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2022 | Book

Screening Contemporary Irish Fiction and Drama


About this book

In this book, each chapter explores significant Irish texts in their literary, cultural, and historical contexts. With an introduction that establishes the multiple critical contexts for Irish cinema, literature, and their adaptive textual worlds, the volume addresses some of the most popular and important late 20th-Century and 21st Century works that have had an impact on the Irish and global cinema and literary landscape. A remarkable series of acclaimed and profitable domestic productions during the past three decades has accompanied, while chronicling, Ireland’s struggle with self-identity, national consciousness, and cultural expression, such that the story of contemporary Irish cinema is in many ways the story of the young nation’s growth pains and travails. Whereas Irish literature had long stood as the nation’s foremost artistic achievement, it is not too much to say that film now rivals literature as Ireland’s key form of cultural expression. The proliferation of successful screen versionings of Irish fiction and drama shows how intimately the contemporary Irish cinema is tied to the project of both understanding and complicating (even denying) a national identity that has undergone radical change during the past three decades. This present volume is the first to present a collective accounting of that productive synergy, which has seen so much of contemporary Irish literature transferred to the screen.

Table of Contents

Chapter 1. Introduction
A remarkable series of acclaimed and profitable domestic productions during the past three decades has accompanied, while chronicling, Ireland’s struggle with self-identity, national consciousness, and cultural expression, such that the story of contemporary Irish cinema is in many ways the story of the young nation’s growth pains and travails. Whereas Irish literature had long stood as the nation’s foremost artistic achievement, it is not too much to say that film now rivals literature as Ireland’s key form of cultural expression. The proliferation of successful screen versionings of Irish fiction and drama shows how intimately the contemporary Irish cinema is tied to the project of both understanding and complicating (even denying) a national identity that has undergone radical change during the past three decades of what can without exaggeration be called this “new Ireland.” Few other national cinemas, however, including those of other EU members, are as dependent on the national literary establishment for their source material (including original scripts by prominent novelists and dramatists). It would be an understatement to say that literary adaptation has played a substantial role in the success achieved by the Irish cinema, which is in important ways a literary cinema, as the essays collected in this volume illustrate.
Marc C. Conner, Julie Grossman, R. Barton Palmer
Chapter 2. Filming Global Ireland: Roddy Doyle’s The Commitments
When Roddy Doyle’s novel The Commitments was published in 1987, it seemed to capture the essence of an Ireland (and particularly a Dublin) that was caught between its past and its present. The Ireland of mid-century, evoked in horses and fiddles and a pre-Vatican II Catholic church, was juxtaposed with the Ireland of the end of the century, as grinding poverty brought into relief new pressures of social change, class shifting, and imminent transformation. Much of this tension is evoked in the music of soul, which defines the novel and expresses both the frustrations and the hopes of the young characters. In his 1991 film treatment, Alan Parker was determined to be faithful to the atmosphere of the novel: as Angeline Ball, one of the film’s stars, stated, “Alan didn’t film Dublin through rose-tinted glasses, he filmed it as it was—the deprivation, the unemployment queues. There’s nothing glamorous about it.” This effort to evoke the Dublin reality of the late twentieth century had a seismic effect on Irish fiction and Irish film. The prevailing tropes of Irish film—the countryside, the mythos, the bucolic beauty, the comforting church—all became much more difficult to sustain after The Commitments appeared. Yet ironically, the film was followed by the Celtic Tiger and the greatest surge in the Irish economy that the world had ever seen. Parker’s and Doyle’s cry for attention to the plight of Ireland seemingly vanished in the newfound plenty of Ireland.
Yet the novel and film were more prescient than initial readers and critics perhaps discerned. For their depictions of race in particular signaled a new awareness of how race, class, and culture would interact in the years to follow, in ways that would transform not just Ireland, but world culture in an increasingly global cultural nexus. Indeed, Doyle’s evolving interest in race has found wide-ranging expression in his Last Roundup trilogy and especially in his work in the Metro Eireann stories since 2000. These writings led to his story collection The Deportees in 2007, in which a new group, The Deportees, replaces The Commitments, signaling a growing global awareness of boundary-crossing, migration, and racial mixing that could just be glimpsed in the Ireland of 1987 and 1991. Through scrupulous attention to the lived local reality of Dublin in 1987, the film and novel point us toward an encounter with the global realities that were just emerging throughout Europe, America, and the wider global realm. This exercising of the Joycean microcosm and macrocosm marks the novel and film as establishing a new aesthetic and political context that would show their influence in nearly all subsequent film-making in Ireland.
Marc C. Conner
Chapter 3. The Riddle of the Models of John Carney’s Sing Street (2016)
John Carney’s musical film Sing Street (2016) engages with longstanding and recognizable Irish literary tropes of the would-be artist’s entrapment within familial cycles and institutional structures that threaten the individual’s potential and the promise of exile as a means to escape such nets. Critical reviews of the film repeatedly characterize it as a mini-Commitments, noting its similarities to the 1991 film adaptation of Roddy Doyle’s novel, and describe it as joyous, thus obscuring a number of Sing Street’s darker narrative threads, such as references to childhood abuse within homes and schools. In his own comments on his film, Carney has repeatedly sought to distance Sing Street from The Commitments specifically and Ireland more generally, defining Sing Street as a “fantasy film about the American Dream… just dressed up as an Irish film.” While Sing Street is indeed deeply enthralled with fantasy, particularly as it is enabled for protagonist Conor Lawlor by the revolutionary medium of the music video for Duran Duran’s “Rio,” the film’s full power emerges only when those escapist elements are seen alongside the alternatives they offer to the fixed narrative and visual iconography of boats and piers, exile and emigration established by the film’s opening newsreel. Carney’s insistence on the originality of his protagonist Conor Lawlor’s “creative process” in contrast to the identity of The Commitments as a cover band is strangely at odds with the film itself, where the ability to remix fashion, musical, and visual influences by David Bowie, The Cure, a-ha, Duran Duran, and Michael Jackson is celebrated and where the viewer’s recognition of how Conor is adapting these existing visual, narrative, and musical models and structures to create alternative versions of Dublin, Synge Street’s bullies and abusers, Raphina, and himself is part of the fun of watching and listening. In his evident discomfort with the universal critical characterization of the film as joyful and its resolution as happy, Carney has offered an alternative, tragic interpretation of the ending, one that disguises perhaps the film’s clearest narrative debt, the one to the band that would become “the most famous Irish export since Guinness.”
Julieann Veronica Ulin
Chapter 4. The Women Incarnate of Words Upon the Window Pane
This chapter examines Mary McGuckian’s Words Upon the Window Pane (1994), itself an adaptation of W.B. Yeats’ 1934 play of the same name. Given the play’s focus on Jonathan Swift’s haunting of a 1920s séance, Yeats’ play is most frequently understood as Yeats’ lament for a newly independent Ireland’s abandonment of its rich Anglo-Irish heritage. While McGuckian’s use of mise-en-scène and cinematography to cinematically render the Gothic dimensions of its original literary text maintains this dimension, the film’s numerous transformations of Yeats’ play—particularly its significant expansion of female characters silently relegated to the background in Yeats’ work—provocatively develop a more complex articulation of gender. Consequently, the film Words Upon the Window Pane not only recuperates the importance of historical figures such as Stella and Vanessa to Swift and his work, but also and more tellingly restages Yeats’ play as a filmic drama of women’s agency—a shift that achieves particular resonance when read in conjunction with debates surrounding gender in 1990s Ireland. An analysis of McGuckian’s film further enables us to appreciate its unique intervention into two strands of Irish filmmaking whose considerations of gender have often proved contradictory: the heritage film and its enshrinement of an idealized Irish past embodied in traditional depictions of women’s role in Irish society (specifically within the family); and feminist filmmaking practices with their attempts to challenge the conservative and disempowered representations of Irish women that dominated the corpus of Irish cinema.
Matthew J. Fee
Chapter 5. Mouth Not Eye: On Jordan’s Adaptation of Beckett’s Not I
Neil Jordan’s 2000 adaptation of Beckett’s Not I, featuring Julianne Moore as “Mouth,” revises the priorities of the original 1972 version directed by Beckett, with Billie Whitelaw. Beckett’s version fixes a beam of light on Mouth in a dark space, flattening the plane of action and rendering mouth as a proto-image, but that image must be seen in a theater; Jordan splices camera cuts of the footage to show different sides of Moore’s head, creating an image that, as Walter Benjamin explains, can only be seen on screen. In either case the sound of the piece is similar: hard to locate and to pin on the image or space, produced as it is by the recorded media. But the idea of sound is different in Not I and in its adaptation, and this difference is crucial to the status of the image in this work in a way that relies on the physical mouth, not on mouth as image: as Antonin Artaud, one of Beckett’s literary co-travelers from the experimental theater of 1950s Paris, writes in his critique of Lewis Carroll, sound exists at the border of sense, between material object and semantic enunciation. Gilles Deleuze writes in The Logic of Sense that both take place in the mouth: it is the space that words and food share, and where they threaten to interchange as objects. When words and food, propositions and things, interpenetrate, sense loses to nonsense. Maurice Blanchot, also a Paris contemporary, makes a similar argument about sound and image, as Adam Potts has argued. Mouth is the locus where the speaker makes sense and is marked in Beckett’s Whitelaw version, which, like much of Beckett’s work, is about the inability to get rid of the depth model. This idea can be understood in cinematic adaptations of Not I, but they do not heed the title’s warning to understand the “I” not as an eye but as Mouth (“not eye”—mouth); instead, they propose the camera vision, or eye, and its object, the mouth, as interchangeable. In this the cinematic adaptations of the work, and Jordan’s in particular, continue an interpretative tradition that sees Beckett as showing the reducibility and incoherence of the human, but if we look for sound not in the “eye” but in the mouth, we can see Not I instead as an argument for tragic human depth. This point is made stronger by its particularly Irish context, defined by the famine, the aspect of narration hidden in this text. Mouth is about object loss, particularly of the mother figure, as Rina Kim has argued, a loss made present by the words that serve as food. This context, both historical and literary, is erased by adaptations that subscribe to Beckett’s supposed erasure of history.
Eyal Amiran
Chapter 6. “The Joyce of Filum: Cinematic Accounts of Ulysses”
James Joyce’s interest in film has been a critical commonplace for decades. A number of scholars, quite logically, have explored how this affinity for the cinema shaped both Joyce’s creative impulses and the way readers understand much of his writing, including a number of documentaries specifically dealing with Ulysses that complement these creative efforts.
The documentary that I examine in this essay, Hilary Fennell’s Imagining Ulysses, takes an approach heretofore ignored by filmmakers. It highlights the subjectivity of the experience of Ulysses by using each of the novel’s eighteen chapters as a starting point for a meditation on different responses to the work. The pattern of varied themes followed up by the film mimics the novel’s diverse styles, but it addresses something important that previous documentaries have ignored, attempting to capture a range of diverse response provoked by that novel. My essay examines that process, and critiques what can be learned from its approach.
Michael Patrick Gillespie
Chapter 7. “One Beetle Recognizes Another”: Translation, Transformation, Transgression in Cartoon Saloon’s Film The Secret of Kells
If a viewer chooses to sit through the end credits of The Secret of Kells (Tomm Moore and Nora Twomey, 2009), she is rewarded with a rich voice reciting part of the ninth-century Irish poem, “Messe ocus Pangur Bán” in Old Irish. From the moment the white cat appears in the film in connection with the scribe and artist Brother Aiden, it is clear that this film is more than just a series of pretty pictures exquisitely rendered and influenced by “Celtic” art. It is deeply erudite as well as being thoroughly enjoyable. It is not an adaptation in the conventional sense: that is, there is no “original” or “base” textual work from which it draws its inspiration. Rather, The Secret of Kells is an adaptation of an aesthetic (that of early medieval Insular manuscript and metalwork) and an imagined historical epoch (that of the “Golden Age” of Irish civilization and art when it earned the title “Island of Saints and Scholars”) as filtered through a contemporary, multicultural collaborative group of artists, writers, and musicians. The result is an impressionistic, complex, and layered expression of medieval Ireland and the monastic scribal experience, as well as the long scholarly tradition that seeks to describe it, that is neither entirely fictional nor entirely factual; but is, arguably, entirely true.
Lisabeth C. Buchelt
Chapter 8. Bad Da’s: Rewriting Fatherhood in Breakfast on Pluto
In the opening paragraphs of his autobiography, Frank McCourt remarks that “worse than the ordinary miserable childhood is the miserable Irish childhood,” noting that much of his childhood anguish was inextricably linked to his alcoholic and abusive father. McCourt has great company in his troubled patriarchal relationship as plenty of other twentieth-century Irish writers have included feckless fathers too. John McGahern, John B. Keane, Marina Carr, and Edna O’Brien have all contributed their fair share of fatherly dysfunction to the canon, and the list goes on. Colm Tóibín’s flip remark that “In the first years of the new century the young Irish playwrights wrote about bad fathers” seems almost an understatement to illustrate a notable trend among Irish writers that dads are just no good. Yet film adaptations of these works seem to struggle with such an immovable trope. Parallel to a real-life movement of paternity rights activists, these revisions have offered an interruption to these previously told narratives that suggests that notions of fatherhood need to be revisited. While the stereotypes surrounding the failed father still exist in the previous narratives, there is an opportunity in film adaptations to revisit and rethink what it means to be an Irish father. This chapter will consider several “revised” fathers, in particular those tropes featured in Breakfast on Pluto, that mirror contemporary considerations of fatherhood and the family and seeks to explore these adaptations as second chances. The notable shifts in characterization and plot development surrounding key moments of paternal anxiety mirror contemporary efforts by fathers to be seen as primary and competent caregivers and active participants in family life.
Nicole R. McClure
Chapter 9. What Richard Did: Sort of Adapting Irish History
What Richard Did was the third feature directed by Dublin’s Lenny Abrahamson (b. 1966). Richard followed in the wake of both Adam and Paul (which chronicles the Beckettian meditations and Dublin peregrinations of two heroin addicts) and Garage (a gloomy story of a lonely garage attendant and the terrible consequences of his misconceived gesture of friendship to a young man). Both of these releases won the Irish Film and Television Association award for best picture, and Richard would do so as well. Loosely based on Kevin Power’s bestselling non-fiction novel, Bad Day in Black Rock, Richard focuses on a group of sixth form students from exclusive South Dublin colleges, including a quartet of rugby players. Their summer of fun and indulgence before they begin university life comes to a tragic end when at an alcohol-fueled party a fight breaks out and one of the young men, Conor Harris (Sam Keeley), is beaten to death by three others. The informal leader of the group, Richard Karlsen (Jack Reynor), is shown to be guilty of delivering the fatal blow to his erstwhile teammate, who has been his rival in love for the affections of Lara (Roisin Murphy).
Though he alters names, dates, and some of the circumstances, Power’s elliptical and fragmentary narrative obviously references what was one of Ireland’s most sensational and shocking crimes in the last half century: the killing in the year 2000 of 18-year-old Brian Murphy in the middle of a huge crowd of young people milling on a Saturday night around outside one of Dublin’s posh hotels. The police eventually identified the four malefactors who it seems delivered the deadly pummeling. Like Murphy, they were all scions of the city’s elite. The resulting court cases dragged on years, with three of the four found guilty on various charges, but not murder. In the lengthy appeals that followed, all of which were front page news, these convictions were all overturned, generating no little controversy about the special treatment that the well-connected seemed to have received. Citing the contradictions and inconsistencies in the plethora of eyewitness reports, the state decided in 2006 to pursue no further prosecution, even though rendering a verdict of “unlawful death” in the case. The journal Politico called the affair a “never-ending nightmare,” and that is perhaps something of an understatement.
Written in the wake of the case’s judicial inconclusion, Bad Day in Black Rock alters the facts considerably, though not unrecognizably, arousing some question about the propriety of re-opening a social wound just beginning to close. This chapter will explore the politics of the film version, which also modifies the “true event” as understood at the time, connecting it to Abrahamson’s exploration of the discontents of post-Celtic Tiger Ireland in his earlier features, Adam and Paul and Garage.
R. Barton Palmer
Chapter 10. Plagues of Silence: Adaptation and Agency in Colm Tóibín’s and John Crowley’s Brooklyns
In the novel Brooklyn, Colm Tóibín explores the boundaries, national and imaginary, that limit and delimit Eilis’s social interactions and self-perception. Putting aside screenwriter Nick Hornsby’s adoption of mainstream filmic narrative conventions (the happier ending, e.g., or Eilis’s declaration, “I am Eilis Fiorello!”), the film’s interest lies in its visual metaphors—the use of mirrors, screens, reflections and slo-mo images of crossing thresholds, for instance—to establish a dialogue with Tóibín’s exploration of divided and multiplied selves in relation to place. The film employs a distinct mise-en-scene to converse with the novel: Eilis’s shifting perspective is shown alternatively in long shots and closeups, for instance; crowded and pastel-drenched shots of Brooklyn are set against a tear rolling down the doomed Rose’s face. Indeed, the plague of silence which haunts the text and film alike opens up filmic possibilities to present visually the rigid parameters of place and Eilis’s equivocal expressiveness, which may yet be appropriated, on her return to Ireland, by cultural stereotypes (such as the “returned Yank”). The film’s use of color delineates these issues, and director John Crowley’s repeated images of Eilis’s eyes and mental activity further provide a visual means of showing the protagonist’s resistance to the oppressive forces of community, family, and place. Both texts thus explore “Irelands” and “Brooklyns”—exemplifying, too, how adaptations can multiply the meaning of a place to redefine its imaginary or intermedial spaces.
Kathleen Costello-Sullivan, Julie Grossman
Chapter 11. The Program, Seven Deadly Sins, and Stephen Frears
Among sources of information for Stephen Frears’s The Program (2015), David Walsh’s Seven Deadly Sins (2012) is arguably the most important. Seven Deadly Sins has two central figures, Walsh and Lance Armstrong. In Frears’s film, Walsh is demoted to become a secondary figure—one of the two most important. The other is Floyd Landis, Armstrong’s teammate. Armstrong’s refusal to allow him to rejoin the team leads Landis to make public The Program of performance-enhancing drugs underlying Armstrong and his team and brings down Frears’s protagonist. Seven Deadly Sins spreads the sources for Armstrong’s fall among more characters and over a longer time.
The plot of the film is more coherent than that of Seven Deadly Sins and quite different, though it incorporates much of Walsh’s narrative. Frears’s film is organized around the rise and fall of a hero, with Walsh functioning like the chorus in a classic tragedy. Armstrong begins basically alone and unrespected in the European cycling world. He ascends to ultimately become one of the world’s most revered athletes. But he ends, like the protagonist of, say, Oedipus Rex, alone and disgraced. TP is “the imitation of an action,” as Aristotle described tragedy in The Poetics. 7DS, on the other hand, describes many actions; it reads like a journal.
The design and staging of TP supports its tragic conception, with episodes early in the film mostly showing Armstrong alone or with only one or two people. As his fame increases, he is with larger groups, who offer him adulation. As is usual for Frears, color design is important in TP: Red and Blue predominate (LA is emphatically an American), as does yellow where we might expect white—yellow for the Maillot Jaune that signifies the leader of the Tour de France.
Lesley Brill
Chapter 12. The Immutable and Un-retrievable in the Diasporic Films of John Michael and Martin McDonagh
John Michael and Martin McDonagh were born in London to parents who had emigrated from Ireland to England to find work in the 1960s. The writings of the McDonagh brothers exhibit evidence of very complex diasporic, even post-colonial identities, marked by “polyvocality” and “polylocationality” (Brah). This is compounded by the fact that much of their work is set in Ireland and includes characters that are Irish or second-generation Irish, even in works set outside of Ireland, ranging from John Michael’s Ned Kelly (2003) and War on Everyone (2016) to Martin’s In Bruges (2008) and Seven Psychopaths (2012). This essay will focus on how each brother unnerves issues of accountability/culpability within cinematic frames and sensibilities that are disposed towards the postmodern. It is achieved partially by the inclusion of fragments and residuals of Catholicism and other faiths, as it exploits the historic and popular cultural linkages between perceptions of Irishness and the moral imperatives and fundamentals of the Catholic faith.
In particular this essay will focus on Martin’s Six Shooter (2005) and In Bruges and John Michael’s Second Death (2000) and Calvary (2014), but other film work will be considered, if less extensively. Confessional boxes and that which is long associated with them feature in In Bruges, Calvary and John Michael’s The Guard (2011); issues of transgression, remorse, guilt, penance, forgiveness and restitution are unconventionally problematised. Religious doctrine and notions of the afterlife also feature as a central motive in Seven Psychopaths in the particular determinations of guilt, punishment and damnation. Here, a Quaker family pushes the idea of pacifist stalking to an extreme, and a Buddhist wears the garments of a Catholic priest as he plots revenge for American atrocities committed during the Vietnam war. It is through the issues of individual versus collective culpability that feature in Calvary and Martin’s Three Billboards, Outside of Epping, Missouri (2017) where the revelations about clerical sexual abuse within the Catholic Church test the whole issue of trauma, justice and restitution. Canon and civic Law meet head-on.
This essay will argue that this call on religion from an Irish diasporic sensibility is undertaken not so much to ironise or suggest transitory and ineffective values, and not to signal some sentimental hankering after outdated beliefs from a “bye-gone era.” Rather, this essay will propose that religious values serve as a means to interrogate the rule of law (corrupt policing), the moral codes of gangland, the laisse-faire machinations of free-market neo-liberalism and to measure distinctions between individual and collective responsibility and culpability, and finally, to address the issues of performed/mediatised violence disconnected from or un-tethered to any sense of moral accountability. Its results are often not cosy relativism but moral outrage.
Eamonn Jordan
Chapter 13. “How should we remember what happened?”: Cultural Representations of Institutional Abuse in Jim Sheridan’s The Secret Scripture
Director Jim Sheridan’s much-anticipated 2016 film adaptation of Sebastian Barry’s 2008 novel The Secret Scripture was widely panned, with reviewers expressing outrage, dismay, and outright confusion about it—particularly in relation to the novel, which was critically acclaimed, commercially popular, and short-listed for the Man Booker Prize. But in the field of adaptation studies, where we would read the film as a “new original,” Sebastian Barry himself draws a distinct boundary between the two ventures and obliges us to examine the film as an object of inquiry in its own right. In terms of its thematic content, the film joins a number of texts, films, and other cultural representations which foreground Ireland’s architecture of containment—a state and Church system that incarcerated, punished, and tortured thousands of women and children throughout twentieth-century Ireland. Indeed, Sheridan has disclosed that the recently uncovered skeletal remains of hundreds of babies and children at the Bon Secours Mother and Baby home in Tuam, Galway were at the forefront of his mind while making the film. The film, therefore, implores us to consider it alongside developing events at Tuam, and in the essay I situate it as a relative departure from Sheridan’s oeuvre as it narrates the marginalized trauma of a woman institutionalized for most of her adult life, and in the process, exposes deeply troubling episodes from Ireland’s not-too-distant past. Despite the indisputably muddled final cut of the film, it still possesses powerful, resonant moments, all the more notable when read within the context of the film’s unpublished screenplay. Ultimately the film, and its unpublished screenplay, compel us to return to Barry’s novel, especially given the unfolding nature of the Mother and Baby Homes investigation. Tracing the connections between these texts points toward an adaptive, intertextual model that insists upon revisiting cultural representations of Ireland’s architecture of containment in light of recent events as well as reassessment of our own ethical engagement as readers, viewers, and critics.
Tara Harney-Mahajan
Screening Contemporary Irish Fiction and Drama
Marc C. Conner
Julie Grossman
R. Barton Palmer
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