Wednesday, June 11, 2014

James Joyce’s Ulysses: Filming the Unfilmable

Eilís Ní Raghallaigh from the IFI's Tiernan MacBride Library looks at three filmmakers who attempted to capture Joyce on screen.

The IFI will mark this Bloomsday, June 16th, with screenings of John Huston’s The Dead and Frank Stapleton’s A Second of June. Huston’s masterpiece is generally thought to be the most successful adaptation of James Joyce’s work [1], while film adaptations of his most famous novel, Ulysses, have been viewed as problematic. As one critic wrote, “Filming Ulysses was an impossible task – that elusive, magnificent, joyful monster of a book is words, words, words.” [2] In the IFI’s Tiernan MacBride library we look at three filmmakers who sought to capture the essence of Joyce’s masterpiece on film.

Gabriel Conroy (Donal McCann) makes an after-dinner speech in The Dead
Copyright 1987 Arthur McGuinness.

Ulysses (1967)
Joseph Strick’s adaptation of Ulysses was dubbed “psychotic in its blasphemy and dirtiness” by Archbishop McQuaid [3] and was banned in Ireland for over 30 years. Internationally, reviewers praised the actors’ performances in the film but criticised its failure to capture visually Joyce’s evocative prose and the novel’s rich humanity. Key elements of Joyce’s work were seen to have been diminished or excised in favour of its sexual content, which proved shocking enough to “send one reeling out of the theatre.” [4] Modern re-assessments of the film have praised the director’s bold experimentation with cinematic form in a manner that is true to the spirit of Joyce’s own writing. [5]

Leopold Bloom (Milo O’Shea) pretends to model Molly’s underwear in Ulysses
Copyright 1967 Contemporary Films

Ulys (1997) 
Tim Booth’s five-minute animation follows Joyce’s struggle with the writing of Ulysses, which he declares to be "a real bollix of a buk", something the writer himself is alleged to have said. [6] The animation offers an outline of the novel’s plot, gives vivid snapshots of the bawdiness and banter of its characters and pokes fun at Joyce’s formidable reputation as a genius.

In Ulys, Joyce writes to his brother Stanislaus about his struggles with Ulysses
Copyright 1997 Tim Booth.

Bloom (2003)
Sean Walsh stated that in adapting Joyce’s Ulysses to film he "deleted the bits I don’t understand and the bits which bored me." [7] Walsh wanted to demystify Joyce’s work, to make it accessible to general audiences who were daunted by its perceived complexity. Negative reviews of the film concentrated once again on its failure to "film the unfilmable" [8] and on its placement of Molly Bloom’s infamous soliloquy at the beginning, rather than at the end, of the film. Generally however, the film was well received and praised for its playfulness, visual inventiveness and re-telling of the novel in plain words and pictures. Joycean scholar Senator David Norris enthusiastically declared it "a triumphant reinterpretation of James Joyce’s masterpiece." [9]

Stephen Rea and Angeline Ball play Bloom and Molly in happier times in Bloom
Copyright 2003 Stoney Road Films.

By Eilís Ní Raghallaigh

The IFI Irish Film Archive’s clippings, image and document collections contain thousands of files and images relating to all aspects of Irish and Irish-interest film and television production. They are available to view in the Tiernan MacBride library within library opening hours, or by appointment with the librarian. Please contact the IFI librarian, Fiona Rigney, for more information. 

[1] Carty, C. (2009, June 6). Joyce’s novel idea. The Irish Times, pp. 23.
[2] Farren, R. (2001, February 11). A blooming celebration. The Sunday Independent, pp. 27L.
[3] Shortall, E. (2012, November 11). Archbishop in plot to ban Ulysses film. The Sunday Times.
[4]Wolf, W. & Wolf, L.K. (1979). Landmark films: The cinema and our century. New York: Paddington Press.
[5] McCarthy, G. (2009, May 24). Portraits of the artist as cineaste. The Sunday Times, pp. 6-7.
[6] Rockett, R. & Finn, E. (n.d.) Frameworks: Ulys. Irish film & TV research online. Retrieved June 3rd, 2014, from
[7] Sheehan, M. (2000, September 17). Irish to bring Ulysses alive on big screen. The Sunday Times, pp. 3.
[8] Moloney, G. (2003, July 22). New film of ‘Ulysses.’ The Irish Times, p. 13.
[9] Dwyer, C. (2003, July 20). At last, a Molly who Blooms brazenly. The Sunday Independent, p. 19.