James Joyce is one of the least adapted writers of all time. With very few true cinematic adaptations of his timeless work, one can see that perhaps his writing style is more suited for the page than the screen. This, however, did not stop John Huston from taking his chance with the 1904 short-story, “The Dead”, in his final film of the same title released in 1987 after an immense career.
The lyrical and poetic words of James Joyce are recited on screen almost verbatim, but we do not receive the same informative narration that we do in the story. Anjelica Huston and Donal McCann, who play married couple Gabriel and Gretta, both epitomize their characters from the story. Gretta, with her sharp jabs at Gabriel’s lifestyle choices, seems like she was pulled right off the pages and placed on the screen. It is a heartbreaking and sorrowful performance from the early days of Anjelica’s career which surely would have cemented her as a wholly consistent actress. McCann’s performance is equally as torn from the pages as we see the awkward instances that befall him as he is poked at by various guests at the dinner party in which the story revolves around. Aside from the addition of a new character, Mr. Grace, the film is completely faithful to its source material, though it is lacking in the elegiac spirt that the novel conveys.
Unfortunately what severely detracts from what is a hauntingly beautiful story is the feeling that it is a filmed stage-production. With the movie taking place almost entirely within the confines of a meticulously designed house, it begins to feel very much like something you would find on Broadway with its tight and crowded frames and classically trained actors. At times you cannot breathe, which is something you don’t find whilst reading the story. Nevertheless, the final moments are freeing and oneiric. The full force of Joyce’s words come at us through a quiet narration from McCann as he contemplates, with despondency, the revelations and epiphanies that have arrived to him throughout the course of the film.
Though this is a major departure from Huston’s usual adventure and crime thrillers, it still has a lot of elements that made him a legend; the unfulfilled love, non-happy endings, and matters of truth and faith. Being a major passion project for him due to his Irish citizenship, the love and passion for the short-story can clearly be seen through the care put into every detail in the house, the costume design, and the bittersweet soundtrack by Alex North that sweeps us into and out of the film with its almost hopeful melody despite the melancholy ending. There are no greedy bandits, no lost statues, and no boats drifting down an African river, but there doesn’t need to be, because Huston imbues it with enough of his own spirt to make up for what is missing in the descriptive and immortal words of Joyce. It is a worthy film to end on for one of the true greats in the history of cinema.