My very distinguished father, Professor C., on The Dead as written by James Joyce, and then written again and filmed by John Huston and his son, Tony. If you find you would like more of these pieces, please look to the sidebar and click on “Professor C.” Thanks Dad, for all sorts of things.
James Joyce’s “The Dead” is one of the best short stories ever. John Huston’s film adaptation of “The Dead” may be the best translation ever of fiction into film. At least I think so. As do many others. So what to make of this outlier from “Rotten Tomatoes”: “Disappointing adaptation of the last story in Joyce’s Dubliners. It has dullness written all over it. It makes Merchant Ivory seem like Rambo.” This nonsense in fact undermines itself and helps explain why, and how, Huston’s film, about as far as it could be from Merchant Ivory’s glossy stuff, is a masterpiece. In the story and the film, nothing to speak of happens. Or, make that, “nothing” happens. There’s a Christmas-time party in 1904 at the house of two old spinsters and their niece. There is music and formal dancing. The guests are friends and relatives, among them the spinsters’ nephew Gabriel Conroy (Donal McCann) and his wife Gretta (Anjelica Huston). Snow is falling. When the party is over, Gabriel and Gretta go back to their room in the Gresham hotel, where Gretta is overcome by the memory of the boy Michael Furey, with whom she went out walking in their youth and who died, she thinks, for love of her. And that’s it. Behind it all stands the ghost of Chekhov, master of domestic dramas in which nothing happens and everything depends on networks of implication and desire.
What is “The Dead” about? Almost everything: the falling snow and the Irish landscape; Ireland and England in the person of Conroy, an imitation “West Briton” who takes vacations on the continent; the Irish rebellion that is soon to break out; the two Irelands, east and, in the west,Gretta’s birthplace beyond the English pale — Miss Ivor invites the Conroys to come with her to Aran in the summer, and Gretta, born in Galway, longs to return; the two languages of Ireland, English and Gaelic – “beannacht libh,” cries Miss Ivor, “good-bye to you,” when she leaves rudely and early for a meeting of Irish nationalists; Ireland and its Scottish diaspora – old Mrs. Malins, mother of the drunken, charming, puppyish Freddy, has moved to Glasgow to be with her daughter; women and the Catholic church; the music of melancholy and memory – “Arrayed for the Bridal,” “The Lass of Aughrim,” the song that Michael Furey used to sing; Catholic drunks and Protestant drunks; social class; love; loss; desire; age; death. What more do you need? Film and story overflow with something that is everything more than nothingness. John Huston was dying as he made the film, in a wheelchair, hooked to an oxygen line. Dying, he knew that “The Maltese Falcon” and “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre” and “The African Queen,” good films all, were froth on life’s emotional seas, the comings and goings of every day.
In the script, by Huston’s son Tony, much of the dialogue is Joyce’s own; changes here and there are for emphasis. A new character reads (beautifully) the ending of an eighth-century Irish poem, translated by Lady Gregory, about immeasurable loss: “You have taken the east from me, you have taken the west from me;/ you have taken what is before me and what is behind me;/ you have taken the moon, you have taken the sun from me/ and my fear is great that you have taken God from me!” Otherwise, Huston transplants from mid-story to nearer the end the emblematic tale of a family mill-horse, used to circling the mill, who starts circling a statue of the despised English King, William of Orange, when harnessed to a carriage for a day’s outing, an image of Irish life both political and domestic. In a bow to modern usage, Freddy Malins arrives at the party not “screwed” but “stewed.” The “jolly gay fellows” (“which nobody can deny”) of the traditional song become “jolly fine fellows.” But the fabric of the original is intact.
A final challenge, however, eludes the reach of acting and film-making, however adroit: the tumult of Gabriel’s feelings on his way to the hotel and the greater tumult after he learns of Michael Furey. As they go back to the Gresham, in Joyce’s telling, Gabriel is filled with quiet longing: the “touch of her body, musical and strange and perfumed, sent through him a keen pang of lust.” Years slip away: “as they stood at the hotel door, he felt that they had escaped from home and friends and run away together with wild and radiant hearts to a new adventure.” In the film, while in the cab to the hotel, Gabriel has taken Gretta’s hand, but nothing more. And all goes dead when Gretta, overcome by memories of Michael Furey and “The Lass of Aughrim,” cannot respond to Gabriel’s desires, which resist not only being spoken but, being silent, resist the power of film to capture them.
The snow is falling again. In the story but not the film, Gabriel lies “cautiously” down beside Gretta, understanding his feelings now not as lust but love, and speaks a silent requiem: “The time had come to set out on his journey westward” — to the country where Gretta comes from, where Michael Furey is buried, and where spirits dwell. “Yes, the newspapers were right: snow was general all over Ireland,” the weather report as a human condition. The final lines of “The Dead” are surpassingly beautiful. In the film, Donal McCann as Gabriel assembles their threads in a soliloquy, the best film can do with interior monologue. It would be ungrateful to protest that film cannot do more. What it can do, and does in Huston’s “The Dead,” is enough.