Reading James Joyce’s Ulysses, part VII – Film Edition

One would think that Ulysses, a novel which is remarkable for it’s experiments with language and writing styles as well as the interior dimensions of its characters far more than plot, would be unfilmable.  Yet I found two different movies that attempt to take Ulysses on, and having read the book I decided to watch the movies.

Ulysses (1967)

This black and white film takes a cinéma vérité approach to adapting the novel to screen.  Although Joyce set Ulysses on a specific day in 1904, all the costumes, sets and scenery are contemporary Dublin lending a swinging sixties vibe.  It makes for some odd juxtapositions such as the Republic of Ireland emblems in the courtroom scene and the appearance of British soldiers on the streets of post-colonial Dublin.  It’s pretty spectacular though that many scenes are on location in the places where Joyce set them.  The first half of the film feels like Cliffs Notes as episodes that took me weeks to read fly by in just a few conversations and monologues.  The second half of the film takes on “Circe” (as bizarre on screen as in the book), skips “Eumaeus” entirely, the actors portraying Bloom & Stephen pantomime in “Ithaca” as disembodied narrators read the catechism, and finally Molly Bloom monologues from bed over flashbacks and daydreams.  A couple of cool film effects include wind blowing in the door of the newsroom in the “Aeolus” scene and Bloom striking the poses of various Dublin statues and landmarks during the New Bloomusalem sequence.

Bloom (2003)

This more recent adaptation is more faithful to the costume and setting of 1904 Dublin but less faithful to the book. One good thing the filmmakers did here is to split Molly’s monologue so that half of it is at the start of the movie creating a provocative framing device.  Angeline Ball puts in a great performance as Molly – bawdy, sexy, yet sympathetic.  She doesn’t make the mistake of being overly reverent toward Joyce’s dialogue.  Stephen Rea, an actor I like, seems miscast as Bloom.  I thought Milo O’Shea put in a more versatile performance in Ulysses.  I think Bloom is even more guilty of the Cliffs Notes effects and tries to make things too pretty at times where they should be grotesgue or gritty.  The music is also pretty inappropriate.  I think they’d been better off to go with period music to match the period costumes and scenery.

Overall I wouldn’t say either of the movies is bad.  They’re entertaining and offers some interesting insights into the novel.  Still, with all the condensing necessary to make an adaptation its impossible not to lose a lot of subtlety and import of the novel.  Perhaps some daring filmmaker should make a 24-part series with each episode based on one hour in Bloomsday.  For an innovative and experimental novel  it would also be nice to see some innovative and experimental film-making.  Ulysses is better than Bloom in this regard, but they’re both fairly pedestrian.  If you’re going to watch just one of these movies get Ulysses.