Ulysses on Film

It is a truth universally acknowledged that James Joyce’s Ulysses is not read nearly as often as it should be.  In previous posts, I’ve talked about some of the reasons why people have shied away from Joyce’s notorious novel: its length, the seeming impenetrability of its language, and its tendency to abruptly change genres at a moment’s notice.  However, there’s another reason why Ulysses historically struggled to find a large audience: its tendency to be banned by governments that deem it obscene.

The tale is legend by this point.  Ulysses was initially published in serialized form in Margaret Anderson and Jane Heap’s literary journal The Little Review, starting in March 1918.  For roughly two years, Anderson and Heap would feature installments of what would become the first 13 episodes of Ulysses in The Little Review until the “Nausicaa” episode threw everything into disarray.  Beginning in the April 1920 volume and continuing for two additional issues, readers of The Little Review were treated to Leopold Bloom’s encounter with Gerty MacDowell on Sandymount Strand, which features Gerty leaning back and revealing her undergarments to Bloom during a fireworks display while he gratifies himself.  As noted by both Paul Vanderham in James Joyce and Censorship: The Trials of Ulysses and Sean Latham in The Little Review UlyssesThe Little Review‘s serialization of Ulysses had already faced complaints about its allegedly obscene content and four issues featuring Ulysses excerpts had been seized during that 1918-20 run.

But “Episode XIII” effectively derailed the process.  Serialization of Ulysses was abruptly halted after the first installment of “Oxen of the Sun.”  Anderson and Heap were prosecuted  for publishing obscenity and were found guilty by the Court of Special Sessions in 1921. Publication of Ulysses in the U.S., England, and Ireland was banned for the next 12 years, until the seizure of an imported copy of Ulysses prompted “The United States of America v. One Book Entitled Ulysses” to be contested in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York.  Here, Judge John M. Woolsey concluded that the author’s broader artistic aims to represent the human psyche realistically meant that the novel was not written “for the purpose of exploiting obscenity.”  In Woolsey’s words, “In ‘Ulysses’, in spite of its unusual frankness, I do not detect anywhere the leer of the sensualist. I hold, therefore, that it is not pornographic.and thus could not be considered pornographic.”  His decision effectively overturned the American ban on Ulysses in 1933.  Ireland would follow suit a year later, and England would reverse its ban on Joyce’s notorious novel in 1936.

A month ago, the United States celebrated Banned Books Week, an effort to raise awareness about the need for open access to literature in the face of censorship efforts.  Ulysses was definitely on my mind as I followed the coverage of Banned Books Week on social media, and I had hoped to write a post about the Ulysses trials during that week. (Sadly, Banned Books Week occurring at the beginning of my busiest grading period of the school year put a quick end to those plans.)  Ever since I became a Joycean, I’ve felt that Ulysses was an essential example of the problems of literary censorship, not just because it’s my favorite novel, but because it’s a perfect illustration of the “forest for the trees” limitations of such efforts to suppress literature.  Woolsey argues as much in his decision by noting that the broader merits of Ulysses cannot be subordinated to the shocking content of a few scenes.  As he puts it:

[A]lthough it contains, as I have mentioned above, many words usually considered dirty, I have not found anything that I consider to be dirt for dirt’s sake. Each word of the book contributes like a bit of mosaic to the detail of the picture which Joyce is seeking to construct for his readers.

However, whereas Woolsey focuses his argumentation on the novel’s artistic accomplishments, I feel the same is true if we evaluate it from an ethical standpoint.  At the end of my last post, I identified Ulysses and Les Miserables as “epics of compassion that use their heroes’ quests for redemption as springboards to highlight the need for empathy and kindness in a world defined by suffering and struggle.”  To me, Ulysses is not just a great novel, but a great ethical novel, and attempts to dismiss it as “the most damnable slush and filth that ever polluted paper and print” (as Vanderham quotes a common complaint to The Little Review) based on the explicit content of a few chapters is short-sighted to the extreme.  Bloom definitely engages in questionable behavior throughout his Dublin odyssey, but he also takes important stands against racism and demonstrates through both word and example the need for love and mercy to counteract the hatred and intolerance he faces throughout the novel.  Why would you ban that message?

And the sad double-whammy of Ulysses‘s struggles with censorship is how the problems the novel faced with government suppression spilled over into adaptations of Joyce’s compassionate epic.  In my last post, I considered the potential of film adaptations of literary texts to serve as vehicles for the ethical perspectives of challenging novels to reach contemporary audiences that might never read the source material.  In that consideration, I argued that Les Miserables has Ulysses severely outmatched due to the massive global popularity of the musical it spawned.  But there’s another reason why Hugo has bested Joyce in finding a larger modern audience for his message: just like the novel, film adaptations of Ulysses have struggled with censorship.  Most notably, the 1967 adaptation of Ulysses by Joseph Strick was denounced by Archbishop John Charles McQuaid as being “psychotic in its blasphemy and dirtiness.”  It was rated X in the United Kingdom and promptly banned in Ireland and Australia. (The Australia ban was shortly lifted, but the film wouldn’t be available in Ireland until 2000.)  Screenings of Ulysses at the 1967 Cannes Film Festival were censored without Strick’s knowledge or approval, and audiences in New Zealand had to be sex segregated in order to view it.  Even now, the most popular observation about Strick’s Ulysses may not be anything pertaining to the novel, but the fact that he created one of the first mainstream films where a character uttered the “F word.”  Thus, the biggest problem the film faced was not how you adapt what seems like an unfilmable novel, but how you get an audience to legally see it.

And Joseph Strick’s censorship struggles got me wondering: to what extent is the unfortunate “forest for the trees” irony of morally suppressing Joyce’s supremely ethical novel also present in the efforts to censor the film versions of it?  Were potential audiences for  Strick’s adaptation of Ulysses denied an important vehicle to consider the empathy and kindness of Leopold Bloom because film boards were too outraged by a few scandalous scenes?  And now that the ban has been lifted (and another Ulysses film has been released in its aftermath: Sean Walsh’s 2003 film Bloom), to what extent do the Ulysses films serve as effective vehicles for Joyce’s epic of compassion to reach a twenty-first-century audience that might run away from his 640-page novel?

Of course, Joseph Strick’s 1967 adaptation of Ulysses and Sean Walsh’s 2003 Bloom are two different cinematic takes on Joyce’s novel.  Strick does follow the novel’s plot pretty closely, but his film is widely considered to be an impressionistic take on Ulysses, where the image is a counterpoint to the word rather than a literal repetition of it.  He describes this impressionistic approach in this Screentalk on the making of Ulysses:

Strick’s approach also attempts to capture explicitly the stylistic experimentation behind Joyce’s novel as well as its plot.  From the catechistic question-and-answer format used when filming “Ithaca” to the hilarious ways in which the “Aeolus” newspaper headlines find their way into the background of the newspaper office scenes, Strick’s adaptation attempts to adapt the structure as well as the content of Ulysses by reproducing the genre-switching of the novel’s chapter-to-chapter progression.

By contrast, Walsh’s film is a more straightforward take, guided by the director’s desire to produce what’s since been referred to as a “Ulysses for the people,” an accessible adaptation of a notoriously dense novel to encourage more people to take up the story.  The film’s Twitter account advertises Bloom as such:

What I find important about this meme is that it highlights Bloom as an entry point for new audiences to encounter Ulysses rather than a substitution for the novel.  The advertisement is clearly targeting audiences who have not picked up Ulysses, but it’s not suggesting that they watch the film instead of reading the novel.  Rather, by suggesting that they “start by watching the award-winning film,” Odyssey Pictures is casting Bloom as a method for audiences to dip their toe in Joyce’s epic, so that they can then find their way through its pages more effectively.  As Walsh notes in this interview with The Guardian:

‘ Ulysses is heralded around the world as the greatest novel of the twentieth century, and one of most important books in the English language, but the simple paradox is that we haven’t read it, we’ve got no knowledge of it,’ he says. ‘My goal was to say this is bullshit and I’m going to change that. I’m going to open up these pages and show them to people, show them the story, show them all the humanity and humour of this masterpiece, and reveal some of its hidden tricks, links and connections.’

Unsurprisingly both approaches have their supporters and detractors, with fans of one film frequently being critics of the other.  For example Colum McCauliffe’s celebration of the Strick film in a Bloomsday Quietus article refers to the Walsh version as “an altogether more mundane effort, with Stephen Rea as a far more taciturn Leopold Bloom” than Milo O’Shea.  By contrast, Philip Watson’s Guardian piece on Bloom quoted above describes Strick’s film as the “awkwardly experimental 1967 version.”  But perhaps our main focus should not be which adaptation of Ulysses is “better” (the answer to which will vary depending on what criteria you use and Joycean film audiences can simultaneously find value in both films) or more “faithful” to the novel (the answer to which will again depend on what you focus on and there’s no requirement that film adaptations have to be word-for-word reproductions of the source material).  Instead, maybe we should focus on the extent to which the audiences of the two films may leave with two different experiences of the same story given Strick’s and Walsh’s different approaches to structuring them.

Similarly, Strick’s and Walsh’s versions don’t necessarily focus on the same parts of Joyce’s novel.  This is certainly understandable given the size of Ulysses and the time limitations at play in creating a commercially viable film. (Strick recounts in the above Screentalk how his initial desire to shoot a completely faithful 18-hour Ulysses film shockingly failed to generate any financing.)  So the ways both filmmakers pared down Joyce’s text into a workable two-hour screenplay results in different areas of the novel being focused on in each film.  For example, Strick’s film gives more screen time to the newspaper office while Walsh spends more time with Stephen in the National Library.  Strick’s audience is more present at the Holles Street Hospital, while Walsh’s audience is more present at Paddy Dignam’s funeral.  And even when they’re shooting similar scenes, the sections of the book chapters the filmmakers focus on are not the same.  As Bloom walks Stephen back to Eccles Street in the Nostos episodes, Strick’s version is almost exclusively grounded in the questions and answers of “Ithaca,” while Walsh attempts to provide an equal flavor of both “Eumaeus” and “Ithaca” (though with no catechistic back and forth).  It’s somewhat unfortunate that moviegoers experiencing June 16th, 1904 for the first time in these films only get a selected treatment of that “dailiest day,” but unless someone opts to make a multi-episode miniseries of Ulysses, cinematic time restrictions make that sampling inevitable.

And yet I’d argue that both films succeed in capturing the heart of Joyce’s novel, just in different ways.  In that last post on Ulysses and Les Miserables, I began considering the extent to which film adaptations of literary behemoths could productively convey Joyce’s and Hugo’s ethical perspectives to their audiences.  I argued that the musical adaptation of Les Miserables does a fantastic job of highlighting Hugo’s desire to alleviate poverty, starvation, and the struggles of women and children, even if it has to omit substantial sections of the source material.  Similarly, the film adaptations of Ulysses keep the novel’s ethical focus front and center.  Strick and Walsh may choose to focus on different parts of Ulysses and adapt it through different techniques, but the broader ethic of love and compassion that guides the Blooms is front and center in both Ulysses and Bloom.

For example, both Strick’s and Walsh’s Leopold Blooms are portrayed as empathetic main characters guided by a desire to help the people they encounter, even if the directors choose to show this through different examples.  Walsh chooses to focus on the random acts of kindness we see Bloom offer in the middle of the text: helping the blind piano tuner cross the street, feeding the birds, and empathizing with Mina Purefoy’s painful labor through voiceover reflection.  Strick’s Bloom does none of these things, but we actually see him visit Mrs. Purefoy in the Holles Street Hospital, whereas Walsh’s Bloom never actually enters it because he encounters Stephen and the medicals outside on their way to Nighttown and immediately starts pursing them.  The Purefoy example is thus an interesting case where two different takes on the same topic ultimately capture its heart: Walsh lets us access Bloom’s ability to feel compassion for the sufferings of other people, and Strick lets us see Bloom transform that empathy into action by dropping in on his suffering acquaintance.

Similarly, both Ulysses films highlight Bloom’s helping Stephen out of Nighttown as further evidence of his desire to help others.  However, Strick and Walsh again choose to film Bloom’s concern for Stephen differently.  For one thing, Strick’s Bloom begins to worry over Stephen earlier than Walsh’s does.  In fact, that’s the primary theme that emerges from the 1967 adaptation of “Oxen of the Sun.”  Once Bloom is shown into the waiting room of drunk medical carousing, the scene’s focus immediately becomes Bloom’s concern that Stephen has drunk too much and his outrage over his friends’ seeming indifference to his situation.  He then follows the medicals to the Nighttown train and witnesses Mulligan and Haines steal the Martello tower key from Stephen’s pocket and gleefully abandon him before Stephen stumbles onto the train.

Walsh’s version of the “Oxen”to”Circe” transition is different: as mentioned above, Bloom never enters the hospital, so he doesn’t see the waiting room of drunk medical carousing (which, in the 2003 version, is dominated by Stephen’s aesthetic monologues that are absent in the 1967 film).  Stephen also isn’t abandoned in Walsh’s version to the extent that he is in Strick’s: in the 2003 film, Stephen stops to urinate on a wall while his friends continue into Nighttown, so there’s less of a sense of exploitation in Walsh’s treatment of the medicals’ separation from Stephen than there is in Strick’s.

However, while Strick’s film better captures Bloom’s kindness in the moments leading into “Circe,” Walsh’s film captures the chapter’s conclusion in an arguably more effective manner.  Strick’s treatment of the end of “Circe” is fairly straightforward: Bloom tries (and fails) to keep Stephen from getting decked by angry soldiers, rescues comatose Stephen from police officers, commits to taking him home, and is then reminded of Rudy (though Strick curiously omits Bloom seeing a vision of Rudy as he does in the novel, only having him look off-screen and mutter his son’s name).  Walsh chooses to shoot this scene by reversing the order of the chapter’s conclusion: Bloom first sees Rudy, who then walks away, and Bloom following Rudy leads him to the knocked-out Stephen.  While Strick’s take is more faithful to Joyce’s chronology, Walsh’s adaptation may better capture the “surrogate son” theme by directly linking Bloom’s loss of Rudy to his resolution to help Stephen.  In that sense, Bloom may put the first-time Ulysses watcher in a better position to understand Bloom’s actions as a compassionate embrace of a young person in need.  Thus, again, different takes on the same part of Ulysses yield different advantages to each film’s handling of it that ultimately highlights the productivity of both approaches.

This productive draw is also seen in the differences in the films’ subsequent portrayals of Bloom taking Stephen home.  As mentioned above, Strick and Walsh give different emphasis to different parts of these Nostos episodes, with Strick being “Ithaca”-centric and Walsh covering both chapters.  This approach initially seems like it will favor Bloom, as Walsh’s shooting of “Eumaeus” allows us to see Bloom struggle to keep up with Stephen’s elevated thoughts as further evidence of his innate desire to understand and affirm other viewpoints.  Walsh’s omission of the “Ithaca” catechism may also carry a cinematic benefit, as it allows us to focus more on Bloom’s kind actions towards Stephen, providing him the nourishment and conversation he’s been lacking throughout the film.  It also omits Stephen’s refusal of Bloom’s offer to spend the night, staging Stephen’s departure from Eccles Street as a friendly farewell between a kind man and the young artist he just saved.  Especially since Walsh also does not stage Bloom and Molly talking in bed (as Strick does), but instead has Bloom simply kiss Molly’s rump and climb into bed in a quick scene, Bloom’s assistance to Stephen constitutes his last major action in Bloom, ending his portion of the film by confirming the generous nature he’s shown throughout it.

However, Strick’s focus on “Ithaca[‘s]” catechistic structure allows us to see the Bloom-Stephen interactions as more reflective of the larger ethical perspectives at play in the novel.  In my last post, I highlighted Ulysses as being an epic of compassion not simply through Bloom’s random acts of kindness, but through the novel’s portrayal of its characters’ competing worldviews that the reader is then invited to empathetically understand and weigh against each other.  With that in mind, it’s important that Strick chooses to highlight the questions from “Ithaca” that show Bloom’s and Stephen’s worldviews in action.  He begins by noting that they discussed “music, literature, Ireland, Paris, friendship, prostitution, diet, and the Roman Catholic Church,” and then has the voice-over narration ask, “Did Bloom discover common factors of similarity between their respective like and unlike reactions to experience” and answer, “Both were sensitive to artistic impressions, musical in preference to plastic or pictorial” (p. 544, 17.12-21).  Beginning with the second and third questions from “Ithaca” thus hammers home Strick’s interest in the different viewpoints Stephen and Bloom bring to the table and how they interact with each other in  the scene.  This is also present in the other questions Strick selects from “Ithaca,” including, “What, reduced to their simplest reciprocal form, were Bloom’s thoughts about Stephen’s thoughts about Bloom and about Stephen’s thoughts about Bloom’s thoughts about Stephen” (p. 558, 17.527-9), and “What two temperaments did they individually represent?”, to which both text and film respond, “The scientific.  The artistic” (p. 558, 17.559-60).  Again, these sections of “Ithaca” speak both to Stephen’s and Bloom’s attempts to understand each other and the larger worldviews they deploy to attempt such understandings.

Of course, Strick includes other elements of the chapter’s catechism that don’t directly relate to this topic (i.e., Bloom’s struggle to get into the locked house and the reference to Plumtree’s Potted Meat).  He also has Stephen decline Bloom’s offer to spend the night, and he carries “Ithaca” further past Stephen’s departure to provide a more in-depth portrayal of Bloom and Molly’s reunion.  But, while these moves don’t place the spotlight on Bloom’s charitable actions towards Stephen to the extent that Walsh does, they may better capture “Ithaca” as a dialogue of competing perspectives, which is what Ulysses has always been.  Ulysses thrives as a tale of individual acts of compassion that speak to larger ethical worldviews, and the films’ handling of the conclusion to Bloom’s story better enables us to see both elements of that connection the more we view them in tandem.

Both films then transition to Molly Bloom’s soliloquy in keeping with the novel’s plot, which naturally invites us to consider how both films stage the novel’s concluding “Penelope” chapter.  “Penelope” is an excellent example of the “forest for the trees” irony behind moral criticisms of Ulysses, as the outrage over Joyce’s portrayals of Molly detract attention from the important ideas she expresses. In Modernism’s Body: Sex, Culture, and Joyce, Christine Froula notes the extent to which early Ulysses criticism elevated Bloom by “violently castigating Molly” (p. 171), presenting her sexual frankness as evidence of depravity.  This tendency is clearly unfortunate, because it ignores the extent to which Molly highlights the struggles of women within a society dominated by repressive, hypocritical notions of sexual purity, and it misses Molly’s ability to empathize with Bloom in a manner reminiscent of his attitude toward others throughout the novel (though admittedly much snarkier).  I summed this up in my last post by arguing that  “Penelope” provides both “a broader perspective criticizing multiple forms of gender exploitation” and “Molly’s deployment of [Joyce’s empathetic] ethic and a microcosm of the novel’s trajectory: an attempt to understand her husband and the others she thinks about, to work through the larger implications of those thoughts, and to say ‘Yes’ to love as a result.”

And both elements of Molly’s ethical perspective are at the forefront of both Ulysses films, just, again, in different forms.  In fact, Strick’s and Walsh’s handling of “Penelope” are likely the most explicit stylistic differences between the two films.  Strick’s adaptation of Molly’s soliloquy is largely faithful to the source material in both structure and content:

Just as it occurs in the novel, Molly’s soliloquy concludes Strick’s film, giving Mrs Marion Bloom the last word in the 1967 Ulysses.  The scene is roughly 25 minutes long, which allows Strick to include a significant portion of Molly’s thoughts from the chapter into the scene.  The soliloquy is also one of the rare instances in the film (“Proteus” being the other main example) where Strick uses extended voice-over to capture Molly’s internal monologue as she thinks about her life, her marriage to Bloom, her affair with Boylan, and the extent to which men exploit women both sexually and socially.  Strick does include a great deal of impressionistic visuals in keeping with the experimental style he described above. (For example, the actor who plays Boylan also plays the priest Molly confesses to and randomly appears in fig leaf garb when she thinks about the beauty of male statues.) However, the visual approach rarely detracts from the substance of what Molly thinks, enabling her criticism of early-twentieth-century societal sexism to carry over from page to screen pretty effectively.

By contrast, Walsh takes significant departures from the source material in his adaptation of “Penelope.”  Most notably, he breaks Molly’s monologue up into two scenes that serve as bookends to the film.  So Molly gets the first word as well as the last, with her thoughts on Bloom, Boylan, and the pleasures men get from women being used to frame how we approach the film as a whole:

Walsh also has Molly break the fourth wall in presenting her monologue, directly addressing the audience by speaking her soliloquy into her bedroom mirror (which is a somewhat surprising move for a film that frequently uses voice-over to capture Bloom’s internal monologue).  While certainly less faithful to the source material, my students who study both films seem to consistently prefer Walsh’s structural approach to “Penelope.”  They feel voicing her thoughts to the audience gives Molly more strength as a character in expressing her frustrations with the way men treat women, and they appreciate Walsh’s earlier introduction of Molly because it gives her a more sustained voice in responding to the innuendo thrown her way by the boorish male characters throughout he novel.

However, the Strick approach does have its advantages.  Not only is his “Penelope” more consistent with Joyce’s stylistic intentions, but he’s also able to include more of the soliloquy in his adaptation of “Penelope.” Either because of the dual presentation or the amount of time devoted to the rest of the film, Walsh does not cover as much of Molly’s thoughts as Strick does, so we may get a better understanding of Molly’s perspective through the 1967 Ulysses.  For example, Strick’s version includes Molly’s transition from criticizing men’s “show them attention and they treat you like dirt” behavior towards women to arguing that “itd be much better for the world to be governed by the women in it you wouldnt see women going and killing one another and slaughtering” (p. 640, 18.1433-6). If a benefit of “Penelope” is seeing how Molly’s individual thoughts of Bloom and Boylan develop into a larger social and political criticism of gender exploitation, then Strick’s adaptation may provide a more sustained examination of that struggle.

On the other hand, I’d argue that we’re better able to see Molly’s love for Bloom through Walsh’s take on “Penelope.”  This is another benefit to breaking the soliloquy up into cinematic bookends: the first “Penelope” scene becomes a lens by which we’re introduced to the film’s focus, and in that scene, Molly persuasively emphasizes her love for Bloom as well as her frustration with the situation women struggle through in Joyce’s Dublin.  For example, both Strick’s and Walsh’s versions of “Penelope” clearly begin with Molly’s opening thought, “yes because he never did a thing like that before as ask to get his breakfast in bed with a couple of eggs” (p. 608, 18.1-2).  However, whereas Strick’s Molly promptly cuts off her thought there and jumps 35 lines later to consider whether Bloom has had sex during the day, Walsh’s Molly keeps going, providing her memory of Bloom trying to impress Dante Riordan at the City Arms Hotel and conceding,”still I like that in him polite to old women like that and waiters and beggars” (p. 608, 16-7).  This difference makes it clearer from the outset that Molly is both irritated by and fond of Bloom, whereas we have to wait a good while during the 1967 soliloquy to recognize that Molly has such fondness for Bloom.  Especially since Walsh’s version begins the film with this dual presentation of Molly’s frustration and affection, 2003 audiences recognize immediately that Molly still loves her husband despite the marital struggles they’re dealing with.  This better enables them to recognize the pervasive love at the heart of both Molly and Bloom’s thoughts of each other, rather than providing a one-sided presentation of seemingly unrequited love until halfway through the film’s final scene.

This focus is also evident in how both films shoot Molly’s concluding thoughts of Bloom’s proposal on Howth Head.  Strick’s take on the proposal scene is almost exclusively confined to the past.  With the exception of the present-day voice-over reciting the soliloquy, the visual presentation of Ulysses‘s conclusion exclusively takes place on Howth and depicts Bloom’s proposal to Molly and their subsequent lovemaking.  By contrast, Walsh cuts back and forth between past scenes of Howth and Molly in her bed, considering this important memory.  Especially given the subtle smile that forms on present-day Molly’s face throughout this concluding scene, Walsh’s conclusion to his second “Penelope” scene emphasizes that the Molly of 1904 is just as much in love with her husband as the Marion Tweedy Bloom proposed to on Howth Head.  Considering the ethical mileage Joyce gets out of portrayals of love in Ulysses (more on this below), Walsh’s relatively happy amorous ending allows us to better see the Blooms potentially heading towards reconciliation.

So, in the final evaluation of these cinematic takes on “Penelope,” your preference may ultimately depend on what you’re looking for.  The frustrated Molly irritated over the exploitation, repression, and dismissal men inflict upon women is arguably better evident in Strick’s Ulysses. The Molly who still loves and affirms Bloom despite the struggles they’ve endured in their marriage is likely more present in Walsh’s Bloom.  However, each take effectively highlights a central point Joyce is expressing in both “Penelope” and the novel as a whole, and in tandem, Strick’s and Walsh’s Mollys enable the audience to recognize the importance of this concluding soliloquy in the broader ethic of Joyce’s story.

However, for my money, Strick’s and Walsh’s stagings of “Cyclops” provide the best example of different takes on similar scenes that both effectively capture their heart.  I mentioned in my last post that I not only teach Ulysses as a novel in my English classes, but I also frequently include both films as part of my Mercy Experience Capstone course that examines how adaptations of novels can convey those texts’ messages about the Sisters of Mercy Critical Concerns of earth, immigration, nonviolence, poverty, racism, and the struggles of women.  In my experience teaching Ulysses as both a novel and a film, “Cyclops” frequently is the episode that sticks out to my students.  They may have trouble following other parts of the story, but they are frequently captivated by Bloom’s standing up to the Citizen in Barney Kiernan’s pub, his outrage over persecution and injustice against Jewish people around the world, and his championing of love as the “opposite of hatred” (p. 273, 12.1485), and they are always quick to highlight his response to the Citizen’s anti-Semitism:

-Mendelssohn was a jew and Karl Marx and Mercadante and Spinoza. And the Saviour was a jew and his father was a jew. Your God.

-He had no father, says Martin. That’ll do now. Drive ahead.

-Whose God? says the citizen.

-Well his uncle was a jew, says he. Your God was a jew. Christ was a jew like me. (p. 280, 12.1804-9).

My students consistently view this as a powerful example of Bloom’s strength amidst revolting discrimination.  They never fail to find the irony in the Jewish Bloom being the best example of Christian empathy and compassion in this exchange, especially in contrast to the bigoted Citizen being comically enraged to biscuit-tin-throwing proportions by Bloom’s “using the holy name” in his ability to see the common ground between Christianity and Judaism (p. 280, 12.1811).  From this recognition, my students of both the novel and films frequently locate “Cyclops” as an important site of Joyce’s epic of compassion, an importance advocacy of nonviolence and stance against racism in the face of a discriminatory society.

Because “Cyclops” has always been such a focal point for the audiences I most often encounter who are discovering Ulysses for the first time, I’m particularly interested in the ways Strick and Walsh choose to shoot the novel’s twelfth episode.  And the differences are indeed striking.  Perhaps in an effort to condense the source material to a manageable length, Strick chooses to merge “Cyclops” with elements of the previous “Lestrygonians” and “Sirens” episodes.  The initial staging of the pub scene echoes the set-up in “Sirens,” with Bloom in an adjacent room listening to the music that is coming from the main bar area.  However, Strick’s combining these three chapters into this scene results in a few telling details:

Initially, Bloom is drinking the burgundy he had at lunch in the “Lestrygonians” episode, while also reminiscing about proposing to Molly on Howth Head.  Through this decision to merge this part of “Lestrygonians” with “Cyclops,” Strick sets up an explicit connection between Bloom’s love for Molly and his arguments against injustice and bigotry in the “Cyclops” component of this scene.

Strick strengthens this connection between Bloom’s love for Molly and his social-political endorsement of love in two ways.  Before the scene even begins, he has Bloom pass a department store called Boylan’s on his way to the pub and reflect on his being turned off of sex after Rudy’s death.  Then, Strick has Boylan enter the pub on his way to 7 Eccles Street, as he does in “Sirens.”  However, because Strick’s “Sirens” is combined with “Cyclops,” Strick’s Boylan converses with the Citizen before he heads to Molly’s home.  These additions thus create an explicit connection between Bloom’s loving memories of proposing to Molly, his recognition of his responsibility for the current state of their marriage, and how his reaction to her adultery feeds into his arguments against injustice and for love in his argument with the Citizen.

Also, Strick has Bloom listen to Simon Dedalus sing in the next room as he does in “Sirens,” but changes the song Simon performs.  Whereas in the text, Simon sings “M’appari,” an aria from the opera Martha that Bloom thinks about throughout the episode, Strick has him sing “Love’s Old Sweet Song,” one of the songs Molly is rehearsing with Boylan.  This addition could further emphasize the affair about to commence during this scene (as Boylan’s appearance in the bar does), but having Simon sing “Love’s Old Sweet Song” rather than “La Ci Darem La Mano” (the other song Molly and Boylan are rehearsing, and seriously who wouldn’t want to hear that duet sung solo by Si Dedalus?) places the scene in a more positive light given the song’s redemptive theme of love’s endurance amidst hardship.  This more hopeful take on Bloom’s marital problems naturally extends from his thoughts outside Boylan’s before the scene begins and is particularly strengthened by Strick’s having Bloom drink the burgundy and reflect on proposing to Molly while listening to Simon sing “Love’s Old Sweet Song.”  Considering that Bloom’s next action after this is to advocate “the opposite of hatred” and the connections between Christianity and Judaism to an anti-Semitic Citizen, Strick’s initial staging of “Cyclops” hammers home just how central an ethical understanding of love and empathy is to what Bloom says and does in that episode.

In terms of how Strick shoots the argument itself, the 1967 Ulysses film’s approach is fairly faithful to the text.  Strick includes Bloom’s arguments against persecution and injustice, the bar patrons’ mocking him over the definition of a nation, and Bloom’s criticism of “insult and hatred” as “not life for men and women” (U p. 273, 12.1481-2).  Curiously, however, Bloom doesn’t utter the word “love” from this speech; when he says that the opposite of that is really life and is asked for clarification, Strick’s Bloom simply says, “I mean the opposite to hate” without explicitly identifying that “opposite” as love.  While this could be seen as a weakening of Bloom’s point, it instead provides more emphasis on why force and hatred are flawed, so his advocacy of nonviolence still comes through prominently.  Furthermore, Strick’s initial staging of the scene provides a sufficient grounding of the “Cyclops” scenes in love and compassion so that the idea comes through even if the word explicitly isn’t uttered.  Finally, the Citizen and John Wyse Nolan still debate “universal love” and Christ teaching them to “love your neighbor” upon Bloom’s exit as they do in the novel (p. 273, 12.1489-90), further strengthening “love” as the alternative to “insult and hatred.”  Thus, despite a couple of telling omissions, Strick’s take on Bloom’s argument with the Citizen allows us to see his ethic of compassion and criticism of force and hatred on compelling display, just as the novel does.

Finally, Strick captures Bloom’s “Christ was a jew like me” speech in delightfully melodramatic fashion.

Just as in the novel, Strick stages the Citizen having to be held back by the bar patrons as Bloom, Martin Cunningham, and Jack Power make their exit, and he has Bloom give his speech about Mendelssohn, Marx, Mercadante, and Spinoza from the car.  He then has the Citizen run after Bloom with a giant biscuit tin (with hilariously over-the-top “danger” music playing in the background) while Bloom sticks his tongue out and “neener neeners” both the Citizen and his dog Garryowen.  While the staging of this scene is a bit farcical, it is tonally consistent with the delightfully absurd conclusion to “Cyclops,” with its ascension of “ben Bloom Elijah” (p. 283, 12.1916), and the idea that Bloom has won his point over on the Citizen remains the conclusion to be drawn from Strick’s staging (even if he looks a bit ridiculous in his victory).  In this sense, while the initial presentation of Strick’s “Cyclops” departs from the beginnings of Joyce’s twelfth episode, the argument between Bloom and the Citizen is provided in a fairly straightforward manner, which allows the important ideas Bloom puts forth about love and tolerance to be effectively conveyed.

Walsh similarly utilizes a straightforward approach to shooting “Cyclops,” but there are a few differences in how he shoots the pub scene that are worth noting.  For one thing, “Cyclops” is mostly a self-contained scene in Bloom.  Whereas Strick merges “Lestrygonians” and “Sirens” into the beginning of his “Cyclops,” Walsh had already staged scenes from Ulysses‘s eighth episode earlier in his film (such as Bloom helping the blind stripling, conversing with Josie Breen, and reflecting on his proposal to Molly on Howth).  Along those lines, Walsh does include certain moments from “Sirens,” such as Boylan stopping into the Ormond and then arriving at 7 Eccles Street, but these scenes are more combined with events from “Wandering Rocks” than from “Cyclops,” so their influence on the pub scene feels less explicit.

However, Walsh’s transition from “Sirens” to “Cyclops” carries a similar effect as Strick’s opening three-chapter fusion.  Just before the pub scene takes place in Bloom, Walsh includes frequent cuts back and forth between Boylan arriving at 7 Eccles Street and Bloom composing his reply to Martha Clifford.  In this back-and-forth, Walsh includes scenes of Boylan and Molly having sex while Bloom is considering his letter, and he tellingly uses Molly’s moaning as a vocal transition from these adulterous scenes to the Citizen noticing Bloom standing outside of the pub at the beginning of the “Cyclops” scene.  The effect of this transitional approach is to stage Bloom’s shadow outside Davy Byrne’s (the pub used for “Cyclops” in the Bloom film) with Molly’s moaning as its soundtrack.  This juxtaposes Bloom’s marital problems (and potentially his thoughts on his proposal if we’re to view the Davy Byrne’s venue switch as a call-back to “Lestrygonians”) with his subsequent actions in the bar in a manner similar to Strick’s use of “Lestrygonians” and “Sirens” to frame Bloom’s battle with the Citizen in the 1967 film.  Thus, to admittedly different degrees, both Strick and Walsh unite Bloom’s personal struggles with Molly with his social and political arguments about love and force in “Cyclops,” underscoring the ethical force of this important episode.

Also, Walsh handles the substance of Bloom’s argument with the Citizen through a faithful adaptation similar to Strick’s approach.  Bloom does omit the “what is a nation” dispute that Strick includes, but Walsh still does have the Citizen ask Bloom “what’s your nation”  through a particularly sinister line reading from Patrick Bergin (p. 272, 12.1430), and the fact that this line is included without the debate over a nation preceding it actually magnifies its menace.  Whereas both the novel and the 1967 film have the question naturally emerge from Bloom’s definition of a nation, the 2003 film has the Citizen ask for Bloom’s nationality out of nowhere, which makes the question an even more blatant attempt to define Bloom as an outsider.  Furthermore, by omitting the discussion over a nation’s definition, the Citizen’s question now immediately follows Lenehan’s observation that Boylan placed money on Sceptre for himself and a lady friend, which further juxtaposes Bloom’s struggles with adultery with his struggles with the anti-Semitism of the pub scene.   In that sense, while Strick’s take on the Bloom-Citizen argument might be more faithful to the text, Walsh’s version amplifies the bigotry and danger Bloom must navigate in the pub, which makes Bloom’s resultant advocacy of love (which he does explicitly identify as the “opposite of hatred” in Bloom) all the more compelling.

At this point, Walsh makes a noteworthy departure from the novel’s progression.  After Bloom leaves the bar and the Citizen and John Wyse Nolan debate “universal love,” the film abruptly shifts to the scene from “Wandering Rocks” where Stephen encounters his sister Dilly reading the French primer and discovers that his family has pawned all of his books.  I’m not entirely sure why Walsh chose to have this scene from two chapters earlier interrupt Bloom’s dispute with the Citizen.  Perhaps he wanted the audience not to lose sight of Stephen since the film doesn’t really include him from the Shakespeare lecture to the Holles Street Hospital.  Whatever the reason, inserting the Dedalus siblings into “Cyclops” actually enhances the ethical perspective Walsh’s take on Ulysses provides in two ways:

First, it adds another shade to the injustice Bloom argues against in the pub.  While Bloom’s stance is clearly explicit to persecution and injustice perpetuated against Jewish populations, Dilly’s appearance forces us to acknowledge the struggles of poverty that the Dedalus family narrative frequently demonstrates.  Their financial struggles may not be the result of “insult and hatred,” but the fact that Nolan’s observation that Christians are all told to love their neighbor is immediately followed by a neighbor in need expands the scope of the love and compassion Bloom argues for in this scene.

Second, it foreshadows Bloom later putting this loving perspective into practice.  Throughout both the novel and films, we see Bloom juxtaposed with Stephen and immediately anticipate the moment when their paths inevitably cross.  Walsh’s juxtaposition here adds further ethical shading to this crossing, as we see Bloom’s belief in love as the true “life for men and women” immediately give way to evidence of Stephen and his family in need.  Thus, Walsh’s “Wandering” addition to “Cyclops” foreshadows not only Bloom eventually meeting Stephen, but Bloom being put in the position to help Stephen and thus further shows how much he practices what he preaches in the pub.

Thus, Stephen and Dilly may seem to have been strange invitees to Walsh’s pub scene, but their presence actually strengthens its importance.

Finally, Walsh’s take on the conclusion of “Cyclops” is more straightforward and less farcical than Strick’s.  Rather than having Bloom highlight Christ’s Jewishness while standing in a car, Walsh stages Bloom’s response to the Citizen before he even leaves the pub.  Bloom and Cunningham then leave the pub, and the Citizen simply screams about Bloom taking the Lord’s name in vain from the pub doors rather than hurling a biscuit tin at the getaway car.  A part of me is sad that there’s no biscuit tin toss in Bloom and the more earnest staging of this scene does make the Citizen look less absurd than he does in Strick’s film.  However, the effect of this different staging is the same: Bloom’s retort to the Citizen’s anti-Semitism constitutes the winning last word on the matter, and the Citizen’s rage at an absent Bloom makes him look like a sore loser.

This approach to the “Cyclops” conclusion by itself would be sufficient to hammer home the promotion of tolerance and love over bigotry that dominates this episode.  However, similar to his transition from “Sirens” to “Cyclops,” Walsh provides another voice-over bridge to connect “Cyclops” to “Nausicaa” that carries this ethical point further.  After the Citizen screams that he’ll “bleedin’ crucify” Bloom to closed pub doors and an absent Bloom, the scene abruptly shifts to the church where the “Nausicaa” benediction service occurs and the repeated “Hail Mary’s” that dominate Walsh’s introduction to the novel’s thirteenth episode.  Just as he earlier juxtaposed Molly’s moaning from the “Sirens” scenes with Bloom’s appearance at the beginning of “Cyclops,” here Walsh keeps the Citizen ranting against Bloom and adds a line to the original text that magnifies the scope of his bigotry: “foreigners coming in here, stealing our wives, stealing our work.”

Not only does this addition further reveal the Citizen to be a key example of the injustice and persecution Bloom critiqued in the pub scene, but I find the resulting juxtaposition of the Citizen’s racist voiceover with the visual of the “Nausicaa” church intriguing.  In The Practice of Reading, Denis Donoghue argues that “in ‘Nausicaa’ Joyce acted upon procedures he learned from Flaubert, especially the technique of cutting from one situation to another to enforce ironic discrepancy” (p. 224).  While Donoghue sees this “cutting” in “Nausicaa” primarily in the narrative switches between the benediction service and Bloom and Gerty’s encounter on Sandymount Strand, I feel that Walsh accomplishes something similar in his voiceover transition from “Cyclops” to “Nausicaa.”  Here we have the image of the Catholic church and the congregation’s repeated Hail Mary’s, which should evoke piety, grace, and forgiveness, “cut” with the Citizen’s ugly, racist rant about “foreigners” stealing what “belongs” to the “authentic” Irish.  Only two lines earlier, the Citizen positioned himself as the Christian guardian against this Jewish “enemy” blasphemously using the holy name, but Walsh’s “cutting” the racist diatribe he lets loose over the image of the religious institution he claims to be protecting gives the conclusive lie to his posturing.  This tactic is more serious than the farcical ending of Strick’s “Cyclops,” but just like its predecessor, Walsh’s conclusion magnifies the force of what Bloom tells the Citizen in the pub and amplifies the irony of the episode’s conclusion: the Jewish Bloom is more full of Christian compassion than the anti-Semite in Christian clothing.

This is really what I take away from both Ulysses films.  Strick and Walsh take noticeably different approaches to adapting Joyce’s novel and emphasize different aspects of the text.  However, despite these different tactics, the novel’s ethical core remains intact in both films.  And if my students are any indication, that core is not solely recognizable to the seasoned Joycean.  Most of my students are members of the audience Walsh’s film is designed for: people who have never read Joyce’s novel (or if they have, only in small excerpts) and are being introduced to Leopold and Molly Bloom through these films.  To be sure, a lot of the difficulty people attribute to the source material finds its way into my students’ reactions to the films; our initial discussions of Strick and Walsh are almost always characterized by some confusion and frustration.  But despite their acknowledgment of the films’ difficulty, my students are always quick to notice the love, compassion, and empathy at their heart.  They may find Bloom a weird character who’s too passive towards his wife’s adultery and too creepy in his encounter with Gerty, but they never fail to pounce on the pub scene and Bloom’s promotion of love against the racism and intolerance he faces throughout the film.  If a potential benefit of literary film adaptations is that they give new life and a contemporary vehicle for the important social, political, and ethical platforms in the source material, my students consistently prove to me that those Bloomsday messages at least are still being received.

This is particularly important because both Ulysses films strive to make that contemporary connection visible to their audiences.  In an interview with RTE, for example, Strick discussed his decision to shoot Ulysses in the modern locations and apparel of 1960s Dublin, rather than utilize sound stages and period garb.  He argued that not only was this approach “a sound way to make the film,” but when asked if he could “hold the flavor of the novel without the period,” Strick argued that the modern Ulysses held up because “I don’t think people have essentially changed very much” from 1904 to 1966. The interviewer then reinforced Strick’s point by asking, “you think it’s valid for all times,” to which the director replied, “yes, it better be or it won’t last.” Strick’s argument ultimately reinforces the idea that Ulysses is as much about human beings in general as it is about Dublin at the turn of the twentieth century, and he successfully demonstrates the story’s timelessness by having the Blooms essentially time travel 62 years into the future, only for their struggles to feel just as relevant in that contemporary environment as it did in 1904.

By contrast, Walsh’s Bloom is not a modern adaptation.  The 2003 film is definitely shot as a period piece and keeps Joyce’s novel almost entirely grounded in Bloomsday 1904.  However, audience members who remain seated after Molly’s concluding “yes” are then treated to a credits sequence where Stephen Rea, still dressed as Leopold Bloom, begins walking around 2003 Dublin, fading into the swarms of Dubliners walking the streets of the modern city in twenty-first-century dress.  In so doing, rather than creating a modern Ulysses, Walsh allows his audience to see the past become present right in front of them, making explicit the connection between Bloom’s “dailiest day” and everyday and confirming Strick’s points about the timeliness of the source material.  Given the extent to which both films highlight Joyce’s portrayal of empathy and love being the opposite of “insult and hatred,” these gestures towards the modern day strengthen the ethical significance of Strick’s and Walsh’s adaptations.  They allow us to see not only why Bloom’s compassion and kindness are important gestures in the face of early-twentieth-century bigotry and violence, but that they remain important obligations for humanity to demonstrate in our present-day struggles with such intolerance.

But is one adaptation of Ulysses a more effective vehicle for conveying these ideas than the other?  From my experiences teaching the films, I don’t think a clear winner emerges (nor does one need to).  In terms of accessibility, my students who’ve watched both films consistently find the Strick version more accessible, which I find surprising since Walsh created the more recent and straightforward adaptation.  But despite this seeming preference for Strick, my students who only watched the 2003 adaptation frequently prove themselves just as equipped as those who watched its 1967 counterpart to tackle Joyce’s takes on the critical concerns of poverty, racism, nonviolence, and the struggles of women.  They may have different evidence at their disposal given the different parts of Ulysses covered by each film, but they still come away with similar ideas.  They may be thrown by the explicitness of the content, but that initial shock inevitably gives way to understanding Joyce’s broader embrace of humanity and love.  And they consistently understand the importance of what Joyce is saying in Ulysses and how those ideas remain important for us to heed in the present day. And my sense is that the same can hold true for most audiences using Strick and Walsh to encounter Joyce’s Odyssey for the first time.  It’s just like with the novel: the first impression may be confusion and shock, but the lasting impression is awe over the films’ ability to tell the story of us through the story of Bloom.

So, as my belated celebration of Banned Books Week, I’d like to pay homage not only to my favorite banned novel, but to the banned cinema it inspired.

I’d like to celebrate our ability to move past the “trees” of Sandymount Strand to affirm the “forest” of Bloom’s odyssey to and from Eccles Street, to recognize that Ulysses is not filth that we must be safeguarded against, but is rather a walk we must all take to discover what’s really life for men and women.

I’d like to show admiration and appreciation to Joyce for making a period piece that’s ethically relevant for all periods, and to Strick and Walsh for keeping that moral timelessness alive through their different cinematic engagements with it.

And I’d like to express hope that Walsh’s goals for the “Ulysses of the people” work, and that both films encourage first-time Bloomites to pick up a copy of the novel after having spent two engaging walks around Dublin with Milo O’Shea and Stephen Rea.




Author: postsonthepenman

I'm an Associate Professor of English at Mount Mercy University. I teach courses in British Romanticism, British Modernism, Contemporary British Literature, and Irish Literature and Culture. I'm specifically a lifelong fan of James Joyce and have taken him up on his request that I devote my entire life to understanding his works.

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