Voices of "The Dead" - Comparing Film and Literature

Seminar Paper 1990 28 Pages

English Language and Literature Studies - Comparative Literature



I. Introduction

II. Literature and Film - Some Notes

III. The Problem of Point of View

V. Levels of Narration in Huston's The Dead

IV. Elements of Narration in Film

VI. Subjectivity in the Short Story - Who's Voycing?

VII. Concluding View of Both Versions of "The Dead"

VIII. Final Thoughts

Appendix: Figures 2-4


I. Introduction

James Joyce on film? To everyone who knows Joyce's fiction the mere thought of filming one of his works - even if 'only' a short story from Dubliners - must appear rather bold. After all Joyce is one of the best examples of novelists who focused their works on the very basic instrument of a writer, language and form, respectively. Anthony Burgess[1] points to the problem by claiming that a 'class 1 novelist's work,' as he calls it, the usual popular novelist's work, in which "language is a zero quantity, transparent, unseductive ," is closer to film than that of a 'class 2 novelist' - speaking of the average Hollywood movies we generally have in mind when talking about this medium. Joyce would be of the latter category of novelists, who try to put as much weight on the word as on characters and incidents. The "dandyism" of 'class 2 novelists,' "which makes the clothes more important than the body beneath," is not found in popular film so far, Burgess states.

It would probably be too much to expect 'dandyism' from John Huston's adaptation of Joyce's "The Dead," as it is a Hollywood movie and aims at a comparatively broader audience than an experimental movie, however, Huston shows an acute sense of delicacy in dealing with "The Dead." Furthermore, he does not simply adopt the story as Joyce wrote it but changes it slightly, thus, presenting us with a starting point for discussion.

With "The Dead" Huston probably chose the best of Joyce's works for filming. It is undisputedly the most impressive and complex story from Dubliner's without being as elaborate as Joyce's later works, Ulysses and Finnegan's Wake.[2]

The aim of this paper is not to give a full-length interpretation of the story, nor is its intention to decide about whether the filmic adaptation is good or bad. Both works are independently intriguing.

II. Literature and Film - Some Notes

Literature and film have always been taken to be of a similar kind since both 'narrate a story'. Nevertheless the differences are obvious; film is a visual art and, furthermore, it may encompass all other arts. Natural language plays only a minor part in film, whereas in literature it plays the one and only part.

Film and prose fiction are comparable with respect to time (rather than tense). The reader has to identify the plot and reorder the story according to the occurrence of the events taking the starting point and the baseline of the main plot as a basis from which to establish events as before, after or simultaneous. Tense in verbal language simplifies this problem in prose fiction. In film it is the production of space which comes more natural, whereas in verbal narrative space is usually specified to a lesser degree.

Because filmic presentation depends on the photographic image to such a great extent, the number of represented details is indeterminate. The number of details we may note is potentially vast but, in practice, we do not note as many. We are occupied with the meaning of the depicted 'object' and, because film is normally going by too fast, we do not notice the physical details all too consciously. Details are merely presented rather than highlighted for a certain quality.[3]

Criticism about The Dead is as diverse as can be. Some critics are enthusiastic about Huston's last film, others wail over the absence of Joycean qualities and beauty. Although it is basically his prose style they refer to, an inherent problem, just to be hinted at, comes to the surface. Characters in film are absolute. Evaluating terms such as 'beautiful' depend on the viewer's taste, i.e. either he/she considers the actor/actress beautiful or not. If in a novel a character is described as pretty or beautiful he/she will remain so over hundreds of years even though each reader may have a different concept in mind of what this beauty looks like. With respect to The Dead the characters can be described as being ugly or beautiful in an unfashionable way, which depends more upon the speaker's view than upon the characters' looks in the film. Nonetheless, it is here where the fascination lies of adapting literature to film. Film can give you ''the glory of performers - performers with faces that have been written on by time and skill, performers with voices."[4]

What most critics who state it explicitly agree on, is a major change in the film from Joyce' s story. Iannis Katsahnias, for example, expresses it in this way: "lorsqu' on entend la femme dire ce long monologue plein de regret, de nostalgie et de tristesse, on a envie de revenir en arrière, reprendre les événements de la soirée un par un, les scruter à l'aide de cette nouvelle lumière et prélever dans la foule des détails anodins tout ce qui a pu pousser la mémoire de Gretta à revenir sur les traces de l'événement raconté."[5] This passionate and eloquent voice is backed by various others that Huston's The Dead is Gretta's story and not Gabriel's.

In order to account for the possibility that narratives can be transmitted from one medium (book) to another (film), theories have distinguished between two terms, viz. story vs. discourse and narrative vs. narration,[6] which is basically a distinction between what is narrated and how it is narrated. This distinction is not unproblematic as many critics have pointed out. However, as an underlying theoretical concept of text production it is a requirement of logic. On the level of an actual text it will always be problematic to draw a clear line between the two terms, as it will prove impossible to look at 'narration' without paying attention to the content. It seems, then, that the major difference between the two versions of The Dead is largely one of 'narration' or 'discourse,' i.e. a problem of perception or point of view.

III. The Problem of Point of View

"'Point of view' is a term used in the theory and criticism of fiction to designate the position from which a story is told. Although a large number of these have been distinguished by some critics, there are basically only two: first person and third person narration,"[7] writes John Fletcher, Professor of Comparative Literature. This does not seem to be of much help in dealing with film even if various critics have desperately tried to designate at least these two kinds of narration on their way to a theory of filmic presentation, for instance, in the theory that the natural point of view in film is third person omniscient.[8] Since both terms are closely linked to the first person pronoun and third person pronoun, i.e. elements of natural language, we need to look for a different position. In order to compare the two versions of "The Dead," of course, it is necessary to retain the idea that film has a narrator or narrating agent like prose fiction, one agent that 'dramatises'[9] the story.

Back to the problem of 'point of view' we find a distinction between the concept of 'narrator's voice' and 'point of view' in Seymour Chatman's theory. About 'point of view' he writes, "(...) point of view is the physical place or ideological situation or practical life-orientation to which narrative events stand in relation,"[10] i.e. 'point of view' is threefold: "through someone's eyes,'' ''through someone's world view," and ''from someone's interest-vantage" (pp. 151-152). "Voice, on the contrary, refers to the speech or other overt means through which events and existents are communicated to the audience." "The perspective and the expression need no longer be lodged in the same person. Many combinations are possible. The distinction is logical, however, the number of possible combinations is probably too great to handle. Once a character has been established as protagonist in a work of fiction, for instance, everything might be interpreted from his/her 'interest-vantage' but at the same time it may be someone else's perception or ideology.[11] This is not meant to say that a distinction of perception, attitude, or interest of characters cannot be detected in a text, but it seems to be misleading to combine them under the term 'point of view.'

A look at Edward Branigan's thesis with the promising title Point Of View In The Cinema presents a long range of different concepts of 'point of view:' point of view as perception and attitude, as identification, as language, and his own concept of point of view as a logic of reading.[12] Accordingly, the aim of his study is to give an account of the logic and procedures of reading a film. Branigan distinguishes between 'object' (the text) and 'subject,' i.e. somebody who presents the text (author), somebody who tells the story (narrator), somebody who lives in the fictional world (character), and somebody who listens, watches, and desires that the story be told (viewer).

There are various levels of narration in a text. One of these is character-narration, thus, subjectivity in a narrow sense. The system can be compared with a set of Chinese Boxes, a table may be the object of the vision of a character, who may be the object of a (voice-over) narrator, who in turn may be the object of attention for a 'viewer.' "The text, then, is a hierarchical series of pairs of (nominal) subjects and objects, in which a subject/object pair may at any time become an object for a higher-level subject. (...) There is thus subjectivity in every narration, including the so-called 'neutral' shots of a film" (p.2). The term 'subjectivity' in Branigan's work, however, refers to character-narration or perception.

The relation of subject to object may change in the course of the text, that is, the gap may change between the subject of telling and the subject of what is told. For example, the statement 'I am lying' is paradoxical at first sight. If I am lying when saying 'I am lying' I must in fact be telling the truth, which would contradict my statement. In assuming two levels of language (Branigans dichotomy of narration and narrative) the problem can be solved. The original sentence is interpreted as two statements, the first one being the object language and a second statement given in meta-language about the circumstances of the uttering of the first one. The gap between the subject of telling and the subject of what is told could be widened and the two levels made apparent by saying 'I say: I am lying.'

For Branigan 'point of view' is constituted by the distance between these subjects; it is "the relation between narration, or different narrations, and narrative (an object language)." An actual reader and an author are also subjects in this scheme of narration/narrative. "The reader is defined by the ability to frame (locate, survey) all the divisions of the text, thus providing them with an apparent unity. Obviously the term subject covers a multitude of narrators/perceivers (an author is also a perceiver)" (p. 3). Imagine a visit to the cinema. At a later point in time after that visit it seems almost natural to see yourself and/or the film from an ideal place in the room/ in an ideal or objective view.[13] "The viewer's reaction is extensively determined by the way the film itself frames and re-frames, establishing different relations with your memory and imagination" (p. 4).

In natural language linguistic shifters such as personal pronouns are a key index to subject position, in pictorial language the spatial point from which an image is viewed becomes an index of subject position.

It seems as though we have closed a circle in this discussion of 'point of view.' Branigan's concept defines 'point of view' as a device inherent in the narrative context (in film as well as fiction) independent of a real (Jean Mitry) or ideal (Noel Burch) psychology of the viewing experience, which makes it a workable concept. However, having in mind the inherent complexity of the term 'point of view,' I intend to use it only as a part of the technical term 'point of view shot' (POV), which characterises subjective narration in film.[14]

To come back to the problem of whether the film is Gretta's and the short story Gabriel's story, it seems promising to take up Branigan's concept of different levels of narration and see what if any such levels can be distinguished in both the film and the story. To account for what has been called character-narration, I'll use the term 'subjectivity,' in Branigan's sense of character-subjectivity unless otherwise stated.

IV. Elements of Narration in Film

Before we attempt an analysis of narration in The Dead it seems advisable to have a look at some basic elements of narration in film.

Narration is "a dialectical process between narrator and reader through which is realised a narrative."[15] The act of narration is not in fact linked to the idea of a person (narrator) but rather a symbolic activity. Signs of this activity are embedded in the discourse. For example, signs for the reader appear as 'you,' for the narrator as first or third person pronouns in natural language.

A proof of various levels of narration in a text is that a reader is in a position to recognise at least two levels of meaning in what one character may say in a text:

a) What the character knows, feels, believes, says.

b) The function of a character's speech, e.g. as foreshadowing, suspense, irony (from a privileged view of context).

Fundamentally, there is only one single activity of narration in the text ('narrator').[16] However, the narrator may delegate some of his duties to another narrator (e.g. a character). This new level of narration may be revoked at any time. The effect of changing narrators is a change in the relationship of the reader to the giving of the narration;[17] someone new is accepting the responsibility for what is said.

The division of levels of narration is, of course, purely methodological - a reading theory. However, the narrator has a certain control in that he can make it easier or harder to identify a change in narration.

illustration not visible in this excerpt

Fig. 1: General classes of production in a text

Branigan finds three general classes of production in a text (figure 1), defined by a narrator and reader as origin and destination of narration in relation to differences in 'diegeses.' The term 'diegesis' seeks to assign elements of a film outside or inside the story. A sound, for instance is 'non-diegetic' if it cannot be heard by a character.

A picture invariably discloses its spatial determinations, which are not as salient in verbal narrative, for the reason that the picture must necessarily be taken from some angle and location. Spatial properties are initially more important than others in a picture and may serve as a reference with which to describe the general activity of narration. In specifying the classes of film narration we will, therefore, begin with placement and movement of the camera.[19] Camera placement may be either motivated or unmotivated. The placement is unmotivated if it does not fulfil any function of the motivated camera:[20]

- to establish scenographic space
- to follow or anticipate movement by character or object - to follow or discover a glance
- to select narratively significant detail (object, facial expression)
- to reveal character subjectivity

As already stated, camera is a concept which makes intelligible the spaces of a film. Space in film is defined by the placement and displacement of frame lines. A displacement of frame lines may be brought about by camera movement (editing), zoom shots, optical and spatial effects, etc. Camera in the 'classic' text is compounded of six spatial effects labeled as dolly, track, crane, pan, tilt, and lateral tilt.[21]

Taking Roland Barthes' description of classical representation as a basis, Branigan formulates six general elements of classical representation in film:

Origin The origin is the point in space from which a narration derives.

Vision Vision is an activating instance (e.g. a gaze) which brings representation into being from an origin.

Time Time is the measure and logic of a sequence, or succession of framed parts.

Frame Frame is a perceptual limit or boundary which divides what is represented from what is not.

Object The object is what is represented.

Mind Mind is the condition of consciousness which is represented as the principle of coherence of the representation, e.g. the object appears because it is represented as a memory.[22]

Character narration requires that all six elements be referred to character. Otherwise the character is merely the object of another narration which is non-character in origin and may itself be splintered into levels. Subjective narration may be classified according to the variables time, frame, and mind.[23]

If there is something like subjective narration, there should also be the equivalent 'objective narration' though it cannot be said, as Branigan himself has pointed out, that it is the narration which is not by a character. Following one of Kenner's ideas[24] we may say that the narration in a film is objective when the maximum number of events which are important for a story (in every selective process there is naturally a certain degree of subjectivity) are presented in irreversible order with a minimum number of ellipses in the time sequence.


[1] Burgess, Anthony, Joysprick - An Introduction to the Language Of James Joyce, London 1973

[2] Both have been adapted on screen. Note that for Huston himself only "The Dead" of all of Joyce's works is suitable for filming. "Weil die Geschichte eine durchgängige Erzählform ausweist. Das Interessante wird wachgehalten durch behutsames Aufdecken der Figuren, (...)." (Film und Fernsehen 2, 1988, p. 39).

[3] cf. Seymour Chatman, What Novels Can Do That Films Can't, pp. 121-140

[4] ''Irish Voices'' in: The New Yorker 63 (14 Dec. 1987), p. 147

[5] in: Cahiers Du Cinema 403 (Jan. 1988), p.21

[6] The terms are stated as used by S. Chapman and E. Branigan, respectively. As will become obvious in Chapter III, they cannot be equated, however.

[7] in: Fowler, Roger (ed.), A Dictionary of Modern Critical Terms, London and New York 1987

[8] cf. Ross, Harris, Film As Literature, Literature as Film, pp. 5-16

[9] The intention behind using the verb 'to dramatize' is to avoid the dichotomy between 'telling' and 'showing.' This distinction may serve well to describe the revolution in narrative technique at the beginning of this century but is confusing in this comparison of film and literature. Norman Friedman, for example, arranges his categories of literary point of view along a spectrum from pure 'telling' to pure 'showing,' but the distinction appears arbitrary and even more so in film.

[10] from: Seymour Chatman, Story And Discourse, p. 153

[11] One confusing example is Morgan Blum's essay "The Shifting Point of View: Joyce's "The Dead'' and Gordon's "Old Red",' Critique, Volume I (1956-1958), pp. 45-66.

[12] cf. chapter 1: "The Problem of Point of View," pp. 1-28. Branigan approaches film as a text in a wider sense. This is why he speaks of a logic and of procedures of 'reading.' The advantage is that we can see the similarities rather than the differences in making sense of a film as well as a literary text.

[13] This is how the action is often framed in John Huston's film, particularly when Gabriel imagines Aunt Julia's death.

[14] cf. Figure 4, p. 25

[15] Edward Branigan, p. 39

[16] Using the term 'narrator,' we should bear in mind that the activity of narration is of a symbolic nature.

[17] There are two ways of describing that change:
a) There is one narrator who generates multiple readers.
b) There is one reader creating different levels of narration.

[18] Omniscience here means various non-character narrations.

[19] The term 'camera' should not be understood as the real, profilmic object but as the reader's construct for making intelligible the spaces of film.

[20] Branigan, p. 45

[21] Ibid, p. 53

[22] cf. Branigan, p. 57

[23] See figures 2 and 3 (p. 24) for a table of types of subjectivity and a diagram showing the relation of four types of subjectivity and two types of objectivity in the textual present according to Branigan.

[24] "This is objectivity: the outer world conceived as a sequence occurring to someone's senses, and a sequence occurring in irreversible time," (Kenner, p. 4).


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Title: Voices of "The Dead" - Comparing Film and Literature