It now occurs to me that the only possible way to adapt Ulysses with anything approaching faithfulness would be to create a form comparable to Kieslowski's Decalogue or Francois Girard's Thirty-Two Short Films About Glenn Gould: a film in 18 'chapters,' each conceived and shot in a distinctive style by 18 different directors working semi-independently--a producer's nightmare. Limit each director to 30 minutes and the final product will be a 9-hour TV miniseries (shorter than Decalogue) or three 3-hour movies. If I were a producer with a bottomless budget and unlimited powers of persuasion, I would match the following directors and episodes:
- Telemachus: Kevin Smith. What is Telemachus, after all, but Clerks by the edge of the Irish Sea? And Smith would nail the Catholicism.
- Nestor: Francis Ford Coppola, who could imbue the central conversation with all the power and menace of the conversation scene at the beginning of The Godfather.
- Proteus: Charlie Kaufman could strike the right balance of metaphysics, comedy, and despair.
- Calypso: Philip Kaufmann would do justice to its eroticism, earthy and lyrical.
- Lotus Eaters: Mike Leigh could improvise a journey through the Dublin streets
- Hades: Woody Allen would be a perfect funeral director.
- Aeolus: The Coen Brothers could film it as a 1930's screwball newspaper comedy with the title K.M.R.I.A.
- Lestrygonians: Tim Burton could give a Gothic twist to this chapter about the eaters and the eaten.
- Scylla and Charybdis: Kenneth Branagh, obviously.
- Wandering Rocks: Richard Linklater, who already filmed his own version of it as Slacker.
- Sirens: Lars von Trier, who showed us in Dancer in the Dark that he knows how to capture music on film.
- Cyclops: Peter Jackson could modulate expertly between fantasy and reality.
- Nausicaa: Neil Jordan would film it wonderfully--and I suppose we need an actual Irish director in here somewhere!
- Oxen of the Sun: Terry Gilliam may be the only living director who could conceive film analogues for all the various prose styles.
- Circe: Since Luis Bunuel and Maya Deren are long gone, David Lynch is the only person for the job.
- Eumaeus: I'd like to see what Roman Polanski could do with this episode.
- Ithaca: Peter Greenaway has the capacity to transform mundane lists into beautifully surreal film passages. Imagine what the director of Prospero's Books would do with Bloom's books.
- Penelope: Jane Campion could nail the sexuality and lyricism.
And so we would have the first Billion Dollar Movie, a sure commercial disaster to wreck the film industry as we know it. But aesthetically it would rock. This is the only way to adapt Ulysses, and it's surely an economic and logistical impossibility.
Postscript: I just thought of another potentially decent way to adapt Ulysses: pay Robert Crumb to design an 18-hour animated version. The trouble with this idea is that Crumb is probably the only big-name artist alive who cannot be bought... As a young Irish member of Joyce's circle once said, Nothing to be done.