Patrick A. McCarthy

Finnegans Wake on Film

      Perhaps the most surprising fact about the film of Finnegans Wake is that there actually is a film of Finnegans Wake. Can a book with no plot (in the usual sense of the word), with a language that puzzles most if not all readers, with landscapes and scenes and themes that constantly shift as we struggle to understand "all that sort of thing which is dandymount to a clearobscure" (FW 247.33-34)[1] —can that extraordinarily literary book be adequately translated into a visual medium? We are all aware of the importance of sounds in the book—the puns, the frequently rhythmic language, the verbal motifs that carry much of the meaning—but unlike a record (or now, a CD), a movie cannot be made out of sounds alone. Furthermore, since the characters are largely symbolic and (some think) might not exist as realistic characters at all, it might be hard to see how one can photograph actors and still give the impression that they are Everyman and Everywoman rather than this or that particular man or woman. All in all, at first glance the problems involved in converting Finnegans Wake into a film appear about as great as, say, the problems one would encounter in translating the Wake into Chinese or Navajo.

      What made it possible for Mary Ellen Bute to create her film, Passages from Finnegans Wake, was the play of the same title by Mary Manning,[2] which inspired the film. In a 1964 interview, Bute described how she got started:

It's long been a cherished dream of mine. I went to see it at Barnard College, the play by Mary Manning, Passages from Finnegans Wake, performed by the Barnard girls. It was marvelous—witty and moving. It was also a great success in Paris. So I telephoned the Joyce Society immediately and its secretary, Frances Steloff, of the Gotham Book Mart went to see it. She agreed with me about its power and we first tried to produce it off-Broadway as a play, but the project failed because Margery Bartington's dramatization, Ulysses in Nighttown, was also trying to raise backing and the Joyce Society felt it couldn't afford to sponsor both.

      So I applied for the film rights for Mary Manning's play and the book and they came through.

      Mary Manning took two years to extract from this enormous book the characters and high points and to give it dramatic form. She did the screen treatment too. [3] 

The influence of the theater on the cinematic version of Finnegans Wake is obvious. Aside from the fact that the film script was based on the play to such an extent that at least three quarters of the dialogue in the film is also in the stage version, a major factor that shaped the film was the actors' lack of experience in films. To compensate, they rehearsed scenes as if they were preparing for a stage performance. [4] 

      But explaining the existence of the film by referring to the play raises a parallel question: how can Finnegans Wake be dramatized successfully? Relatively few people, including Joyce scholars, have ever seen the play, which I saw staged in 1975 at Broome Community College in Binghamton, New York. The production was very good in most respects, although I thought it was a mistake to try to update the play and make it "relevant" by showing slides of Adolf Hitler, Richard Nixon, and starving Biafran children on a screen at various times during the performance. Yet the production was successful in conveying certain key aspects of Joyce's book that Manning emphasizes. The cyclic nature of life is emphasized throughout the play (and the film), and an audience can hardly come away without knowing that two of Joyce's basic themes are fall and resurrection. The universal nature of the Wake—symbolized by Finnegan-Earwicker's role as Everyman, or Here Comes Everybody—is not handled on stage as well as on the screen, where quick changes in costume and scenery can convey the impression of universality. (Much the same effect is conveyed in the hallucinatory sequence in Nighttown in Joseph Strick's film of Ulysses.) A similar effect is achieved by combining the characters of Anna Livia (the mother figure) and Issy (the daughter and temptress) except for those scenes in which Issy is a young child: not only does this combination effect a sort of dramatic economy, but it demonstrates Joyce's concern with the various roles played by his Everyman figure. Perhaps more importantly, it provides an example of what Bute called "Joyce's method of collapsing time and space." [5] 

      In both the play and the film I find the humor very effective. Some of it is purely verbal, based on Joyce's double-entendres and portmanteau words and parodies, but even the puns are often funnier when we can see the punsters, and in the film this effect is enhanced by the use of captions. There is also considerable visual humor, something that would have been hard to find on the printed page. In the film, visual and verbal forms of humor are often combined, as when we hear "Lift it, Hosty" as Earwicker goes up in the lift. The scene that I find most effective in the play is the final sequence in which Anna Livia, now dressed as an old woman, speaks her closing monologue, after which the Chorus returns to chant the opening lines from Finnegans Wake, which Manning also used to open the play, in order to reinforce the play's circularity. The power of the monologue is due largely to Joyce's words, but its emotional impact is enhanced by the sight and sound of the speaker. The parallel scene in the film, with Earwicker preparing for a new day and going forth in his white suit, is to my mind overlong and even a bit trite, and there is no return to the beginning, as in the play. At the very end of the credits, however, we are left with Joyce's final word, "the," isolated on the screen—a nice touch.

      Although for the most part Manning and Bute handle dialogue quite well, there are places where lines seem to be assigned to the wrong speaker. Some of these instances may be arguable, but there are at least two places in the play where Manning just got it wrong. The first instance is in scene 2, where she has Shem playing the role of priest, saying "Let us pry," and continuing with part of a speech that Joyce clearly assigned to Shaun in chapter 7 of Finnegans Wake (FW 188). [6] Later, in scene 5 of the play, Shem is supposed to say "Ad majorem l.s.d.! Divi gloriam. A darkener of the threshold,"[7] but in the Wake this line, from the fable of the Ondt and the Gracehoper in book 3, chapter 1, is also Shaun's (FW 418). Perhaps less obviously wrong in the play is the assignment of Shem, to the role of law professor cum priest in the Honuphrius law case, [8] but this confusion of roles is likely to annoy anyone who is familiar with Finnegans Wake. This scene is dropped from the film, but a similar problem—assigning Shem the role of Tristan in the love scene—is introduced.

      Some of the problems in characterization are understandable when we realize that because Manning's theatrical adaptation was first staged in 1955 she wrote the play with little reliable criticism to help her understand the intricacies of Finnegans Wake. There were the Exagmination essays,[9] chapters on the Wake in books by Edmund Wilson and Harry Levin, and a few articles, but the only book-length treatment of Joyce's themes, characters, and narrative problems in Finnegans Wake was A Skeleton Key to Finnegans Wake by Joseph Campbell and Henry Morton Robinson (1944). One would think that if Manning had been able to consult Adaline Glasheen's A Census of Finnegans Wake: An Index of the Characters and their Roles(first published in 1956, with new editions in 1963 and 1977) she would have avoided these errors in characterization, but the fact is that some of the mistakes recur in the film, which was made after the publication of the second edition of the Census as well as other useful criticism.

      As Mary Ellen Bute noted, however, the film of Finnegans Wake is not really a "translation"; rather, it is a "reaction" to the Wake, in which Bute can express her viewpoint. [10] That seems fair enough, and it eliminates certain problems. For the film, like the play, is not simply a reduction of the book: some simplification takes place, but only for the purposes of dramatic presentation, so that its simplifications do not constitute a reading of the book in the manner of Anthony Burgess's A Shorter Finnegans Wake (1967), which butchers Joyce's text by cutting out large sections and replacing them with summaries. Yet Manning and Bute do share with Burgess (and some other critics) assumptions about Finnegans Wake that I believe are unwarranted. One such assumption is that this is fundamentally a realistic story, or series of realistic stories, that can be treated in dramatic form without much distortion. A related assumption is that the book is about Earwicker's dream and that he awakens at some point in the dream. (This point is made twice in the film but never in the play, at least not in the same way.) Yet these assumptions about the naturalistic basis of Finnegans Wake are crucial to a dramatic or cinematic adaptation since unlike a reader, an audience must be able to watch characters speaking their lines and acting out some sort of plot, even if it is a complicated and surreal one. Unlike a reader, too, we in the audience cannot flip the pages to another part of the book or roll the film back whenever we want to, in order to review a section that might cast light on the one we are concerned with. To compensate for the audience's relatively passive role, there must be a certain amount of simplification of the dramatic situation and some exaggerated acting to keep the audience interested and to prevent confusion. And there is a time limit: Joyce seems to have aimed his book at "that ideal reader suffering from an ideal insomnia" (120.13-14), but there is no audience willing to sit through an uncut film version of Finnegans Wake even if such a film could be reproduced. (In 1975, Zack Bowen's students at SUNY-Binghamton needed 36 hours just to read the Wake aloud, cover to cover.) The present film is, I imagine, about as much as most audiences can take.

      Given the need to cut, it seems inevitable that Joyce scholars will quibble over which scenes should be cut and which retained. I would have liked to see some attempt to render the Prankquean episode (FW 21-23) on film, perhaps with a narrator to assist in the telling (this could have been worked into the film in connection with John Kelleher's role as the television commentator). It's also surprising that there is no version of the washerwomen's dialogue, from the "Anna Livia Plurabelle" chapter of the Wake, in the film even though one of the best passages in the play focuses on this scene. Still, for the most part I am content with the selections made by Manning and Bute. A more serious problem, in my view, is that they do so little to replicate the reflexive quality of the book. For Finnegans Wake is not so much a story as a commentary on the way we tell stories and on the media of story-telling. Joyce tried to get all narrative media into the Wake, not only forms of writing from papyrus scrolls to books, newspapers, and other print media but also movies, radio, even television. The primary interest, however, is in the printed word, represented by the ubiquitous letter written either by Anna Livia or by Shem. This letter was found in a midden heap by Biddy the Hen, and in various forms it circulates around town, gets printed in the newspapers, and so forth. Joyce incorporates discussions of the creation, distribution, reception, and authorship of the letter, as well as analyses of its themes and techniques and even the handwriting, that seem on some level to be related to discussions of Finnegans Wake itself. When we translate the Wake into another medium it might be hard to see how the motif of the letter could have the same reflexiveness it has in the book, but some attempt could be made to retain references to the letter as the Wake itself. Perhaps a better suggestion—although surely a more difficult one to carry through—would be to try to do with film what Joyce does with the printed word: that is, to convey the sense that on some level, Passages from Finnegans Wake is about film itself. Certainly it is possible for a film to retain something like the reflexiveness we find in Joyce: an obvious example is Samuel Beckett's Film, which, like Passages from Finnegans Wake, was first shown in 1965.

      I've been somewhat critical of Manning and Bute, but I will conclude on a different note. About the play, Denis Johnston wrote that "having seen this dramatization upon the stage, or read it we should return posthaste to read the book itself, with a new sense both of its readability and of its importance."[11] I feel the same way about the effect of the film, a brave and funny and remarkably successful attempt to create a cinematic impression of a complex literary work.

Afterword (2009)

The foregoing is a lightly revised version of a paper presented at the MLA meeting in 1977. Since then, my approach to Finnegans Wake has shifted, but generally not in ways that would significantly affect my assessment of the film, so with one exception I have let my judgments of 32 years ago stand. The exception is that my original paper included a paragraph in which I complained about the inclusion of several songs, like "Little Brown Jug" and "I Dreamt that I Dwelt in Marble Halls," that do not appear in Finnegans Wake itself "except for parodies of occasional lines": they are entertaining, I argued, but they "add relatively little to the work, and those who recognize that they are foreign elements are likely to be disturbed by their presence." What was I thinking? Any film adaptation of a literary work, or for that matter a cinematic "reaction" to one, is bound to introduce new elements not in the original (John Huston's film of "The Dead" includes a Yeats poem that Joyce does not have in his story), and insisting on rigid fidelity to the details of the source text now seems to me foolish. In any case, I now see these songs as among the best parts of the film, and I have deleted the offending paragraph.

      Two film guides that I consulted because they happen to be on my shelves give high marks to Bute's Passages from Finnegans Wake. The Blockbuster Video Guide to Movies and Videos 1996, ed. Ron Cassell (New York: Dell, 1995) gives it four stars on a five-star scale, noting that "This ambitious attempt at filming one of the most unfilmable novels uses stock footage, animation, and live-action footage and succeeds," but adds, "Non-Joyce fans should proceed with caution" (356). In Leonard Maltin's Movie Guide, 2008 Edition, ed. Leonard Maltin (New York: Signet, 2007), the rating is three and a half out of four stars. Maltin says, "James Joyce's classic story of an Irish tavern-keeper who dreams of attending his own wake is brought to the screen with great energy and control" (453). Unfortunately, both guides get the film's name wrong: in the Maltin guide it is simply listed as Finnegans Wake, which is not so bad, but the Blockbuster guide calls it Finnegan's Wake, inserting an apostrophe that Joyce did not want in his title.

      Among the relatively few critical discussions of Bute's Passages from Finnegans Wake, one that I find particularly interesting is "The Word Made Celluloid: On Adapting Joyce's Wake," by Sarah W.R. Smith, in The English Novel and the Movies, ed. Michael Klein and Gillian Parker (New York: Ungar, 1981), 301-12.


1.   All parenthetical references are to James Joyce, Finnegans Wake (New York: Viking, 1959).

2.   Mary Manning, Passages from Finnegans Wake (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1957). The British edition (London: Faber and Faber, 1957) bore the main title The Voice of Shem.

3.   Gretchen Weinberg, “An Interview with Mary Ellen Bute on the Filming of ‘Finnegans Wake.’ ”  Film Culture 35 (Winter 1964-65): 26.

4.   Weinberg, 26.

5.   Weinberg, 26.

6.   Manning, 18.

7.   Manning, 42.

8.   Manning, 55-60.

9.   Samuel Beckett et al., Our Exagmination Round His Factification for Incamination of Work in Progress (Paris: Shakespeare and Company, 1929). Probably the most useful of the essays, for general readers, is Stuart Gilbert's "Prolegomena to Work in Progress" (47-75).

10.   Weinberg, 27.

11.   Introduction to Manning, xi.

Patrick A. McCarthy is Professor and Chair of the Department of English at the University of Miami and the author of The Riddles of "Finnegans Wake", Fairleigh Dickinson University Press; London and Toronto: Associated University Presses, 1980.