Legendary director John Huston’s final film, The Dead (1987), was adapted from James Joyce’s short story of the same title. I was recently assigned to re-read “The Dead” (for about the 300th time) for one of my English courses, so I decided it was time to finally give the adaptation a watch as well, with the story fresh in my mind.
NOTE: This post will contain spoilers for both the story and the film.
“The Dead” was originally released as the final story of Joyce’s 1914 collection Dubliners, which features stories depicting Dublin life in the early 20th century. “The Dead” is sometimes considered a novella rather than a short story, seeing as it clocks in at a little under 16,000 words.
The story centers on the night of Julia and Kate Morkan’s annual dance and dinner party, this particular party occurring in January 1904, on a snowy night. Attending the party is their nephew Gabriel Conroy, a socially awkward man who would rather be taking a walk alone than spending the night at the dance.
The night moves along with much discomfort for Gabriel. He often becomes flustered, stumbles through conversations and offends some of the other guests.
Finally, Gabriel prepares to leave the party, to make his great escape from the prison that the night has been for him. He and his wife return to their hotel room, where he learns that she has become nostalgic after hearing a familiar song at the party — a song that reminds her of a boy she used to love, who died after going against his orders of bed-rest to visit her before she left for Dublin.
The final scene of the story has Gabriel dealing with this revelation, becoming stuck in his own mind as he contemplates the past, the future, life and death.
Joyce’s complex symbolism and authentic voice in “The Dead” make it a great story for modern lit nerds like myself to read and re-read. I notice something new and significant each time I glance at even a few pages of the story.
My expectations for films adapted from works of literature that I love are usually low, but I was excited to watch the 1987 film The Dead due to the caliber of the cast and crew involved in it. John Huston has directed a few of my favorite films, including The African Queen (1951). John’s son Tony wrote the adapted screenplay, and Anjelica Huston stars as Gabriel Conroy’s wife.
This adaptation does a decent job of staying faithful to Joyce’s story on a surface level, with the exception of the addition of one new character, a man who recites an eighteenth century poem at the party. The poem that was chosen for the character to recite — a translated Irish work called “Donal Og” — actually makes a very nice addition to The Dead. It suits the themes of the story very well.
I do feel that this film lacks the atmosphere of Joyce’s story, and many of the written work’s themes are diminished. In print, “The Dead” has a quite melancholy and contemplative mood. In the film, not much of a mood is built at all until the party ends, with the exception of the scene where “Donal Og” is recited and the scene of Gabriel’s disingenuous toast.
I think this loss of atmosphere has something to do with the lack of focus on Gabriel as the center of the film. In Joyce’s work we get a great sense that Gabriel feels trapped and in despair throughout the night, making his epiphany at the end of the story even more impactful. He’s been an introspective character from his first arrival into the story, and the reader is drawn in by this so that we feel the depth of the impact his epiphany has on him in the end. This loss of internalization works against the film in an unmistakable way.
The scenes between Gabriel and Gretta leading up to the one where she recounts the story of her former love are powerful and elevate the entire film in my esteem. Beginning with the beautifully shot scene of Gretta hearing that song, the film finally begins to capture some of the novel’s symbolism. Anjelica Huston gives a fantastic performance.
The Dead isn’t a bad film, but it doesn’t hold a candle to its source material. I would recommend it for fans of the story who are interested in comparing the two, but people who haven’t read the story will probably get more enjoyment out of it, since they won’t notice any of the missing elements that make the story the greater of the two.