Describing the difference between movies and novels is like trying to tell your curious eight-year-old brother the difference between boys and girls. On the most superficial level the distinction is obvious, but once you try to explain the various subtleties, complications set in. For a long time now film screenplays have been adapted from novels, and it doesn't look as if the practice is fading. Take a look at some of the most recent films: The Last Detail, Cinderella Liberty, Thieves Like Us. The Way We Were, and of course, The Exorcist and The Great Gatsby were all originally novels. And nobody seems to question the transformation. After all, popularizing F. Scott Fitzgerald's portrayal of the decadent twenties isn't exactly literary sacrilege. But more often than not, transplanting prose into celluloid betrays the novel.
"Joyce," said George Bluestone in Novels Into Films, "would seem as absurd on film as Chaplin would in print." Chaplin is probably not the most apt comparison to Joyce--Fellini or Bergman are more appropriate. One would be hard put to translate 8 1/2 or Persona into print and still maintain any semblance of the original. Yet, in 1967 Joseph Strick and Fred Haines courted disaster by writing a screen adaptation for James Joyce's Ulysses. The absurdity of the undertaking provides a perfect example of the irreconcilable differences between the two media. Ulysses, published in 1922, was hailed as a classic by Edmund Wilson, an "epic prose poem;" and denigrated by others as belonging to the "cuttlefish school of writers," concealing its shortcomings behind an ejection of inky fluid. The novel, a 763-page description of a single day (June 16, 1904) in Dublin, breaks all of the rules of traditional narrative prose. Viewpoints shift suddenly from one character to the next; punctuation is abandoned; there is no coherent sequence of time and events. One of the most unique elements of the novel is the elaborate stream of consciousness Joyce infuses into Stephen Dedalus and Leopold and Molly Bloom--even the slightest external stimuli summon up old memories, excite new thoughts, and create wild patterns of free association.
The film, unable to cope with the expansive length of Joyce's tour de force, concentrates on three of its most important sections: the separate appearances of Dedalus and Bloom and their subsequent meeting; their romp through Nighttown, Dublin's Combat Zone; and the concluding soliloquy of Molly Bloom. Despite the fact that the film switches the novel's setting to Dublin in the mid-sixties, it remains tolerably faithful to the spirit of the original. But it lacks Joyce's intensity; it can go no further than the flat visual presentation of events (particularly inadequate) since Joyce--almost blind--evoked such powerful non-visual imagery. A novel is better suited to internal drama than film, if only because most of our thoughts are verbal, not visual. Prose has more flexibility, too: It can freeze a moment and describe it in detail while a camera can only capture the immediacy of continuous time. The writer can add or deliberately neglect detail at just the right instant and with greater ease. In the opening scene for example, Joyce carefully describes Dedalus's cohort, Buck Mulligan, to reinforce an antagonistic mood:
Stately, plump...gurgling face...equine in its length...hair, grained and hued like pale oak...shadowed face and sullen oval jowl recalled a prelate...great searching eyes...hollow beneath his underlip...curling shaven lips...white glittering teeth...Cranly's arm. His arm.
Cranly was a friend whom Dedalus rejected in Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man, just as he will later reject Mulligan. The description is not complete (it is not designed to be), but it is more effective than the full front all shot of Mulligan in the movie, which in its lack of focussed detail adds nothing to the dialogue.
The film also destroys some of Joyce's most subtle and suggestive writing--the visuals are just too blatant. In the middle of the film there is a short scene in which Bloom--a cuckold--rubs himself into erotic rapture against a wall while looking up the dress of an obliging young woman. Fireworks are going off in midday, but there is no other sound save Bloom's heavy breathing. The scene goes to quickly and the camera cannot pause long enough to capture the full force of Joyce's sensual prose:
And then a rocket sprang and bang shot blind and O! then the Roman candle burst and it was like a sign of O! and everyone cried O! O! in raptures and it gushed out of it a stream of rain gold hair threads and they shed and ah! they were all greeny dewy stars falling with golden, O so lively! O so soft, sweet, soft....
Leopold Bloom (for it is he) stands silent, with bowed head before those young guileless eyes. What a brute he had been! At it again?...She walked with a certain quiet dignity characteristic of her but with care and very slowly because..
Tight boots? No. She's lame! O!...
Mr. Bloom with careful hand recomposed his wet shirt. O Lord, that little limping devil. Begins to feel cold and clammy. After effect not pleasant. Still you have to get rid of it someway. They don't care. Complimented perhaps.
While film cannot capture time as effectively as novels can--one cannot pause or immediately re-examine a scene, and only rarely can an event on film be extended beyond its actual duration--film's capabilities are better suited to capturing the flux of events. In Joyce's novel, the Nighttown section is written as if it were meant for the screen, stage directions included. It is the one part of the film that works, because you're not supposed to stop. The effect is no tied up in language but in movement and image.
The essential difference then, between novels and film is that one is conceptual and time-oriented, while the other is perceptual and space-oriented. The two media only rarely complement each other. Andre Bazin, the French film critic, thought that while films "vulgarized" novels they served a useful purpose because they led people to read the books. But these days it's not too hard to imagine college students who are caught up in the film-as-film trip using films made from novels as entertaining forms of learning. All they have to do is skip the reading and use them as a kind of celluloids Monarch Notes. As for Ulysses, Stephen Dedalus refers to "the cracked looking glass of a servant" as a symbol for Irish art. It's also an appropriate symbol for Ulysses the movie--a broken reflection of an inimitable world.