On this day…26 October

On 26 October 1932 Joyce asserted his opposition to the idea of filming Ulysses.

Joyce’s opposition was voiced in a letter from Paul Léon to Ralph Pinker, Joyce’s agent, in which Léon said Joyce’s principle objection was that the book could not be realised in film. However, Léon did not exclude the possibility of Joyce revisiting the idea in the right circumstances.

The issue arose following an approach by Warner Bros to Joyce for the film rights to Ulysses. Léon, on Joyce’s behalf, had visited Warner Bros’ Paris offices and spoken to the manager, but Joyce was not convinced and the matter rested there. Joyce’s principle objection was that he felt the book could not be properly realised in film. Then Joyce heard about announcements in the American press of a forthcoming film of Ulysses, and Léon wrote to Pinker on 26 October 1932 to deny these reports, reiterate Joyce’s opposition to a film, and also to inquire about Joyce’s rights in relation to film.

Joyce had already contacted Bennett Cerf in New York about the matter, fearing that Warner Bros had gone ahead and ‘pirated’ a film without his permission. Cerf assured him that Warner Bros would not do such a thing, and pointed out to Joyce that any film was likely to have a beneficial impact on sales of the book. At the end of October, Léon wrote again to Pinker to say that though Joyce was opposed to a film in principle, he might be prevailed upon to change his mind if the circumstances were right.

This was not the first or the last time that the possibility of filming Ulysses was mooted. Russian film director Sergei Eisenstein had visited Joyce in Paris in 1929 and discussed the possibility of filming Ulysses. Eisenstein had read and re-read Ulysses, and was impressed by Joyce’s use of ‘interior monologue.’ In his copy of Ulysses, Eisenstein had broken down Bloom’s ‘interior monologue’ into a rough shooting script. In 1934, Eisenstein even lectured on Joyce at the State Institute of Cinematography, two months after Joyce’s work and modernist writing in general had been condemned at a Writers’ Union Congress.

After meeting Eisenstein, Joyce told Eugene Jolas that the only ones who could possibly film Ulysses were Eisenstein or Walther Ruttmann. Ruttmann was a German documentary filmmaker whose work was influenced by Eisenstein and whose film Berlin: Die Sinfonie der Großstadt (Berlin: A Symphony of a Metropolis, 1927) had attracted a lot of attention. (Edmund Meisel had composed the music for both Eisenstein’s Potemkin and Ruttmann’s Berlin.) However, Joyce also liked the work of Robert Flaherty, whose documentary Man of Aran (1934) he had seen, and he too was mentioned to Jolas as a possible director.

Even after Joyce had announced his antipathy to a film of Ulysses in 1932, he encouraged the poets Louis Zukofsky and Jerry Reisman in their efforts to develop a scenario for a film through 1936. In addition to Warner Bros there was also an offer from Paramount Studios, and even Joyce’s trusted assistant Stuart Gilbert made a few efforts at possible scenarios for a film. Gilbert also recalled a Hungarian director who had expressed an interest in filming Ulysses, though Gilbert couldn’t remember his name. Someone suggested Charles Laughton for the role of Bloom, though Joyce apparently favoured the actor George Arliss who he had admired playing Disraeli in a 1921 film.


Sources & Further Reading:

Burkdall, Thomas L: Joycean Frames – Film and the Fiction of James Joyce, London:

Routledge, 2001.

Ellmann, Richard: James Joyce – new and revised edition, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1982.

Fahy, Catherine: The James Joyce – Paul Léon Papers in the National Library of Ireland: A Catalogue, Dublin: National Library of Ireland, 1992.

Hutchins, Patricia: James Joyce’s World, London: Methuen, 1957.

Joyce, James: Letters of James Joyce, vol. I edited by Stuart Gilbert, vol. III edited by Richard Ellmann, London: Faber & Faber, 1957, 1966.

Kelly, Joseph: ‘Joyce in Hollywood in the 1930s: A Biographical Essay,’ in James Joyce Quarterly, vol. 45, no. 3-4, Spring-Summer 2008, pp. 521-536.

McCourt, John (ed.): Roll Away the Reel World – James Joyce and Cinema, Cork: Cork University Press, 2010.