in Gabriel both a sympathetic consciousness and the object of an independent, deftly ironic prose that makes more complicated, ambiguous sense of its protagonist and his world. Similarly, if we are tempted to see Gabriel as a surrogate for the director of the film, we must also see as an emblem for Huston his supple, evocative camera, soaring outward from his mind into a universe of bright and dark.


Works cited

Benayoun, Robert, 1985. John Huston, La Grande ombre de l'aventure. Nouvelle édition mise à jour. Paris: Editions Pierre Lherminier.

Grobel, Lawrence, 1989. The Hustons. New York: Scribner's.

Hart, Clive, 1988. "Joyce, Huston, and the Making of The Dead" Gerrards Cross, England: Colin Smythe.

Naremore, James, 1991. "Return of the Living Dead," The James Joyce Literary Supplement, Spring.

O'Shea, Michael, 1994. "Conversation with Tony Huston," Newberry, South Carolina: Langford Communications Center, Newberry College, videotape

Sievernich, Lylian, Director and Producer, 1987. John Huston and the Dubliners. Liffey Films.

Vineberg, Steve, 1993. No Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade. New York: Schirmer Books.

Yoshimoto, Mitsuhiro 2000. Kurosawa. Durham, North Carolina: Duke University Press.


1 Quoted from the Vestron Pictures press kit accompanying the initial release of the film in 1987, 2.


Wayne State University, Detroit, Michigan

© Presses universitaires François-Rabelais, 2001

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