Ulysses Review

And so we have come to another film that is a little different.  At university I studied and read James Joyce’s Ulysses and I was very curious to see how a film-maker would portray the fragmented narrative and stream-of-consciousness of the novel, so I thought I would watch this 1967 adaptation.

Ulysses takes place over a single day: June the 16th 1904 and is set in Dublin, Ireland.  The two main characters are Stephen Dedalus, a young schoolteacher who returns to Ireland upon failed ambitions of being an artist in Paris and Leopold Bloom, a middle-aged author and journalist.  The film follows these two men, as they travel around various places in Dublin, including Sandymount Stand Beach, a brothel and Davy Byrne’s pub.

I think the film did well portraying the complicated and confusing literary structure and style of Ulysses.  In writing Ulysses, Joyce parodied and emulated a number of different literary styles and techniques.  For example, chapter 3 is narrated by Stephen Dedalus’ internal fragmented stream of consciousness, which jumps around from topic to topic.  The film portrayed this well by having this particular scene narrated by Stephen whose thoughts jump around as much as they do in the film, as they do in the book.  Two more examples include the last two chapters of Ulysses.  

Chapter 18 where Bloom invites Dedalus into his home after the latter has drunken too much and is narrated in the form of a religious catechism.  This is portrayed well in the film, as rather than hearing the character’s dialogue, Bloom narrates the scene in a question and answer format.  Finally, Chapter 8 is narrated by Bloom’s wife Moly in eight sprawling sentences.  The film’s final scene is narrated by Molly in an internal monologue that is over fifteen minutes long.  I also think the film did well in presenting the novel’s fragmented narrative structure.  As the book jumps from scene to scene with little to no explanation,as to why, so does the film.

As the majority of the book’s action is internalised and takes place in a character’s mind or in their dream’s or fantasies, which the film portrays, I feel it vastly unfair to criticise Ulysses for being dull or lacking in action.  However, I will criticise the film for how much the narrative jumped around.  I know that I just praised the film for staying loyal to the book by doing this, but I feel that if you haven’t read Ulysses and don’t know what it’s about, then the fragmented, disjointed structure would be too confusing to follow.  

Hell, even I got lost at times and I’ve studied this book for a semester.  When Ulysses was first published, there was a massive uproar over its explicit and graphic sexual content, especially in Ireland, where it was branded as pornographic. 

To my memory, there are four such incidents in the text: Bloom defecating loudly, Bloom voyeuristically and publicly masturbating over girls at Sandymount Strand Beach, Bloom fantasising about being a woman and being dominated by a Madam at a brothel and Molly, thinking in crude and explicit detail about how Blazes Boylan (her singing partner whom she is sleeping with) is a much better lover than Bloom in size, technique and stamina.  

Whilst the film portrayed the latter two in explicit and, in regards to the prostitution incident, quite disturbing detail, it either omitted or watered down the first two incidents, which I didn’t like.  In writing these things, I think Joyce was showing how he isn’t afraid to push the boundaries of his predecessors and I don’t like how the film left these parts out.

Overall, I think this film is a commendable adaption of Joyce’s work, but I would only recommend it if you’re a Joyce aficionado, otherwise it will be very difficult to understand.  Even in black and white, this film is still colourful enough to be an intriguing watch.  


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