Jack London’s ‘Martin Eden’ Gets An Italian Film Adaptation
American author translates well to Italy
Friday, October 16, 2020
"Jack London" (1943)
"The Mouth of the Wolf" (2009)
"Jack London, une aventure américaine" (2016)
I have a personal connection to Jack London and in particular to "Martin Eden." This may have been my father's favorite book and he talked about it constantly to me when I was younger. My dad described himself as a juvenile delinquent who wanted to drop out of school but his uncle introduced him to literature and he connected to London and especially this story of a young man who discovers a new world through books. I think this book helped change my dad's life with its passion for reading and social concerns. But the book — spoiler alert — is tragic and so my dad rewrote the ending so he could imagine something better for the characters he loved.
My dad died last year and when I saw there was this new film adaptation I immediately thought of my dad and how much I wished he could have seen the film because it captures Martin's love for knowledge and books in a way that I'm sure he would have appreciated. The scene where Martin smells the pages of an old book is something that anyone bibliophile can relate to. I realize there may now be a generation who has rarely held a book in their hands so I encourage you to pick up an old book at least once and smell the pages, it really is wonderful.
Since London always struck me as a quintessentially American writer I went into this Italian adaptation of "Martin Eden" curious about how the material would translate to both another country and a more contemporary time period.
But filmmaker Pietro Marcello has done an impressive job capturing the heart and soul of the book. The title character is a young sailor (played with charisma by Luca Marinelli) who hungers for knowledge and betterment. He eventually decides to become a writer providing what he calls “one of the eyes through which the world sees.” When he saves a rich young boy from a beating he gets introduced to the Orsini family and their daughter Elena (Jessica Cressy), with whom he falls instantly and passionately in love. But their differences in class have given them different perspectives on the world.
Director and co-writer Marcello has made documentaries about working class and marginalized people in Italy. The experiences of those people informs his first narrative film as well.
In the press notes he states: "'Martin Eden' tells our story, the story of people who weren’t educated by their families or in school, but on the road. It’s the novel of the self-taught and those who believed in education as an instrument of emancipation, but were somehow let down by it. Going beyond this first reading, however, 'Martin Eden' not only tells the story of a young proletarian who falls in love with a young woman of a higher social class and begins to dream of becoming a writer, it also paints the portrait of a successful artist (a shadowy self-portrait of Jack London himself), who inevitably loses the sense of his own art. We loosely interpreted London’s novel and took 'Martin Eden' to be a fresco that foresaw the 20th-century’s perversions and torments, as well as its crucial themes: the relationship between the individual and society, the role of mass culture, the class struggle."
There is a wonderful scene (and since it has been decades since I read the book I am not sure if it is a scene London wrote) where Martin looks at his plate of pasta and points to the sauce as poverty and then mops up all the sauce with a piece of bread that he says represents education. His point being that poverty disappears with education. He discovers, of course, that it is not quite so simple, but his desire for that to be true and for people to be able to improve their lives does fuel a lot of the film.
Marcello creates a film that is set in a non-distinct modern Italy where we find references and period detail that sometimes seem inconsistent in a strictly historical sense but which feel right in the emotional flow of Martin's story. Marcello works in specific archival footage of real figures such as anarchist Errico Malatesta as well as less specific vintage images of sailors and ships, and finally what seems to be home movies to reflect Martin's youth. While the archive images root the film in a very real world, the way Marcello integrates them into the film has a lovely sense of poetry. This is a film that wants to convey both the grit of the real world but also the dreams and ideology of its character. I love that Marcello can seamless blend these seemingly incompatible elements in a way that sweeps us up into Martin's life.
That contrast is at the heart of London's book too. As a someone who defined himself as a socialist London had to deal with his great success as a writer, success that allowed him to enter higher ranks of society that had previously shut him out. His struggle to reconcile his political ideals with personal success led in part to writing "Martin Eden," in which the title character grows disillusioned with both the world and with himself and sinks into despair. I think my father as a young man tapped into the hope and dreams of the early part of the book and later grew to appreciate the complexity of the novel. Marcello's film allows us to feel that early inspiring passion as well as the later despair so that we come away with an aching sadness.
"Martin Eden" is a film full of passion and politics, romance and tragedy, intimacy and epic sweep. I think knowing more about Italy’s political landscape would help peel back some of the film’s layers but even without that "Martin Eden" proves compelling and poignant.
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