As any English Lit major knows, James Joyce’s “Ulysses” stands as something of a black hole in the universe of great books--nobody goes lightly into its dense genius. Some explorers, usually Joyce scholars, have been lost in the novel for years.
What an amazement, then, when word came out in the mid-'60s that plans were under way to turn this vast work into a film. That took guts . . . or stupidity. How could Joyce’s inventive, difficult-to-decipher stylings and a stream-of-consciousness narrative that mingles inward and outward realities find a life in moving pictures?
In 1967, when Joseph Strick’s adaptation was finally released, the answer came back: A nice try, but it can’t be done.
“Ulysses” the movie is a game, artistic effort, but only an approximation of Joyce’s revolutionary approach to writing and his story’s layers of awareness and atmosphere. It’s a failure; still, it can be a fascinating failure.
Strick, who also adapted Joyce’s “A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man” in 1979, may give some insight into “Ulysses” when he speaks Tuesday night at UC Irvine after a screening of the film. The movie and Strick’s scheduled appearance are part of the six-day “California Joyce” conference on the author, which starts Sunday and ends Friday, July 2.
The focus of Joyce’s book and Strick’s film is Leopold Bloom, an Irish Jew living in Dublin during modern times soured by the industrial age and religious bigotry. People stream through Bloom’s days, from his adulterous wife, Molly, to the young Stephen Dedalus (the hero of “Portrait”), but much of his life is internalized. Introspection is the world Bloom primarily inhabits, given broad dimensions by Joyce’s prose.
Strick can’t duplicate that reach, simply because movie images are so immediate that they leave little opportunity for the kind of expansiveness of reflection that Joyce trades in. But Strick does take several right steps that make for an intriguing film, if not necessarily a successful adaptation: One of the most affecting is retaining Joyce’s language in many key passages, using it as a hypnotic narrative hanging over strange and moody scenes.
Another is Strick and cinematographer Wolfgang Suschitsky’s use of the camera to provide vivid environments for Bloom and his people to pass through. Reginald Mills’ quick-cut editing joins with the visuals to give an otherworldliness to various important moments.
One of the most resonant finds Stephen (Maurice Roeves) walking along the beach, lost in reverie. The passage provides a sense of the artist as loner, both thrilled and disturbed by the isolation. Another, more comical scene, finds the sexually repressed Bloom (Miles O’Shea) caught in his own erotic rumination, enduring a wild courtroom indictment for his fantasies.
Strick infuses the tableau with a Fellini-esque veneer by using crazy, dreamlike images to create symbols that say much of Bloom’s state of mind. There’s a circus going on in Bloom’s head; his is a psyche that can’t stop tiptoeing along the high wire of illusion and reality.
Mark Chalon Smith is a free-lancer who regularly writes about film for The Times Orange County Edition. What: Joseph Strick’s “Ulysses.”
When: Tuesday, June 29, at 6 p.m. (Strick is expected to speak sometime after 8 p.m.)
Where: UC Irvine Student Center, Crystal Cove Auditorium.
Whereabouts: Take the San Diego (405) Freeway to Jamboree Road and head south to Campus Drive. Turn left to Bridge Road and take Bridge into the campus.
Where to call: (714) 856-7443.