One might be tempted to describe the exquisite, mysterious atmosphere of compulsive preoccupation with the deceased in James Joyce's "The Dead" as haunting and yet part of the brilliance of the work is in how it illustrates the profound impact of ultimate absence, whereas the term "haunting" is generally conceived of as indicating a presence. Joyce's work illustrates, perhaps, a truer and finer definition of the word in that it shows the peculiar, solid blank
the soul compulsively gnaws at until it seems to become something solid for its lack of solidity. To the point where Gabriel found his "identity was fading out into a grey impalpable world: the solid world itself, which these dead had one time reared and lived in, was dissolving and dwindling."
The last few pages of "The Dead" are a breathtaking work of prose, it's impossible to read them without some awe. It's no wonder that in John Huston's 1987 film adaptation he chose to have Gabriel simply deliver a rephrasing of the words in narration over footage of various parts of Ireland under falling snow. It's the best part of the movie, but it's hardly cinematic. It's really, simply a good reading of the text. Huston wisely decided he couldn't do better.
The story is about a gathering of family and friends late in the old Christmas season, the first week of January, in the home of Julia and Kate Morkan, aunts of Gabriel Conroy, from whose perspective the story is told. Gabriel visits with his wife, Gretta, and the bulk of the story is taken up by the party--no particularly dramatic events occur and most of the time the dead, as a subject, isn't at the fore, which ultimately contributes to the weight of that subject. It is brought up, subtly, in moments like a discussion on singers and how some people at the dinner table remember great singers who can't be heard by the younger people present because those singers are dead. The title of the story, though, leads one to pluck at threads throughout to see how they relate to the subject, how the vividness of personalities like the drunkard Freddy Malins contrast with absence. Setting the story at the end of Christmas contributes to the sense of observing and celebrating things that are gone or are passing.
Huston's film isn't really bad. It might be called superfluous. But the actors, Anjelica Huston (the director's daughter), Donal McCann, among others, give a fine enough dramatic interpretation of the material. The screenplay by John Huston's son, Tony Huston, mostly stays faithful to the dialogue of the book, every deviation feeling distinctly unnecessary. An expansion on the political tensions between Gabriel and Ms. Ivors is elaborated on for modern audiences who might not understand the term "West Briton" but it seems hardly necessary, not really contributing as it does to any of the central themes and it dates the film. Worse, I'd say, is dialogue designed to illustrate Gabriel's nervousness about his speech, which had been conveyed through Gabriel's thoughts in the prose. It winds up changing somewhat the relationship Gabriel has with his aunts. There's even a whole extra character, Mr. Grace, who is tolerable in a deviation where he recites the poem "Donal Og", but, again, unnecessary.
What the film does give to the experience is the opportunity to take a slightly different perspective on the material, for example the camera's focus on Aunt Julia during Gabriel's speech praising the work she's done invites one to contemplate the impact of the speech rather than as simply a focus for Gabriel's insecurities about his writing ability, or rather his sense of his own presumptuousness.
Though it's his imperfection, the smallness of his existence beside the combined weight of the silent dead that is so much a part of the story's final impact. It's what makes the story an example of mono no aware
. It helps to create the impression of the inadequacy of life. Twitter Sonnet #465Violent pop rocks clog the dizzy chain saw.
Serpentine bike locks begin choking wheels.
Teeth-like spokes permit plankton through the maw.
Tiny panicked shellfish know how it feels.
Journeymen don't do jack at shopping malls.
History tumbles dry the dead jack rabbit.
Adventure mice cultivate jack cheese balls.
For all, Elvis jacked the butter habit.
Damage collects in pockets so lintly.
Empty soup might not even be water.
The ball pit is no place for a Bentley.
The torn puppets will not mend by solder.
Tattooed tectonic plates made of turnip
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