The Dead

“His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.” James Joyce, The Dead, Dubliners

In The Guardian of last Saturday, Jonathan Coe wrote a piece about film adaptations of great books, mostly siding with Hitchcock’s views that masterpieces were bound to produce terrible films. (Thus connecting with my post of yesterday. And a much earlier post about subways and books…) However, he manages to find exceptions, such as Huston’s The Dead, which is perfectly translating Joyces’ sublime short story into a film, concluding with

The last few minutes of the film follow Joyce’s final pages closely but not exactly. Fragments of dialogue are transposed, a funny story Gabriel tells at the party being cleverly turned into a ruefully futile attempt to stir his wife out of her melancholy silence during their cab journey home. The painful conversation between husband and wife in the hotel room is just as Joyce wrote it, and flawlessly played by Donal McCann and Anjelica Huston. Then comes the celebrated final monologue, for which the film slips into voiceover for the first time. The script truncates and rearranges it, but holds to its tenor and spirit. As McCann’s voice unfolds, the screen offers us simple shots of wintry landscapes at dusk, the folk tune recurs, distantly, on a solo clarinet, and we are treated, for a few overwhelmingly moving moments, to what film can and should but rarely does become: a perfect counterpoint of word, music and image.

I cannot but agree as I do remember watching this film in Chicago, more than twenty years ago, during a December snowstorm, and emerging speechless from the movie theater, stunned by the masterly way Huston had translated my own apprehension of the story on the screen. (Actually, Huston managed a similar feat, earlier, with the Maltese Falcon.)

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