Five Irish Novels Adapted for the Silver Screen

Cinematic adaptations can be hit and miss, as James Meredith demonstrates

As part of the Belfast Book Festival, Queen's Film Theatre is showing six classic adaptations of famous novels, including Ulysses, Odd Man Out and To Kill a Mockingbird. Here, James Meredith takes a look at five Irish books that made it onto the big screen with varying results, including perhaps the most famous Irish novel of all-time.

Ulysses by James Joyce

A masterpiece of modernist literature, Ulysses is one of the most challenging and rewarding works ever written. The structure of the novel parallels Homer’s epic poem Odyssey. It is divided into 18 episodes, each of which vary in style and tone, and is full of Joyce's wonderful puns, parodies and allusions.

The novel, set in Dublin in 1904, focuses on three characters (Leopold Bloom, Stephen Dedalus and Molly Bloom) during the day of June 16 (a date of huge significance to Joyce, who had his first date with future wife, Nora Barnacle, on that very day). The novel climaxes with Molly's lyrical stream of consciousness, and ends with the most famous affirmation in literature: '...and yes I said yes I will Yes.'

Written over seven years (1914-1921) Ulysses was first published in Paris. Thereafter, the American magazine The Little Review began serialising Joyce's novel, but were prosecuted for obscenity, leading to the book being banned in the United States until 1933. Contrary to popular belief, however, Ulysses was never banned in Ireland.

American director Joseph Strick made his largely faithful adaptation of Ulysses in 1967. Although almost the entire screenplay is derived from lines from the book, Strick and co-writer Fred Haines were nominated for an Academy Award for the screenplay.

Starring Milo O’Shea as Leopold Bloom, Barbara Jefford as Molly - and with a stand-out supporting role by TP McKenna as Buck Mulligan - the film struggles to translate Joyce’s fast-paced dialogue to the screen. English actor Maurice Roëves, in particular, fails to bring the character of Stephen Dedalus to life.

At the end of the film, Molly’s soliloquy takes up almost half an hour of screen time. Evidently, Strick could not think of a means by which to bring her thoughts to life, and relied on voiceover. It’s an honourable attempt at filming what many considered to be an unfilmable novel, but in the end shows that the true greatness of Ulysses is in Joyce’s prose rather than the plot.

Odd Man Out by FL Green

Written by British author Frederick Laurence Green in 1945, Odd Man Out chronicles the final nine hours in the life of a fatally wounded IRA gunman on the run from police on the streets of Belfast. Seemingly out-of-print (although it is available via Amazon) Green's novel is a wonderful period thriller, fast paced and fraught from start to finish.

Born in Portsmouth, FL Green published 14 books between 1934 and 1952. In 1929 he married Irish-born Margaret Edwards, and the couple lived in Belfast from the mid 1930s.

Odd Man Out the novel has long been eclipsed by its movie version. Indeed, some might be surprised that the film was based on a book at all. Produced and directed by Carol Reed in 1947, Odd Man Out is arguably the finest movie set in Belfast to date (though the location of the story is never explicitly mentioned). The screenplay was co-written by FL Green.

James Mason plays Johnny McQueen, a ‘chieftain’ in ‘The Organisation' who is on the run from the police following the botched robbery of a mill. McQueen accidentally kills the cashier during the holdup, and is himself critically wounded in the shoulder. Abandoned by the driver of the getaway car, Johnny stumbles through the streets of Belfast, becoming more and more delirious from his wound. Along the way - as his girlfriend and comrades in The Organisation search for him - he encounters a series of characters who both help and hinder him.

Mason as McQueen gives one of the finest performances of his long and distinguished career, although neither he or any other cast member are capable of pulling off an authentic Ulster accent. Odd Man Out is British film noir at its best. Though not popular at the box office, the film received the BAFTA for Best British Film in 1948, and established Reed as an internationally renowned filmmaker.

Cal by Bernard MacLaverty

More of a novella than a novel, Cal tells the story of a young Catholic man who falls in love with Marcella, the widow of a murdered RUC officer in 1970’s Northern Ireland. To make things even more complicated, it happens that Cal was the getaway driver for the gang who murdered Marcella’s husband.

Author Bernard MacLaverty was born and raised in Belfast (before moving to Scotland in 1975). Cal, published in 1983, was his second novel, following two short story collections and Lamb, which was also adapted into a movie.

The strength of the book lies in MacLaverty’s prose, which describes, with stark economy, the harsh realities of Cal’s life and the choices he feels he must make to survive. McLaverty is on less sure ground with the love story between Cal and Marcella, however, and the ending of the novel feels contrived and compromised.

This was Irish director Pat O’Connor’s debut movie. The script was adapted by MacLaverty himself, and is a faithful re-telling of the novella.

Cal was the first in a long line of Troubles-based films for County Armagh actor, John Lynch. He would go on to star in critically-acclaimed films like In the Name of the Father, Nothing Personal and Some Mother's Son, amongst others. Lynch captured the character of Cal well, his pale features and mournful eyes expressing more than his troubled character could verbally.

Helen Mirren played Marcella, and her performance won her the Best Actress Award at Cannes in 1984. There is a genuine warmth in the relationship between the two leads, and – in direct contrast to the novella – it is the love story that carries the movie. The film featured an emotive soundtrack by Mark Knopfler of Dire Straits, with contributions from Paul Brady.

The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne by Brian Moore

Originally published under the title Judith Hearne, this was Belfast-born Brian Moore’s fifth novel, though the first not written either as a thriller or under a pseudonym.

Published in 1955, Judith Hearne tells the story of a middle-aged Catholic spinster who moves into yet another bedsit in 1950’s Belfast, and her relationship with the wealthy James Madden, whom she falls deeply in love with. Unfortunately, Madden is not as he seems, and in the end Judith loses her faith in the church and turns to alcohol as a salve for her loneliness.

Moore’s novel is a deeply sympathetic yet honest portrayal of addiction and loneliness, and the book propelled the author onto the world stage as a writer of rare delicacy and talent, even though Judith Hearne had been rejected by ten US publishers before being accepted by a British publisher.

Dame Maggie Smith played Judith Hearne in the 1987 adaptation by Room at the Top director, Jack Clayton, with Bob Hoskins starring as James Madden. The film is largely faithful to Moore’s novel, with one unfortunate difference: the film is set in Dublin rather than Belfast.

Smith is magnificent as Judith Hearne. She elicits sympathy as she first finds, then loses, romantic hope and her life begins to spiral out of control. Smith duly won the BAFTA for Best Actress in 1988. Hoskins is Hoskins, only played with a variable American accent.

There are strong supporting performances from Marie Kean and Prunella Scales, amongst others. The film also features the first screen performance from Aidan Gillen (The Wire, Game of Thrones), though he is credited as Aidan Murphy.

Resurrection Man by Eoin McNamee

Published in 1994, Resurrection Man was the debut novel from Kilkeel writer Eoin McNamee, following on from two novellas, Last of Deeds and Love in History. A crime noir loosely based on the notorious Shankill Butchers, Resurrection Man tells the story of Victor Kelly, a psychopath with a hatred of Catholics who becomes the leader of a murder gang known as the ‘Resurrection Men'.

With Kelly at the helm, the gang carry out a series of brutal murders in 1970’s Belfast. Their crimes are followed with increasing obsession by Ryan, a local journalist who becomes embroiled in Kelly's misdeeds.

The strength of McNamee’s novel is in his flat, empty prose style, with its lists of street names and calmly described carnage. Belfast, in fact, is as much a character as any of the gang members. Kelly, the cold killer at the heart of the story, is a brilliantly realised villain. The novel falls down, however, when McNamee introduces a sub-plot involving British Intelligence and a Kincora-style scandal, diluting the psychological drama somewhat.

Directed by Marc Evans in 1998, the film version of Resurrection Man caused controversy on its release in Northern Ireland. Members of the Shankill Butcher gang condemned the movie for allegedly suggesting that Lenny Murphy (whom Victor Kelly is based on) may have had homoerotic tendencies. Apparently, it was considered by certain sections of Belfast society to be a mass murdering bigot but not alright to be gay.

That aside, the film version of Resurrection Man does leave a lot to be desired. Director Evans tried to imbue the film with the spirit of Martin Scorsese’s Mean Streets, but only succeeded in making Kelly (powerfully portrayed by Stuart Townsend) a charismatic figure, despite his grisly crimes. James Nesbitt is not given much chance to shine as the journalist Ryan, and Brenda Fricker – as Victor’s mother – is just plain nasty.

Eoin McNamee adapted the script from his own novel, and proved that there is a big difference between being a good author and a good screenwriter. The film also continued the horrible tendency of movies to portray modern Irish terrorists as five o’clock shadowed, leather jacket wearing dudes.

From Page to Screen runs at the QFT Belfast from June 13-19 as part of the Belfast Book Festival, showing Ulysses on Bloomsday, June 16 and Odd Man Out on June 19.

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