FROM STAGE TO SCREEN: THE LONG VOYAGE HOME AND LONG DAY'S JOURNEY INTO NIGHT
John Ford's The Long Voyage Home (1940), adapted from four of O'Neill's one-act sea plays (The Moon of the Caribbees, Bound East for Cardiff, In the Zone and The Long Voyage Home), and Sidney Lumet's Long Day's Journey Into Night (1962) effectively transfer O'Neill's stage dramas to the screen. Both are reasonably successful films, but they are interestingly different in their methods of adaptation. While Ford "opens up" and expands the stage plays in ways typical for film, Lumet maintains a sense of the closed structure of the theatre and the stage. The difference is analogous to the contrast that Susan Sontag draws, in her essay "Film and Theatre," between the two genres: "theatre is confined to a logical or continuous use of space. Cinema (through editing, that is, through the change of shot—which is the basic unit of film construction) has access to an alogical or discontinuous use of space."1
Naturally, neither the theatrical nor the cinematic method of adaptation assures a successful film. It is what the filmmaker does with the space, in terms of visual and aural images, that determines effectiveness. Consequently, and rightly, there has never been unanimity among film theorists about the best way to transfer a work from stage to screen. In his essay "Theater and Cinema," Andre Bazin states simply that "a good adaptation should result in a restoration of the essence and spirit" of the original play.2 And in terms of that criterion, both Ford and Lumet, despite the differences in their methods, achieve success.
In The Long Voyage Home, Ford and screenwriter Dudley Nichols combine O'Neill's four one-acts into a coherent, unified drama that emphasizes the men of the Glencairn, especially Driscoll and Smitty. The time period is clearly updated to World War II (1940), and plot changes cause Smitty to have more of a past and to die a hero's death, Ole to return to his farm in Sweden, and Driscoll to be shanghaied onto the Amindra. Ford's personal views are evident in the less-than-subtle war-effort propaganda of the Captain's speech while the munitions are being loaded, and the superimposition of the Union Jack on Smitty's death after he saves the Glencairn in the German air raid (with strains of "Rule, Britannia" on the sound-track).
Ford's Irish sentiments also permeate The Long Voyage Home. The son of Irish immigrant parents, Ford maintained throughout his life a paradoxical fascination with Ireland, the lush, fertile isle, full of promise, despite the fact that Ireland was the famine-stricken place from which his family escaped. This almost mystical reverence for Ireland comes through in Driscoll's reverie when the ship nears England as he, Axel, and Ole lie on deck. Driscoll, in a meditative mood, says, "Ole ... you not smell the land? ... the sweet smell of Ireland ... the fields, the forests, the green hills." Axel answers, "No, that be England that way." Driscoll responds angrily, "Did I ask you!" While the scene reveals Ford's own affection for "the sweet smell of Ireland," he balances this sentimentality with a self-mocking good humor about the Irish, as in the men's drunken rendition of "When Irish Eyes Are Smiling" in the bar scene near the end of the film.
Ultimately, Ford uses all elements of The Long Voyage Home to convey, in Bazin's terms, the essence and spirit of the original plays. The film hits on target O'Neill's familiar themes of alienation, unfulfilled ideals, spiritual desolation, man's quest for forgiveness and his endurance in a world that is largely beyond his control. In fact, O'Neill praised the film as "an exceptional picture, with no obvious Hollywood hokum or sentimental love bilge in it."3 He also called it "the best picture ever made from my stuff," and noted that "it was the talkless part ... that impressed me the most."4
The visual language of The Long Voyage Home reflects Ford's years of achievement, reaching back to his experience with silent films. With cinematographer Gregg Toland (Wuthering Heights, The Grapes of Wrath, Citizen Kane), Ford builds a series of scenes that depict the mood of the men of the Glencairn. This is evident in the opening sequence, during which Ford introduces the characters without the use of dialogue. The Glencairn is at anchor in the West Indies and the men yearn for the women and rum on land. Shots of the men idling on deck, looking toward the half-moonlit island, alternate with shots of the women on shore. All we hear is the persistent native music until Cocky, eavesdropping at the Captain's door, hears a radio broadcast about the war. Ford thus culminates a series of sensuous images with a harsher reality, war. As the sequence continues we see Driscoll steal back to the ship, having arranged for the women to bring rum in their baskets. Ford singles him out as a leader, showing us his importance, just as he does with Smitty, who signs on. The dialogue begins here and Ford pulls out for a long shot of Smitty, perhaps suggesting something of his uniqueness. The total effect of these opening images (visuals and sound) recalls O'Neill's stage direction at the end of The Moon of the Caribbees: "There is silence for a second or so, broken only by the haunted, saddened voice of that brooding music, faint and far-off, like the mood of the moonlight made audible."5
Indeed, this emphasis on mood runs throughout the film. Cinematographer Gregg Toland explained in an interview that "Long Voyage Home was a mood picture. Storywise ... it was a series of compositions of the mood of the men aboard the ship. It was a story of what men felt rather than what they did."6 Indeed, the film can be stopped at almost any frame and studied for the careful composition of its scenes. Andrew Sarris considers it "suitably moody, shadowy and romantically fatalistic for the occasion."7 The "occasion" he refers to is partly revealed by Ford's dedication of the film to sailing men. At the beginning of The Long Voyage Home we read on the screen: "Men who live on the sea never change—for they live in a lonely world apart, as they drift from one rusty tramp steamer to the next, forging the life-lines of Nations." As sentimental as this may seem when we read it on the screen, the point of view strikes close to that of O'Neill. Consistently throughout the film, we see the men as noble and dignified human beings. All the major transitions are cuts to the ship, sometimes accompanied by the "Harbor Lights" music, and gradually we realize the irony of the film's title: life for these men (and possibly for all men) is the long voyage in search of home; so long that personal quests, for the most part, are left unfulfilled.
Ford also uses visual images to reveal his characters. His treatment of Smitty's attempt to jump ship is a good example. In the escape sequence we come to realize that Smitty is a tormented man, even though the reasons are not revealed until later. As the ship prepares to sail with its cargo of munitions, we see the shore patrol pass and shine a light onto each man's face. Then, from a long, low shot we see Smitty jump to the pier with his mysterious black box. The camera sits low on the dock to catch the starkness of his running into a blinding white light the silhouette of a frightened man. Smitty drops the box, the patrol chases him, and Ford cuts to an overhead shot to show Smitty being pursued into the shadowy maze of cargo piled on the dock. It is the image of a desperate man being hunted, trapped and caught. Smitty is returned to the Glencairn and the ship moves out to sea. Through the use of light and dark, shadows, careful composition, camera angles and editing, Ford has developed Smitty's character and has captured the mood of O'Neill's drama.
Driscoll, like Smitty, is a focal character in The Long Voyage Home. At Yank's death, for example, he serves as companion, confidant, and father confessor. Ford shoots this scene in close-ups to give us a sense of the men's helplessness in saving Yank or themselves. At Yank's burial Ford shows the men massed on deck, dark figures against the sky and sea, as the ship pitches and the noise of wind and water drowns out the Captain's prayer. The camera holds steady as we see that the natural violence of the sea, like the man-made violence of war, cannot be controlled. The sequence ends with a low-shot of Driscoll alone on deck, mute against the forces that he does not fully comprehend. Driscoll's importance to the men throughout the film makes his later revealed death all the more tragic. Ford's "Irish blarney" and barroom comedy serve to heighten this effect since these scenes immediately precede the somber conclusion of the film.
At the end of The Long Voyage Home, the men rescue Ole from the Amindra and hustle him off. Driscoll pauses on the gangplank for one more chorus of "Blow the Man Down." A low shot suggests his moment of triumph; but with the speed and accuracy of the thrown wrench that knocks him out on the Amindra's deck, Ford reminds us of O'Neill's perspective. The film becomes serious again. We cut to the final sequence—the men returning to the Glencairn. Ford photographs the harshly-lit dock with a steady long-shot, giving us an image of desolation. Old papers blow around the pier, and few words are spoken. Axel tells the Donkey Man that Ole has gone home and Driscoll "sailed on that damned ship Amindra." Ford underscores the irony of Axel's words by tracking the Donkey Man's newspaper as it drops to the water. As the paper sinks, we read the headline, "Amindra Torpedoed." The Glencairn will sail on with those who remain. The impact of this final scene is tempered by neither humor nor sentimentality. Ford's images are clearly those of Eugene O'Neill.
Sidney Lumet's award-winning film of Long Day's Journey Into Night conveys the essence and spirit of O'Neill's stage drama in ways different from those used by Ford. Carlotta Monterey O'Neill entrusted Lumet and producer Ely Landau with the rights to the play because of their distinguished work in television drama. Lumet rehearsed his cast for three weeks before filming the play, in sequence, so he could capitalize on the actors' natural emotional peaks. Despite the damning reviews of some critics, who dismissed the film as "merely a photographed stage play," Lumet transformed Long Day's Journey Into Night into a film that emphasizes O'Neill's intense characters and strong text. In an interview, Lumet pointed out that "the advantage of the film medium over the stage is not limited to presenting 'wide, open spaces,' but in bringing the audience into the film and its action, so as to experience each nuance of gesture, facial expression and motion, all of which are lost to the majority of the theatre audience."8
Lumet's treatment of Mary Tyrone, as acted by Katharine Hepburn, is illustrative. Hepburn portrays Mary Tyrone as a tortured woman, slowly losing control of her life, who disintegrates in painful detail before us. Mary's morphine-induced world is conveyed as much by the camera's attention to Hepburn's flashing eyes, tragic smile, and expressive hands, as by O'Neill's dialogue. At one point in the film, the camera stands immobile and close-up as Mary, caught in the delirium of the drug, slides out of a chair and onto the floor. Due to the closeness of the camera, we feel embarrassed, as though we are intruding into a very private part of this woman's psyche. As the scene continues, Lumet cuts to a high shot of Mary attempting to pray. The back light creates a faint halo-effect. Mary cannot remember the "Hail Mary" prayer and we see that she is indeed a lost soul. Lumet's treatment of this scene is characteristic of his sensitive insight into the autobiographical confrontation with his dead, his family, that O'Neill described in the dedication of the play.
In like manner Lumet shows the subtleties of James Tyrone, modeled on O'Neill's father, whom Ralph Richardson plays with an Irish tenacity that is at once self-centered and sympathetic. The combination of long shots and close ups reveals the conflicts in James's character, allowing us to see Tyrone fume and posture in a kind of "shabby elegance" appropriate for the famous actor-turned-hack, as well as the genuine tenderness and concern that are clear from Richardson's facial gestures. Like O'Neill, we cannot condemn him outright.
Lumet's film also points up the contrasts between Jamie and Edmund. Jason Robards, Jr., plays the worldly-wise, boozing elder son with authority; and Dean Stockwell's sensitive looks and slight appearance seem to fit the role of the aspiring, consumptive poet. Stockwell reinforces O'Neill's romantic conception of his younger self. Through-out the film Lumet surrounds him with an aura of softness or mistiness, especially when Edmund is striving to understand and love his family. This also mirrors O'Neill's less precise character development of Edmund. We see this when, as Jamie warns Edmund of his intentions to corrupt him, the camera pulls back so that we can study a kind of sympathy in Stockwell's expression that reveals his attempt to accept his brother.
Throughout Long Day's Journey, Lumet uses camera angles and camera movement to reinforce the dramatic action. In general, during scenes of harmony the shots are relatively level, while they become more angular as tension rises between family members. During conflicts the camera alternates between positions close to the floor and high above the characters, suggesting the precarious quality of the recriminations and revelations being made. At other times, the camera tracks the characters to keep our attention focused on a particular point of view. For example, early in the film when Edmund follows Mary into the house and makes a reference to her addiction, the camera shots become more angular as Mary defends herself. Her inner tension grows and Lumet moves in for a close-up. As she loses control and whirls around the room, the camera follows for a 360 degree pan, picking up the rhythm of her dialogue. As she calms herself, the camera levels out so we see her embrace Edmund, ending the sequence as it began.
In conclusion, John Ford and Sidney Lumet show clearly that film can restore the essence and spirit of original stage drama. When considered together, their films illustrate that no set model for or set approach to adaptation exists. Only skillful use of filmmaking techniques and sensitivity for the original drama, as well as for the playwright, are the bases for good film adaptations. George Bernard Shaw once remarked that films created from theatre "are an extension of the literary art of the stage, with some limitations removed." In the best sense of "literary art," the films of The Long Voyage Home and Long Day's Journey Into Night are valuable counterparts to O'Neill's stage dramas; and, in a more general sense, Ford and Lumet show us a great deal about how stage drama can be successfully adapted to the screen.
—William L. Sipple
1 In Film Theory and Criticism, ed. Gerald Mast and Marshall Cohen (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1979), p. 366. Italics added.
2 In What Is Cinema, translated and edited by Hugh Gray (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1967), pp. 76-95. Italics added.
3 Louis Sheaffer, O'Neill: Son and Artist (New York: Little, Brown, 1973), p. 505.
4 Sheaffer, p. 546.
5 Seven Plays of the Sea (New York: Vintage Books, 1972), p. 29.
6 The Screen Writer (December, 1947), p. 29.
7 The John Ford Movie Mystery (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1975), p. 99.
8 Center for Film Study Release, 1962.
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