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(Credit: Geoffrey Barker)


Why James Joyce novel 'Ulysses' can never be adapted into a movie

The relationship between inherently literary qualities and the cinematic domain has been investigated by many scholars and students. Such questions inevitably invoke the problem of adaptations, with many people coming up with vastly differing opinions. The one example that surfaces without fail whenever the limitations of adaptations are discussed is James Joyce.

Arguably the most famous literary giant whose works are continuously associated with the word “unfilmable”, Joyce was a pioneer who pushed the boundaries of literature by constructing highly modernist artistic endeavours that defied the traditional structures of narratives. By employing techniques such as stream of consciousness and delving into metafiction, Joyce’s literary output marked a giant leap forward.

His magnum opus remains his notoriously complex novel Ulysses, which is still revered by many as one of the greatest accomplishments of the 20th century. Even though the book was published in its entirety 100 years ago, the academic scholarship on Ulysses and Joyce is a rapidly growing body of work. Due to the text’s infinite multiplicities in interpretations, Ulysses has remained an indispensable canonical work.

For a text of its stature, it is surprising to note that very few film adaptations of Ulysses have been conducted while other artists have tried to capture its essence in theatre, television and even music. The most prominent film version has been Joseph Strick’s 1967 project despite the fact that a more recent adaptation titled Bloom (2003) exists. Is that because Ulysses is unfilmable as people claim?

Many filmmakers have actually cited Ulysses as a source of artistic inspiration and Joyce’s work itself is very cinematic in nature. Featuring montages, abrupt cuts, visualisation techniques like tracking shots and even voiceover narrations, Ulysses might appear to be ripe for an adaptation to those who haven’t gotten around to reading Joyce’s seminal masterpiece yet.

Those who have read the book will immediately point towards the complexity of the structural alterations that Joyce achieved in Ulysses. The novel takes stream of consciousness to the extreme and even manages to construct versions of reality that are articulated in musical grammar, engineering a vast system of symbols that are too specific to the literary medium.

The problem that filmmakers will inevitably encounter is to fit the entirety of Joyce’s sprawling, labyrinthine world into a two-hour film, which was the case with the previous adaptations. Due to the episodic nature of Ulysses, many have even suggested that a miniseries would be the best form for going ahead with a modern adaptation of Joyce’s enigmatic classic.

The best person to handle such a task might just be Charlie Kaufman, the creative force behind similarly sprawling metafictional masterpieces such as Being John Malkovich and Synecdoche, New York. However, it has become clear with the release of Kaufman’s latest book Antkind that the same challenges of adaptation still exist because Antkind would never work as a film even though it was written by the most prominent metafictional filmmaker of our time!

More than external activities, Ulysses is concerned with the subjective, psychological manifestations and expressions which poses a unique challenge for the visual medium. While the various aesthetic frameworks of cinema can be a potent resource for this task, attempting to reconfigure Joyce’s literary articulations of the structures of human consciousness into audiovisual frameworks would change Ulysses so much that the adaptation would become an original work in its own right.

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