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?

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