The final piece in James Joyce’s Dublibners, ‘The Dead’, has been described as one of the finest short stories ever written. Set in 1904 Dublin, the story follows Gabriel Conroy as he attends a Christmas party with his wife, Gretta. Juxtaposing the public personas of his characters with their private lives, Joyce depicts life as an accumulation of experience to whose depths we rarely have access. The story’s brilliance lies in the economy of Joyce’s prose – Freddy Malins, for example, is depicted as a harmless old soak, but the obvious embarrassment he causes to his mother speaks of a man worn down and written off by those who tolerate but hardly relish his presence.
‘The Dead’ was adapted into a feature film by legendary director John Huston in 1987. It was to be Huston’s last film: he was unwell while shooting The Dead and died before it was released. The film has subsequently been overshadowed by his earlier Hollywood pictures, such as The Maltese Falcon, Prizzi’s Honor, and The Treasure of the Sierre Madre. Nevertheless, as both a faithful adaptation of Joyce’s story and a meditation on mortality, The Dead is a fitting coda to a superlative directorial career. Despite receiving critical plaudits at the time of its release, The Dead is little discussed and difficult to track down on DVD (and not even available on Blu-ray), though there is a poignant irony to the way a film about the fading of experience and vitality has itself faded from our collective memory.
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