The Dead (John Huston, 1987)


It’s always strange to see a movie adaptation of a work of literature after you’ve read the source material.  While reading, you form a picture in your head of what the author’s describing, and every person, place, thing, thought, and emotion in the story is just as much a work of your imagination as it is the author’s.  When you see an adaptation on-screen, though, you see the perspective of that story from the eyes of another: the filmmaker.  This could be a good thing, giving you new perspective on that particular story, opening your eyes to new sights and sounds, or this or that glance between characters you may not have picked up on, or a vital clue that the filmmaker spotted before you could.  It could also be something of a detriment, bringing a sense of disillusionment to the viewer, as the image of the story that he or she formed while reading is suddenly replaced with a different-looking set, different-looking characters, and a completely different take on, well, everything.

John Huston, that great master of the film adaptation, was near death when he was making his final film in 1987.  It would be his swan song, and a project deeply personal to him.  And, perhaps, his biggest challenge, for his final adaptation would be of likely the greatest story by the incomparable James Joyce.  “The Dead” is often (rightly) considered the greatest short story ever written in the English language, and Joyce is often (again rightly) considered perhaps the greatest author of the 20th century, if not of all time.  Joyce and his story are incomparably great, and incomparably unfilmable.  So how would an ailing Huston handle it?  Could his final and most challenging adaptation actually capture the beauty, the intricate relationships, and the deep symbolism of Joyce’s writing?  Or, would it be that negative side effect of the adaptation, where the elaborate world you formed in your head based on the written word comes shattering down by the imagination of another?  Turns out, Huston was certainly on the right track, but not even he could completely transmit the voice of James Joyce.

I read “The Dead” about two years ago, but had no love for it.  The simple story of a dinner party in turn-of-the-century Ireland and the subsequent soulful awakening of Gabriel and Gretta Conroy did almost nothing for me.  But now I read it again prior to watching Huston’s film, and everything that’s great about Joyce’s writing came flooding out of those 20+ pages.   In a story that’s incredibly short (it took me less time to read it than to watch the film), Joyce is somehow able to form complete characters with complicated relationships.  You feel right at home with these people, like you’ve known them their entire lives, yet all you see of them is one night at a dinner party.  It’s because Joyce’s matter-of-fact observations do simply describe what’s going on, but the real meaning, the real symbolism, of it all exists behind Joyce’s words.  Every tedious conversation about this or that opera singer, lamentations over the ever-drunk cousin Freddy, or dance in the common room, is deceptively simple.  Joyce leaves it to the reader to discover the meaning of the banality of such a lifestyle, how death spares nobody, and how the past can come back to change a person forever.  Gabriel learns this, and so does the reader, through both the simple yet complex description of the party, as well as Gabriel’s final, lyrical epiphany, perhaps the most beautiful couple of paragraphs I’ve ever read.

So how would Huston handle all of this?  Story-wise at least, his film adaptation is just about spot-on in bringing Joyce’s unfilmable story to the screen.  The screenplay by Huston’s son Tony just about transcribes the dialogue of Joyce’s story verbatim, nearly everything that happens in the story happens in the film the same way, and the costumes, and characters are just as you’d imagine them.  So why, then, did I not have the same emotional connection with film that I had with written word?  I think it’s because the story elements were successfully transferred, but something got lost in translation during that transfer.  Sure, the Hustons bring even the minutest story detail to the screen, from Aunt Kate and Aunt Julia spying on arriving party guests atop the stairs to a political argument between Gabriel and young Miss Ivors as they dance, to the barely impressive piano playing of hostess Mary Jane.  As Joyce puts it, Gabriel found “no melody” in the piece and “doubted whether it had any melody for the other listeners.”  Of course, these words of narration can’t be said on-screen but merely shown, and granted, the amateurish piano-playing and the look of sheer boredom on Gabriel’s face (just one facet of Donal McCann’s wonderful performance) convey this well.  But, I think the inevitable fate of an attempt to adapt Joyce for the screen is losing that meaning, that deep philosophical underpinning behind the action. 

With Joyce telling the story, the banality of a party becomes a wakeup call in Gabriel to learn what it means to live and to love.  On film, though, banality just becomes…banality.  I saw no reason to watch intently as party guests chit-chatted about this and that, exchanged pleasantries, and danced cordially, with that irritating piano music always there in the background.  Without Joyce’s deceptively simple language there to establish complex relationships that are allowed to flourish, I felt no affinity for these random people.  In a film, I can’t notice when “Mrs. Conroy” suddenly becomes “Gretta,” transforming from mere wife to conflicted woman with a subtle change of title on-page.  What we’re left with, then, is a bulk of a film that is indeed expertly crafted by John Huston, with his as-always perfect eye behind the camera and the excellent production value, but also a film that lacks much of the meaning, the soul, as conveyed by James Joyce.  Huston couldn’t capture the true voice of James Joyce, but to be fair though, who could?  It’s an impossible task from the start, so it’s a miracle in and of itself that he remained true to an unfilmable author and story as much as he did.

The ultimate irony of the film version of “The Dead” is that the two points where John Huston got it 100% right were the points in Joyce’s story that for all intents and purposes should be the most unfilmable.  In one of the story’s most iconic moments, Gabriel searches for his wife Greta when the party ends.  Suddenly, he sees her simply standing on the staircase, staring off into oblivion with a look of absolute forlorn on her face as professional singer Mr. D’Arcy sings upstairs.  As Joyce describes,

              There was grace and mystery in her attitude as if she were
              a symbol of something.  He asked himself what is a woman
              standing on the stairs in the shadow, listening to distant music,
              a symbol of.  If he were a painter he would paint her in that
              attitude.  Her blue felt hat would show off the bronze of her hair
              against the darkness and the dark panels of her skirt would
              show off the light ones.  Distant Music he would call the picture
              if he were a painter.

Joyce’s use of the language is unfathomably beautiful here, and the picture he paints in our mind is awe-inspiring.  And in turn, John Huston is just as easily able to paint a picture just as awe-inspiring.  We watch as Anjelica Huston, John’s daughter, stands atop the stairs just as Joyce describes Gretta, with the music accompanying the sight: eerily beautiful and haunting as it, as Joyce describes, “faintly illuminated the cadence of the air with words expressing grief.”  Does John Huston stretch out this scene a bit too long?  Perhaps, but for those three minutes or so of Gretta remembering a past tragedy and embodying that imaginary painting of Distant Music, we see this as Gabriel would see it: stretched out into infinity, as he himself stands on the precipice of epiphany.  It’s one of the centerpieces of Joyce’s story, and so too is it one of the magnificent centerpieces of Huston’s film.

And what of the true turning point of Joyce’s story, as Gretta relates to Gabriel the tale of Michael Furey, her past love, dead at a mere 17 years old?  It’s the emotional crux of the story, and it’s where Joyce goes full-on into the mind and soul of Gabriel, as he considers, pities, and loves his wife for the first time like she loved poor Michael, as snow falls across Ireland, “upon all the living and the dead.”  Now, how in God’s name does John Huston live up to that?  Why, by sticking to the script, of course.  And indeed John and Tony Huston do just that, quoting Joyce’s final words verbatim, in the form of Gabriel’s internal monologue.  Sure it doesn’t exactly fit with the style of what we’ve seen for the past hour-plus, but it’s at this point of the story where Joyce’s words become poetry, and as scenes of wilderness under the falling snow are set to Donal McCann’s voiceover of James Joyce’s words, John Huston achieves visual poetry.

John Huston must have known that “The Dead” would be his last film, with his health rapidly declining, and surely he must have known that to adapt the great James Joyce was asking the impossible.  Was it hubris?  A desire to reach back and make his last film his most challenging, and in turn the most telling of his worldview and his Irish heritage?  Perhaps it’s all of the above, but what resulted was a film that was, apart from a select few scenes, far from perfect, and in fact quite flawed.  But, to make a perfect adaptation of a perfect story is impossible, and the job that Huston did do, with the help of his two children, was a labor of love and as good a job as one could hope for, working with such lofty source material. “Better pass boldly into that other world,” Gabriel thinks to himself, “in the full glory of some passion, than fade and wither dismally with age.”  “The Dead” is a story about experiencing life, rather than just living it, about loving, and moving forward, and finding a sense of purpose.  And even with its flaws, this film, and an entire career’s worth of films, was John Huston’s passion, and boldly passing on in the glory of that passion is exactly what he did.


2 comments so far

  1. JohnnyO on

    You are a cunt!

  2. Karen J. Wilson on

    If you had paid as much attention to the nuances of human behavior and interaction as you did (the second time around) to Joyce’s words, ypu would have gotten a lot more out of the movie. Where you feel no human connection and little emotion, many viewers are intensely moved, even while they’re smiling or even laughing at the inadequacies, insecurities and conceits of the characters. You get SO much wrong. For example, Mary Jane’s piano performance is far from inept. What Joyce wanted us to feel was its dazzling vacuousness.

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