Richard Kearney speaks for many (at least in critical circles) when he asserts that “telling stories is as basic to human beings as eating”. But by emphasising so fervently the centrality of storytelling to our lives, Kearney misses a more basic and essential point. Human beings do, as he says, have an innate tendency to “introduce some kind of concord into the everyday discord and dispersal we find about us”—to attempt, in other words, to make sense of life. (1) But telling stories is only one particular expression of this tendency, of which language itself is a much more vital and all-encompassing example. (2)

Language (and all that it facilitates: categories, descriptions, ideas, stereotypes and, yes, stories) are our primary means of processing the world and functioning within it. By narrowing what are really first and foremost attributes of language to a description of storytelling, Kearney is manipulating a fundamental observation of human nature to support what is presumably a vested interest of his.

Also, by treating this vested interest (storytelling) as though it were the elementary expression of our need to make sense of life, Kearney makes the need seem a lot more alluring and un-problematic than it actually is. It is, after all, the same instinct to order our experiences into narratives that generates the concepts, ideologies, categories and black-and-white, us-and-them philosophies that cause most of the problems in the world. Even just within the realm of storytelling, it’s not hard to see that man’s order-making imperative can be as dangerous as it can useful (one only needs to glance at the American media for proof of that)—something that Kearney, in his uncritical adoration of the “magical power of narrative,” seems to overlook.

The fact is our need to make order out of chaos, sense out of life, story out of experience, isn’t entirely healthy. It may be necessary and useful to an extent, but it’s a slippery slope and one which we all too frequently slide down. By describing, labeling, theorising or telling stories about experience, we reduce it, tame it, make it safe and manageable. Functional though this may be, the danger is that it de-realises experience. We start to see our labels rather than the things they describe; we start to define ourselves by the categories we fit into, or the “story” of our life so far.

This situation is too intimately wrapped up in the human condition to ever fully be solved—but it can be tempered, counter-balanced and even challenged. It’s my belief that art is the forum for that attempt. Space does not allow for an in-depth discussion of the purpose of art, but suffice to say that, in its purest sense, art is a search for truth. However arguable the nature of such truth may be (and it should go without saying that attainment of some ultimate, absolute truth simply isn’t achievable), such an aim sets it distinctly apart from—and maybe even at odds with—what we have so far discussed as the object of verbal language and its subsets, including storytelling: that is, not to express the truth of life, but simply to make sense of it. (3)

Sense, in this sense, doesn’t necessarily have to be true; it just has to be useful. Labeling things may create certain false distinctions and distance us from the immediate reality of the objects in question, but it does make everyday interaction immeasurably more efficient. Similarly, the inaccuracy of the stories and myths that make up both individual and national identities needn’t discount their motivational or inspirational value.

Art, on the other hand, tries to make sense that is at the same time true—a crazy ambition, perhaps, but no less admirable because of it. The rigorousness that such an impossible aspiration requires might be part of what makes art, as critic Ray Carney put it, “the finest, most complex form of knowledge, and of its communication, yet invented,” through which “we learn things … that can’t be communicated in any other way.”  (4)

Within the scope of such a project, storytelling—that is, the ordering of events into some causal, logical sequence—can only play, at best, a supporting role. When it does, it is usually merely as a facilitator. In Shakespeare, for example, the storylines essentially provide a base, a frame, for the intricacies of language and character Shakespeare explores—in Carney’s formulation, they are his “trampoline to bounce off of”. (5) If Hamlet was only worth as much as its story, then Michael Winner’s Death Wish should be canonised alongside it. That favoured mantra of the screenwriting guru—that there are no new stories—shouldn’t be used as a dismissal of any attempt at originality, but as an acknowledgement that stories aren’t where it’s at. The art is going on somewhere else.

The conclusion must be that storytelling is not the raison d’etre Kearney paints it as, but simply one of a host of useful (but problematic) ways humans make sense of the world, and one that can be adopted and incorporated within various arts but isn’t, in itself, an art form.
This critique of the cult of storytelling may seem like petty quibbling over definitions—but I’ve tackled it in this case only because the definitions in question have had such a debilitating effect on that poor cousin of written storytelling: the cinema. Much has been written about how cinema has changed storytelling but it seems to me that, quite to the contrary, “storytelling” has restricted cinema.



My casual definition of storytelling above may seem highly contestable. I am sure there are those whose notion of storytelling involve a lot more than the mere “ordering of events into some causal, logical sequence”—and were they to put forth examples of such fine storytelling, I might very well agree with them. Definitions are always somewhat arbitrary things, generally more useful than true, to borrow from my above discussion—and indeed this essay itself is an attempt to make sense of matters possibly beyond intellectual description. But nevertheless, in the current cultural climate, I think it necessary that the prevalent concept of storytelling (of which, unfortunately, I think my definition is reasonably accurate) be challenged and hopefully undermined.

What has emerged today is a popular pan-medium idea of good storytelling, an idea that is distinguished more for its easy simplicity and lazy reductiveness than anything else. Space does not allow an in-depth dissection of this idea—but suffice to say it’s what Steven Spielberg or George Lucas talk about every time they defend their work by affirming they just want to “tell a good story”. Storytelling in this conception is a universal practice, and so (perhaps like language?) governed by universal rules. (6). All of which makes it very easy to treat “storytelling” (a word people are far more comfortable with than “art”) by purely technical criteria; hence the proliferation of story gurus kindly explaining to us how it’s all supposed to be done.
The danger of this approach—apart from its essential falseness—is epitomised every time someone complains of a somewhat unconventional film that “there’s no story”. When a terminology (which is all this fashionable talk about story is) becomes more of an obstruction than an aide, it’s time to chuck it out.

But the ramifications of “storytelling” go beyond providing a further boost to uninformed public opinion. It’s affected both the way films are made and the way they are analysed critically. Since this conception of storytelling is inherently verbal in origin (7), it’s effect on cinema has been to force the moving image to be an illustration of something else: namely the “story”, and the series of points and ideas that it consists of. It’s this tendency the great Hungarian filmmaker Bela Tarr was referring to when he remarked dismissively of modern cinema, “They are like comics.” (8) The result has been an undue restriction of cinema’s potential. (9) Film criticism, being itself a verbal occupation, has largely approved of such restriction—naturally, since it makes it easier to write about.

The root of all this seems to be a strange literary hostility against the moving image. Cinema, rather than being allowed to work on its own terms (which have hardly had time to develop), has largely been made to conform to an essentially verbal and descriptive notion of storytelling. (10) The reasons for this rather patronising treatment of cinema are numerous, but one particularly relevant one which Robert Stam outlines in his essay, “The Theory and Practice of Adaptation”, is the sheer sensuality of film.  In Stam’s words:

Film offends through its inescapable materiality, its incarnated, fleshly, enacted characters, its real locales and palpable props, its carnality and visceral shocks to the nervous system. … Unlike film, literature is seen as channeled on a higher, more cerebral, trans-sensual and out-of-body plane. While novels are absorbed through the mind’s eye during reading, films directly engage the various senses. (11)

Stam argues that, in literary eyes, “the cinema’s engagement with bodies … discredits it as a serious, transcendent, art form.” In a way, cinema is too visceral, immanent, raw—too full of life—to be accepted equally, and independently, alongside literature. Perhaps it is this life-like quality of cinema—it’s ability to directly capture “the everyday discord and dispersal” we see around us—that makes the literary mind eager to “introduce some kind of concord” into it in the form of storytelling, plot, etc.

It seems that such an attempt is misguided, however, since it fails to notice the order-making system intrinsic in the medium. Film, after all, isn’t unadulterated reality: it’s reality framed, edited and manipulated according to a personal vision.  The idea of adding an extra layer of order on top of that, in the form of a “story”—while useful, perhaps, on occasion—is far from essential.
In his excellent essay, “How to Experience Movies”, Tag Gallagher explored how, in film criticism, a pre-occupation with this extra layer of order has led to cinema being largely overlooked in the process. He believes

“narrative analysis” is studying radically different things when it switches paraphernalia from literature to film. But the distinction is lost on literary critics. They take the most all-devouringly sensual of arts and treat it like a poor cousin of the least sensual. A movie’s story—if it is cinema—can only be comprehended through immersion into the movie’s world. … But literary critics, forgoing intuition of the movie, claim to abstract its “meaning” … from its plot. How can they? The better the movie, the more their abstractions will be flawed by failure to intuit “presence,” “vibes,” and all the sensual aspects of cinema. (12)

Speaking of a professor who defended the literary approach to film because of its popularity with his English students, Gallagher retorts:

What did he expect? Students sense something mysterious and different about movies, which makes them anxious. Then structuralism comes along and restores their security by removing all the mystery. Of course they’re enthusiastic. They no longer have to deal with cinema. (13)

For Gallagher, the key difference between the two mediums is that

narrative is more important than character in literature, where character can be suggested only through event, whereas in cinema character is more important than narrative, because cinema gives us direct and immediate experience of another person, and an event is more the personality of the doer than the deed that is done. … What is nearly impossible in literature—virtually direct experience of another person—is the essence of cinema.

It should be acknowledged then, that, given these glaring, pivotal differences, “the time has come,” as Andrei Tarkovsky said, “for literature to be separated, once and for all, from cinema.” (14)

Perhaps it’s a case of cinema spending too much time in the wrong company. Just as the Irish temperament would probably be more at home in the Mediterranean, film is really probably better off rubbing shoulders with the likes of dance or music rather than more verbal arts like theatre and literature. (15) But what’s important ultimately, is that cinema—like any art—is allowed to develop its own properties, rather than having alien ones forced upon it. As Andrei Tarkovsky wrote:

Trying to adapt the features of other art forms to the screen will always deprive the film of what is distinctively cinematic, and make it harder to handle the material in a way that makes use of the powerful resources of cinema as an art in its own right. But above all such a procedure sets up a barrier between the author of the film and life. …It specifically prevents life from being recreated in the cinema as a person feels it and sees it: in other words, authentically … (16)



Given all of the above, it will probably come as no surprise that I find myself sceptical of the legitimacy of adaptation. If art is a personal expression of truth—if it is, as Tarkovsky said, about seeking “one’s own truth,” about seeking “one’s own language, the system of expression destined to give form to one’s own ideas”—if all this is true, how can it be founded upon the work of another artist and another art form? (17)

Yet, the proliferation of adaptation within the cinema—and the handful of undeniable masterpieces that have emerged among them (including, in fact, a good few of Tarkovksy’s)—have forced me to revise that position, and left me, I must admit, essentially conflicted and unresolved about the issue. As much as I value originality, and as much as I believe literature to be an overbearing and detrimental influence on cinema, I can’t deny that adaptation sometimes works.

One compromised position might be to say that when it has worked, the adaptation has been explicitly revisional, or “unfaithful”; the source text has been used as a springboard rather than a blueprint; an inspiration or starting point in the same way that a real event or person can be. This could certainly be argued for such loose and radically un-literary adaptations as Terence Malick’s The Thin Red Line (based on James Jones’s book), or Bela Tarr’s Satantango or Werckmeister Harmonies (both based on novels by Laszlo Krasznahorkai). Then there are the countless examples of good films that have been based on mediocre books—their success perhaps due to an almost disrespectful treatment of their source as a raw material to be harnessed rather than a work of art to be translated.

But there is one unusual, and unusually great, adaptation which brings the fault lines of these above arguments into focus: John Huston’s The Dead, based on the short story by James Joyce. In this case, the source material is markedly significant in its own right, and the adaptation of it is remarkably faithful. Apart from some subtle alterations and additions, most of the story’s dialogue and events and all of its structure are reproduced verbatim. In this case, a conscious reverence of and fidelity to the source text is self-evident.

Because of this, The Dead proves a tough case to deal with in terms of my questions above. Can an artist’s personal expression be based on that of another artist? Moreover, can it be based on an attempt at fidelity to that other artist’s expression? Two questions need to be dealt with in relation to that: are both works really great, and how faithful can an adaptation really be? A detailed artistic evaluation of each version of The Dead is beyond the scope of this essay, but I would like to focus on a few strengths and weaknesses of each that I think point to some wider observations about the nature of adaptation and may help to answer the second question.

One of the most striking things about James Joyce’s The Dead is the extremely audio-visual nature of its prose. As Allen Tate writes, “From the beginning to the end of the story we are never told anything; we are shown everything.” (18) Characters and their surroundings are described in meticulous detail, and their dialogue, tones of voice and, of course, the music and laughter that dominates the evening depicted, are equally emphasised. One of the results of this is to make the story in many ways eminently filmable. Rather than some books (Henry James’ densely internalised and analytical The Sacred Fount comes to mind as a most extreme example), The Dead provides plenty of sensual and worldly stimulus to work with. However, one of the other results is to make the story at times, to my mind, rather dull—and at its weakest points rather like a screenplay.

An example to stand for all could be the intricate, extended description of the spread of food that is served in the story for dinner. Each item on the table is carefully and delicately described, down to the colours of a bottle’s label. While this studious attention to detail is impressive (and no doubt came in handy for Huston’s production designer), within the flow of the story, it simply doesn’t feel either relevant or interesting. It’s as if Joyce is so intent on making us see exactly what is on the table as he sees it, that he neglects the innate ability of literature to allow us to visualise our own world of the story and create our own production design. This world will always be inspired by the pointers provided in the prose, but Joyce’s pointers are at times so specific that they strangle the reader’s imagination. (19)

However, it is this weakness of the story that becomes the greatest strength of the film. All the inert object descriptions and lengthy dialogues become embodied and enacted. The story, as the cliché goes, comes to life—or at least an image of life; close enough, at any rate, in comparison with words. It doesn’t seem to go too far to hypothesise that Joyce might have liked it better this way himself. The aforementioned qualities of the story, and its general transparent writing style, suggest that Joyce might have filmed The Dead himself had he had the choice. Perhaps the increasing thickness and complexity of Joyce’s style in his later work was borne out of a realisation that literature is redundant if it is merely describing what another medium can show.

Were the above to appear as a disparaging of the powers of literature against those of cinema, it should be pointed out that a comparison of the two versions illustrates as well a reverse case of the story’s strength becoming the film’s weakness. The story’s narration, which skillfully shifts back and forth between an objective, third-person view of the evening’s proceedings, and subjective insights into the anxieties and reminiscences of Gabriel Conroy, fails to survive the adaptation into the film. Instead of the subtle dialectic between the objective, social world of the party and the subjective, psychological state of Gabriel, which eventually gives way to Gabriel’s completely subjective, transcendental vision at the end of the story (20)—the film version gives us a realisation of the dinner party that is brilliant but inescapably weighted on the side of the objective, social sphere, followed by a sudden recourse to verbal narration to represent the story’s final passage. (21)

Cinema is without a doubt capable of portraying subjective worlds—the works of Terence Malick and David Lynch respectively are shining examples of how to do so, in purely cinematic terms. But within the classical realist mode in which this film operates (necessarily, in order to be “faithful” to the story), Huston has no way of doing so except by using a voiceover that essentially just reads aloud the last page and a half of Joyce’s story. The result seems to lack something of the story’s subtle genius, even if it compensates for it overall through a vivid realisation of what Joyce could only painstakingly try to describe. (22)

The relationship between Joyce’s and Huston’s The Dead, then, seems to be one of mutual sustenance—each capturing something of its subject matter that the other could not, while at the same time showing up the shortcomings of their respective mediums. This leads to another question: what exactly is getting adapted here? What is this “subject matter” that survives translation? Is it the “story”? In the case of The Dead, it seems it’s something more than that, yet less than everything.

One final factor that should be acknowledged in discussing these versions is the different contexts in which they were produced. Joyce was an ambitious young writer in his mid-twenties, who with his Dubliners collection aimed to give a contemporary depiction of “certain aspects of the life of one of the European capitals” (23) (or as he had said in more private confidence, “to betray the soul of that hemiplegia or paralysis which many consider a city.”) (24) Taken out of the context of both the Dubliners collection and the contemporary world it depicted and adapted over 70 years later by a classical Hollywood director at the end of both his career and his life—the filmed Dead is inevitably of a different nature, despite its attempts at fidelity.

Each author’s approach, despite everything their works share, is governed by different pre-occupations. Joyce’s balance between Gabriel’s subjectivity and the world of the party create a greater sense of all that the insulated social structures of that world cannot accommodate, all of the imaginative realms that are left unsatisfied by it. Despite a palpably intimate affection for the “paralytic” world portrayed, Joyce remains level-headedly critical of it. In Huston’s re-interpretation, all that youthful opposition is discarded, and only Joyce’s affection, bolstered by an elegiac sense of the individual imagination’s inevitable inability to fulfill itself within society, is left. (25)

All of which leads me as far as I can go; as far as this essay, this intellectual inquiry, this attempt to make sense of things, can take me. I don’t know what the thing is that these two versions of The Dead share. I don’t know if adaptation’s such a great idea. I don’t know if intellectual analysis like the previous ten pages is any less limiting, reductive or destructive than the whole business of storytelling.

But maybe ambiguity is as good a place as any to end in a discussion of art—which, if it’s any good, will always at least partly elude definition.

At least in this kind of language.



  1. Richard Kearney, “Where Stories Come From”, class handout.
  2. One could say that the roots of this tendency are even deeper than language. As Ray Carney has

    It's not merely language that is the problem … but the structure of the human mind, and of consciousness in particular. An attack on (verbal) language that stays within and is conducted within verbal language cannot escape the limits of verbal language, which is to say, escape the structures of consciousness that imprison it.
                (letters page,

  3. The effect of art can sometimes be to free one from this obsessive need to make “sense”. The metaphor used by D.H. Lawrence—of art slashing through the parasol of our narratives and conceptions—comes to mind. More than peeling “the film of familiarity” off of life, as Samuel Taylor Coleridge once wrote, art can peel the film of language off as well—even if only for a moment.
  4. Ray Carney, The Films of John Cassavetes, Cambridge University Press (1994). This emphasis on the communicative possibilities of art suggest that, in its own way, art is a form of language—but one that is able to attain a higher truth because it has no practical obligations (unless it’s to make money or propagate an ideology, in which case it isn’t art.) It says what can’t be said any other way.
  5. Ray Carney, letters page,
  6. Andrei Tarkovsky’s argument about genre—“The true cinema image is built upon the destruction of genre, upon conflict with it”—could perhaps equally apply to story. Art is created through a sort of dialectic between order and chaos—not by slavishly following rules.
  7. Hence cinema’s over-dependence on scriptwriting and a general ignorance about alternative means of development (such as, for example, the completely unwritten, improvised methods of American filmmaker Rob Nilsson.)
  8. Bela Tarr interviewed by Fergus Daly and Maximilian le Cain, “Waiting for the Prince,”
  9. Andrei Tarkovsky:

    … Cinema still retains some principles proper to other art forms, on which directors often base themselves when making a film. Gradually these principles have come to act as a brake on cinema, as an obstacle to its realising its own specific character. One result is that cinema then loses something of its capacity for incarnating reality directly and by its own means, as opposed to transmuting life with the help of literature, painting or theatre.

  10. This should make clear the power of concepts and the importance of deconstructing and arguing against restrictive ones. Definitions are transformative.
  11. Robert Stam, “The Theory and Practice of Adaptation” in Robert Stam & Alessandra Raengo (eds.), Literature and Film, (Blackwell, 2005).
  12. In Tag Gallagher, The Adventures of Roberto Rossellini (Da Capo, 1998)
  13. This acutely sums up the ill-formed methods of teaching film on the Irish Leaving Cert curriculum. Film is treated as no more than an outgrowth of literature—or as another opportunity to hone literary analytical skills.
  14. Andrei Tarkovsky, Sculpting in Time (University of Texas Press, 1986).
  15. Gallagher suggests, “Our sense of emotion in film resembles music more than literature, because emotion is more sustained, constructed, directed; there is more sense of specific place and actual duration.”
  16. Tarkovsky, Sculpting in Time (University of Texas Press, 1986).
  17. As the Zen master Matsuo Basho said, “Do not seek to follow in the footsteps of the wise: Seek what they sought.”
  18. Allen Tate, “The Dead” in Robert Scholes & A. Walton Lits (eds.), Dubliners, Text and Criticism, Penguin (1996), p389
  19. I should admit this may be a case of my own personal prejudice: I find detailed descriptive passages in books awkward and difficult to visualise.
  20. An expanded discussion on the thematic relevance of this subjective/objective dialectic (such as its relation to the conflict of civilisation and passion explored in the story)—and the relation of all of this to the richly ambiguous idea of “the living and the dead”—would unfortunately, like so many things I have touched on, require a whole other essay.
  21. As Anelise Reich Corseuil put it: “In this context, Gabriel’s final epiphanic moment is decontextualized since his psychological potentials for his final awareness were not fully explored.” (Corseuil, “John Huston’s Adaptation of James Joyce’s ‘The Dead’: The Interrelationship Between Description and Focalization”,
  22. James Joyce, in a letter to William Heinemann (a London publisher), September 23, 1905—quoted in Robert Scholes & A. Walton Lits (eds.), Dubliners, Text and Criticism, Penguin (1996), p255
  23. James Joyce, in a letter to Constantine Curran, August 1904—quoted in same, p253.
  24. It should be pointed out that Joyce’s work was somewhat of an adaptation itself. As well as borrowing liberally from his own past experience and people he knew, the ending of “The Dead” actually has its source in another book: George Moore’s Vain Fortune. Richard Ellmann writes: “His method of composition was very like TS Eliot’s, the imaginative absorption of stray material. The method did not please Joyce very much because he considered it not imaginative enough, but it was the only way he could work.” (Ellmann, “The Backgrounds of ‘The Dead’” in Robert Scholes & A. Walton Lits [eds.], Dubliners, Text and Criticism, Penguin [1996], p382.)


  • Robert Scholes & A. Walton Lits (eds.), Dubliners, Text and Criticism, Penguin (1996)
  • Robert Stam & Alessandra Raengo, Literature and Film (Blackwell, 2005)
  • Gabriel Miller, Screening the Novel, Frederick Ungar Publishing (1980)
  • Tag Gallagher, The Adventures of Roberto Rossellini (Da Capo, 1998)
  • Andrei Tarkovsky, Sculpting in Time (University of Texas Press, 1986)
  • Richard Kearney, “Where Stories Come From”, class handout
  • Ray Carney’s website,
  • Ray Carney, The Films of John Cassavetes, Cambridge University Press (1994)
  • Alan W. Watts, The Way of Zen, Thames & Hudson (1957)
  • Bela Tarr interviewed by Fergus Daly and Maximilian le Cain, “Waiting for the Prince,”
  • Anelise Reich Corseuil, “John Huston’s Adaptation of James Joyce’s ‘The Dead’: The Interrelationship Between Description and Focalization”,
  • Jeffery Triggs, “Dead and Gone Great Ones: The ‘Opera’ Scene in Text and Film Versions of James Joyce’s ‘The Dead’ ”,
  • Irving Singer, “The Dead: Story and Film” in The Hudson Review, Winter 2004

Still from Éloge de l'Amour (Jean-Luc Godard, 2001)

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