produced by Walter Reade, directed by Joseph Strick

James Joyce
James Joyce; drawing by David Levine

That Ulysses should resist adaptation to a film is the latest instance of the book’s refusal to conform. Obsessed by language, it refuses to acknowledge that the age of reading is over and that the age of viewing has begun. Joseph Strick’s pious program note discovers Joyce’s contribution to modern literature in “the idea that there are different sorts of reality,” “that the life of the mind—ideas, dreams and fantasies—is no less real than the life of the body.” But all literature has battened on this idea. If it is new to the studio, that is because the camera has to assume, as words do not, that palpable surfaces are primary. What Joyce, distinctively, presented was a multiplication of linguistic perspectives, which included the questioning of its own method, of language itself. Through this Babel his characters scarcely move, conserving their energy to affirm only the power to express.

Perhaps for that reason, the book has weighed heavily on the script writers, who keep an awed look on their faces even as they tear out most of its pages. The film begins well, with a clever counterpoint between the first three chapters about Stephen and the next three about Bloom. But the rapidity of scene changes becomes troublesome, as if the audience were repeatedly being told, “Well, you get the idea,” and were then bundled off to another part of Dublin. What in Joyce is deliberately strolling and pointillistic becomes breathless and kaleidoscopic. The sensation of being treated to excerpts is obtrusive. As for the analogy with the Odyssey, which might offer the principal avenue by which the film could do what Joyce could not do, this is dropped except for the black patch worn by the Cyclopian Citizen. The epic contracts into a domestic comedy.

What is presented is not so much a digest as an anthology of Ulysses. Even an anthology would be defensible. But with all its small boldnesses, the film displays a new kind of bowdlerizing. Instead of expurgating the body, it expurgates the mind. Masturbation is in, cogitation is out. The discussion of Hamlet in the library is censored away, as is the discussion of rhetoric in the newspaper episode. Even more painfully, the medical students in the lying-in hospital are rowdy boys rather than lewd scholars, and sing bawdy catches instead of talking. Here occur some of the rare and infelicitous interpolations, as when Stephen chants a liturgical bit and adds the tag “Stick it up your arse,” which is quite out of keeping with his euphuism. Except for some phrases from the Proteus episode, such as “Ineluctable modality of the visible,” the film maintains the intellectual level of a Hemingway rather than a Joyce novel. So Molly’s monologue, because it is female and physical, is granted a much larger portion of the film than of the book. Those matters at least we can be depended…

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