1967, B&W, 132 minutes
Directed by Joseph Strick
Screenplay by Fred Haines & Joseph Strick
Cinematography by Wolfgang Suschitzky
Music by Stanley Myers
Produced by Joseph Strick
|Cast (in alphabetical order)
Martin Dempsey . . . Simon Dedalus
Fionnula Flanagan . . .Gerty MacDowell
Maire Hastings . . . Mary Driscoll
Barbara Jefford . . . Molly Bloom
Graham Lines . . . Haines
Joe Lynch . . . Blazes Boylan
Anna Manahan . . . Bella Cohen
Peter Mayock . . . Jack Power
T.P. McKenna . . . Buck Mulligan
Milo O'Shea . . . Leopold Bloom
Sheila O'Sullivan . . .May Golding Dedalus
Maureen Potter . . . Josie Breen
Maurice Roëves . . . Stephen Dedalus
Maureen Toal . . .Zoe Higgins
I will reprint the blurb from the back of the original videocassette case:
Ulysses portrays a stream-of-consciousness day in the life of Leopold Bloom, Molly Bloom, and Stephen Dedalus (the hero of Joyce's earlier autobiographical novel, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man). Bloom is an ordinary man, a Jew whose odyssey through the streets of turn-of-the-century Dublin leads him through trials that parallel his classic prototype, Ulysses, on his epic journet home. Molly is a voluptuous, delightfully earthy wife whose infidelity is a major burden Bloom must bear. The intimacy of Joyce's language was without precedent in literature, and flashbacks, dream episodes, sounds and visual montages translate freely into the language of cinema.
"Joyce's great novel becomes a movie masterpiece."
"A fine, very rich film . . . As faithful a screen translation of Ulysses as anyone could ask for has been made . . .The great theme of human lust and longing, hope and satisfaction and despair . . . it's timeless and universal."
--The New York Times
The Brazen Head's Review
We all know that Ulysses is impossible to film, right? Radical technique, stream-of-consciousness narrative, a style that undergoes more transformations than Proteus -- all the things which make Ulysses such an amazing work of literature are the exact things which sabotage an attempt to translate it into film....
Yes, yes, we've heard it all before. Mount Everest could not be climbed. The sound barrier could not be broken. John Travolta could never be nominated for an Oscar. Let's face it, for every impossible task there's a few committed lunatics who will make the effort anyway, adventurers and artists who tend to read "impossible" as merely "challenging." And let's not forget that even Joyce himself thought Ulysses could be made into a movie, once approaching the great Sergei Eisenstein himself with the proposition -- which certainly indicates that the desire to film Ulysses has a fairly legitimate basis!
Unfortunately, the only serious attempt so far has been made by Joseph Strick, and I can safely say that he has left the field wide open for any new contender. His 1967 Ulysses fails to rise to the challenge. It's not that Strick didn't make an honest approach -- his love of the work and his good intentions are undeniable. But in taking on a project the size of Ulysses, you may need a certain amount of reckless arrogance, the sort of half-crazy visionary drive that results in the creation of either a sublime masterpiece or a spectacular failure. Both, at least, can be admired for their ambition; but Strick's film is neither timeless masterpiece nor noble disaster. His Ulysses is merely a bland and relatively unengaging movie, illuminated occasionally by a few tantalizing flashes of "what could have been." To put it simply, he lacked the creative chutzpah to meet Joyce's great work and then to make it his own.
But before I continue, I want to make it clear that my disappointment does not spring from a naive desire to see the novel faithfully recreated. As an avowed Joyce enthusiast, I can easily understand that my expectations may be colored by a sense of jealous stewardship and a general feeling of wariness -- one always views a film based on a favorite book with a strange mixture of excitement and apprehension. But I assure you, I sat down to this movie with an open mind -- even a generous one. I am well aware that in order to film a book such as Ulysses, some allowances must be made. It is impossible for a film to encompass the entire book, so scenes will be inevitably cut, reshuffled, or condensed. It is also understandable, particularly given the year the movie was made, that some of the racier elements may be subject to censure: even today a completely faithful rendition of Ulysses would certainly win it an NC-17 rating for prurient American audiences. But even though some editorial choices must be made, they should be made creatively and intelligently, and here Strick and Haines exercise poor judgment. For starters, they made the puzzling decision to set the movie in the contemporary Dublin of the 1960s, complete with electric lighting, modern clothing, and streets crawling with automobiles! I assume this cut down the cost of production, but it was nevertheless quite jarring to a fan of the novel. I felt that by tampering with Bloomsday (16 June 1904), Strick displayed an almost callous disregard for the book's intricate internal balance. I found myself wondering whether or not Strick was oblivious to the effect this would have on Joyceans, who -- let's be honest! -- are going to comprise his most critical audience. Additionally, I wasn't entirely comfortable with some of the omissions and compressions made in the adaptation of the text. Certain scenes, like the entire "Lestrygonians" episode, were covered with such a glancing superficiality as to render them essentially pointless, and "Sirens" was utterly defeated by being rolled into the "Cyclops" episode.
Still, these flaws do not bear the brunt of my most serious criticism. That is reserved not for poor editorial choices, but for the entire lack of creative vision brought to the project, particularly in translating the novel's uniquely structured narrative episodes into cinematic form. Ulysses is an amazingly singular, bold, and compelling work, and any attempt to translate it into film should be as equally singular, bold, and compelling. This is precisely the challenge that would motivate a more creative director, exerting a pressure urging him on to new creative heights -- does Joyce deserve any less? But sadly, Strick was not up to that challenge. The majority of the movie was filmed in a very lackluster, superficial style that resists any attempts to meet it on a meaningful level. While essentially faithful to the actual "plot" of the novel, the film neglected the rich internal world of each character, and as a result, many of the episodes were reduced to confusingly random events devoid of any charm or depth. ("Hades" and "Oxen of the Sun" suffered the most damage.) The characters, too, seemed superficial, and it was difficult to connect with them. The biggest casualty here was Stephen, played woodenly by Maurice Roëves. In the book, Stephen is an ultimately likable character -- placed inside his head by Joyce's prose, the reader directly experiences the young artist's inner turmoil, self-doubt, and uncertainty. In Strick's film, we are only rarely -- very rarely -- allowed this important perspective. Deprived of this privileged position, we lose all the delightful undercurrents that make Stephen's personality so rich in irony and paradox -- and these are the very qualities that make us like Stephen, despite his occasional ingratitude, intellectual remoteness, and distasteful moments of self-pity. But when we are given only his words and actions, he is quickly reduced to a caricature of Joyce's Stephen, an arrogant and brooding figure who wanders through the film in a daze, pronouncing one ponderous statement after another like a string of famous quotes. One rather quickly takes the side of Buck Mulligan! And if Stephen wanders gloomily through the film, Bloom, also robbed of his interior monologue, simply drifts aimlessly. Again, it was very hard to connect with the characters, and the only way I could bring myself to care about them at all was to call upon my fond memories from the novel, a fatal flaw in any screen adaptation. Indeed, my wife, who hasn't read Ulysses, found it all very dull, and I felt almost morally compelled to frequently pause the tape and explain what was "really" happening. Eventually I just gave up, and I was forced to agree with her -- it was, truly, very dull!
Fortunately, the situation perks up somewhat in the second half of the movie, which is almost exclusively devoted to the "Circe" and the "Penelope" episodes. In the "Circe" episode, the inferior of the two, the drab sameness of the film's narrative is finally interrupted by Bloom and Stephen's hallucinatory experiences, and we are finally given something interesting to watch -- but how can such a radical break from realism not be initially intriguing? But the novelty wears off rather quickly, and soon tedium makes a creeping return. At first I was surprised by this -- the "Circe" episode is one of my favorite parts of the book, and Strick was thankfully allowing the erotic and phantasmogorical nature of the experience some free play, a decision that gave the movie an aura of controversy back when it was released. So why was I feeling a sense of frustrated boredom? After a moment of reflection, two reasons became clear. The first was a simple matter of technique: Strick films the hallucinations as traditionally as he does the rest of the movie. In the novel, Joyce makes a radical shift of narrative technique to convey the complexity of the hallucinations, and the whole episode explodes in a brilliant recapitulation of the day's themes, both major and minor. But oddly enough, while this episode fairly screams out to be translated to avant-garde cinema, Strick glibly records the hallucinations at a mere surface level. As a result, the daring inventiveness of Joyce's prose style is flattened, and finding no equivalent cinematic break in technique, we lose much of the radical and surreal effect of these scenes: ho-hum, here's the part where Bloom gets sexually dominated, there's a pig, isn't that odd? -- here's a quick cut to an entirely different scene, and zoom! now Bloom is giving a speech, etc.... In short, Strick passes on a marvelous opportunity to take advantage of his own medium. I kept imagining what Ken Russell or Fellini might have done!
The second problem -- and perhaps the more serious -- is that you are left asking, "what is the point of this episode?" In Joyce's novel, the "Circe" episode deals with a wide range of uncomfortable self-realizations: guilt, shame, self-pity, egotism; but because Bloom and Stephen are never fully realized as characters in the first half of the film, their Nighttown hallucinations occur in a void of meaning. If I hadn't been familiar with the novel, I would've been left with the feeling that Joyce threw in some outré hallucinations just to be clever and controversial. Again, I found myself referring to my internal "Ulyssescape" to summon forth any real context or even interest in the onscreen events. I feel certain that Strick, who tends to make movies that explore the sexual fringes of society (Witness his filming of Genet's The Balcony and Miller's Tropic of Cancer), was interested more in the controversial elements of the book than in the intense character development of the earlier episodes. Ironically this causes him to undermine the "Circe" episode entirely, as the foundational character development is exactly what allows the surreal chaos and the emotional shock of the hallucinations to have any significance.
Which brings us finally by a commodius vicus of recirculation to Molly's Soliloquy and Environs. Here, at last, the movie manages to rise above mediocrity and capture just a little bit of Joyce's fire. This scene -- which takes up a considerable portion of the film -- is executed as a series of connected montages, with Molly providing a voice-over adapted from her final soliloquy. Barbara Jefford makes a very suitable Molly, and her voice touches the words with a loving understanding. She brings her own natural rhythm and cadence to Joyce's long sentence, and I found myself pulled in by her rhythm and willingly carried all the way to that final sleepy yes. After such a long and tedious movie, it was a very pleasant surprise!
Of course, there were other positive moments. The always delightful Milo O'Shea made a very likable Bloom, and his control over a wide range of subtle facial expressions told us much more than his stilted dialogue. T.P. McKenna's Buck Mulligan really grew on me, his sardonic cheer and irreverent wit lighting up the screen. This was particularly pleasurable, because McKenna's Mulligan did not at all conform to my mental image of Mulligan (more of an Oscar Wilde, I suppose), and so he really had to work to win me over.
I can even say that seeing Ulysses brought out a few things with greater sharpness than reading it. Two instances particularly stand out in my mind. The first is a scene which finds Bloom in a pub with his Dubliner peers, and the topic of conversation turns briefly to his wife's singing career and her "relationship" with Blazes Boylan. It is evident from their faces that they know Bloom is being cuckolded, and seeing the mixture of sympathy and scorn on their faces is very effective in highlighting the pathos of Bloom's situation. It was a very painful and touching moment. The second such scene was Bloom's voyeurism on the beach. Even though the film balks at showing Bloom's masturbation, Gertie's sexual teasing is handled quite well -- they way she playfully exposes herself was, indeed, most erotically appealing! This proves to be a most effective "set up," because when she stands up and is revealed to be lame, I realized that I had been so captivated by her naughty game that I -- a die-hard Ulysses fan -- had forgotten that Gertie was lame, and so felt a bit of a vicarious shock right along with Bloom!
In conclusion, although I certainly respect Strick for making the effort, I find his Ulysses a deeply flawed work, and one that is by no means a "definitive" attempt. I recommend it only to satisfy the curiosity of someone who has already read the book -- it would, in my opinion, be a highly unsatisfactory, if not damaging, introduction.
Afterword to the Review: The Great Quail's Fantasy
I certainly wouldn't want to offer a criticism without making a few suggestions myself...so here's an idea I've been tossing around for quite awhile. I really can't see any version of Ulysses taking the form of a standard two-hour movie, so how about a 6-8 hour production that takes it one episode at a time? And to really bring home Joyce's amazing technique, why not invite different directors to film each segment, matching each episode with a director best suited for its particular demands? For the sake of some coherence and continuity, however, I feel it's best to stick with a stable cast and production team -- I mean after all, this isn't Finnegans Wake!
Although I haven't worked out a complete "dream team" yet, I do have a few ideas on the directors.
"Proteus" -- Wim Wenders (Wings of Desire; Kings of the Road.) I think his best work has a quiet, soul-searching aspect that is well suited for Stephen's philosophical musings.
"Cyclops" -- Oliver Stone (The Doors; JFK; Natural Born Killers; Nixon; U-Turn) Just wait, before you raise a cry of indignation, think about it a second. Who can better merge together a jillion different styles and perspectives, from a fierce polemic to a farcical epic? And hey -- who better to capture the Citizen's raving paranoia? Come on, you know I'm right....
"Oxen of the Sun" -- Peter Greenaway (The Cook, the Thief, his Wife and her Lover; Prospero's Books; The Pillow Book) I can't think of anyone even close. Greenaway 's fascination with the relationships between sex, food, and language make him the only director who can meet the challenge of this episode: as Mina Purefoy gives birth, a drunken party rages on as the narrative evolves through the history of the English language! Hell, I'm surprised he hasn't done it already!
"Circe" -- Ken Russell (The Devils, Altered States, Tommy, Gothic, Aria) A master at filming surreal experiences and making the viewer feel like they are hallucinating themselves. His skillful use of music will also come in hand!
So what about a cast? Well, I am very curious to see Ewan McGregor's portrayal of the young James Joyce in the upcoming Nora; so I nominate him for Stephen. Leopold Bloom is a tough one; and though I know there are probably better choices, for some reason Rowan Atkinson comes to mind. I only wish Peter Sellers was still with us! Though she's a bit older these days, Fionnula Flanagan made a terrific Molly in James Joyce's Women, and she certainly knows the soliloquy inside and out. I'm still working on the others, though....
Feel free to email me with your own suggestions, and I will happily post them.
Brazen Head visitor Marilyn Weber does not agree with my review, and sent in a more favorable review of her own. As every Siskel needs and Ebert (God rest Gene's soul), here's her take on the film:
Don't even think about watching this movie if you haven't read the book! It just doesn't work as a film, the 1967 nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay notwithstanding. However, director Joseph Strick's obvious love of what is really probably unfilmable by anyone (apparently even Eisenstein) makes this peculiar pelicula a lot of fun for knowledgeable Joyceans. Milo O'Shea (most recently seen in The Matchmaker) does an excellent job as Bloom, and Barbara Jefford as Molly is as come-all-ye as anyone could wish for. But the true joy of this movie is in the quirky visual touches Strick uses to imply the text. For example, the words "ROYGBIV" & "COD" are on the blackboard behind Stephen as his gives his lesson, and the newspaper headings of the "Aeolus" chapter spring up on a poster in the background behind the editor's head, changing each time the camera cuts away. I won't give any spoilers on the "Circe" episode, but let me just say those infamous Bettie Page photos pale in comparison. Molly's soliloquy is slightly marred by the fact that although we Bloom never goes near her "mellow smellow melons" (despite an earlier gratuitous shot of Buck's buck-naked bum), she still talks about him having done so. I'd give it 18 out of 24 plum pits.
Information on Joseph Strick
The following biographical information is from the ALSC List, and was posted to the FWake-List by Jack Kolb:
Strick (b. 1923) was one of the first modern American directors to attempt serious adaptation of modern literature for the screen. His initial such effort was the 1963 film of Jean Genet's The Balcony, sharing script credits with veteran screenwriter Ben Maddow, with a cast that included Shelley Winters, Peter Falk, Lee Grant, Ruby Dee, and Leonard Nimoy. This was followed by Ulysses, co-written with Fred Haines (who would later write and direct the 1974 adaptation of Herman Hesse's Steppenwolf with Max von Sydow) and featuring the Irish and British actors Milo O'Shea, Maurice Roëves, and Barbara Jefford.
In 1970, Strick adapted Henry Miller's Tropic of Cancer (co-writer Betty Botley), with the unlikely casting of Rip Torn as Miller, Miller himself in a cameo, and Ellen Burstyn among others in a large cast. The last of these efforts was Joyce's A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, 1979, with a script by short-story writer Judith Rascoe, Bosco Hogan as Stephen, and a large cast that included Sir John Gielgud as the preacher of the sermon at the church retreat. In 1995, Strick released a documentary feature, Criminals, with texts by the prize-winning poet C.K. Williams.
Strick and his first wife were blacklisted and had their passports taken away at various times; most of his films were made overseas. They have been seen, for the most part, as noble efforts that fell victim to literalism in their adaptation.
It was the "f"-word that caused the film Ulysses so much trouble, as it had Joyce's novel. In New Zealand, for example, the film was allowed to be shown, but only to sex-segregated audiences.
Joseph Strick's son, Jeremy, is an important curator of modern and contemporary art, having served as curator of twentieth century art at The Art Institute of Chicago. He is now the president of the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art.
Image Entertainment, 2000, DVD, $29.99
Image Entertainment, 2000, VHS, $16.99
IMDB's "Ulysses" Page -- The Internet Movie Database's page on Ulysses.
Ban on Ulysses Film Lifted after 33 Years -- Irish Times, 27 Sep 00. Michael Dwyer reports on Ireland's lifting of the Strick Ulysses ban. (Requires registration.)
Strick Sees Ulysses Come Home at Last -- Irish Times, 11 Nov 00. Michael Dwyer talks to Joseph Strick. (Requires registration.)
"Ulysses Cuts Free" -- Sunday Times, 29 Oct 00. Gerry McCarthy talks to Strick about the Ulysses ban. (Not online)
--Allen B. Ruch
12 June 2003
BLOOM: (His eyes closing, quails expectantly.) Here? (He squirms.) Again! (He pants cringing.) I love the danger. -- Send email to the Great Quail -- comments, suggestions, corrections, criticisms, submissions . . . all are welcome!
Return to the Joyce Film Page.