There is a potent interface between the work of filmmaker Neil Jordan and novelist Patrick McCabe. The Butcher Boy would present a particular attraction for Jordan, conceptualized as it is in the Ireland of the '50s and early '60s in which Jordan grew up, a time governed by the paranoiac, and somewhat mad A-Bomb and anti-Communist hysteria, the mysticism and paralysis of a country still dominated by archaic religious beliefs and superstitions, and the repressive, largely rural, small-town milieu that characterized the era. And as Jordan has said of his films, they are ". . . all basically about the clash between the real world and the world of imagination and unreality. The constant concern is to do with realistic and surrealistic explanations of human behavior and whether human beings answer to rational modes of thought or are inspired by things quite irrational and unknown to themselves" (McIlroy 108). McCabe's creation of Francie Brady-in all his extravagant aberrance-harmonizes perfectly with Jordan's continual interrogation of the limits and necessity of human reason. McCabe, who has been dubbed the ". . . high priest of rural Irish dementia" (Lacey 50), shares Jordan's world view in his concern for the liminal states between rationality and unbalance, what McCabe has termed the "social fantastic" (FitzSimon 176). In essence both Jordan and McCabe have an intense interest in investigating what it means to be human in this world, the contrast between what Northrop Frye in Anatomy of Criticism would call the world of innocence and experience, and with rhythm-in the visual, aural, and verbal sense. Jordan has been characterized on various occasions as a filmmaker who ". . . translates] jazz into film style (Pramaggiore 274). McCabe is well known (as is Jordan) for his concern for rhythm of language. In the novelist's words: ". . . you see, the things that people say, ordinary human exchange, you know-'Not a bad day, 'Tis surely'; 'how's it goin'?' All this kind of stuff that you hear, the rhythm of it, it is actually quite fascinating" (FitzSimon 186). Both Jordan and McCabe are musicians, and the latter unabashedly admits the influence of Jordan's "Night in Tunisia"-in terms of the father/son relationship, the importance of music in the household, and the significance of the natural world-on The Butcher Boy (FitzSimon 176). But beyond merely categorizing the similarities between the two artists, or focusing on the various strategies that are typically utilized in adaptation (e.g., compression and simplification of narrative events, the concentration of sympathy on the main character, the deletion or reduction of the roles of secondary characters, etc.), I will focus on the film, on the ways in which Jordan has reconfigured McCabe's prose style in cinematic terms, his dexterous and creative use of narrative voice and vision to give expression to the feelings, thoughts, and sensations of the protagonist, Francie Brady.
Jordan's evocative medium for articulating Francie's consciousness is the voice-over of the older Francie, which begins: "When I was a young lad, twenty or thirty or forty years ago I lived in a small town where they were all after me on account of what I'd done on Mrs. Nugent." The older Francie (brilliantly performed by Stephen Rea) speaks from the "Garage For Bad Bastards," evidently an institution for the criminally insane. The flashback structure serves to create two vantage points (and more, as I will explain later), permitting the viewer complex access to the character of Francie, both as an older man and as the young boy around whom the story revolves.
A closer examination of the narration reveals the multiplicity of strategies Jordan engages, in order to manifest Francie's perceptions. This following passage occurs directly after Annie/Ma has returned home, having been institutionalized with a nervous breakdown:
Back from the garage there was no holding ma, talking nineteen to the dozen, whiz here one minute there the next-and hadn't she bought the bogman record we heard playing in the cafe. And that's when the buns began. Uncle Alo was comin' home from his big job in London for Christmas. And the house started filling up with cakes and buns for the Christmas party. Cakes cakes cakes! Buns buns buns! My ma was the bun woman.
In an ironic counterpoint to Francie's blithe and bemused narration, the sounds and images in this scene tell a very different and much more melancholy story of a desperately unhappy marriage. I would point out that this scene follows shortly after Ma's attempted suicide, which is characterized by its extremely somber tone. The music that accompanies the suicide scene is mournful, and there is no ironic narration to distance us from Annie's desperate state of mind. It is a good example of the way in which Jordan has structured the film to keep the spectator off balance. As Jordan says, "A rhythm was established in the telling of the story and the balance between the laughter and the horror gets faster and faster towards the end of the movie, so by the end you're horrified one second you're laughing the next. . . " (Falsetto 251). On the soundtrack we hear the traditional ballad "The Butcher Boy" playing, as the camera pans down the sleeve of the record on which the title "Regular Irish" is displayed, accompanied by a sketch of a "typical" Irish father and son, emphasizing the de Valerian image of an Ireland of "near Edenic wholeness, and stable family values. . ." (Herron 76). Annie is maniacally whisking her pastry batter; the camera continues traveling to reveal dozens and dozens of buns and cakes brimming over the surfaces of the kitchen.
The voice-over continues: "Well if I heard that 'Butcher Boy' once I heard it a hundred times and if you said to me would you like to hear it again I know what I would have said-no thank you!" The image track shows Francie lying upstairs in his bed, staring at the ceiling, his expression dispirited. We (and Francie) hear the sounds of crockery being broken, as Annie and Benny/Da engage in a heated war of words. The next shot shows Francie gingerly threading his way through the marital battleground of shattered plates and pulverized cakes. In the foreground, Benny, in an alcoholic stupor, assumes his customary supine position. "The Butcher Boy" continues to play as we view the record revolving on a turntable littered with demolished pastries. The voice (Sinead O'Connor) plaintively sings the words of the ballad, "I wish I were a maid again/ But a maid again I'll never be."
In this passage the narration functions in several ways. The elder Francie's voice-over creates a cognitive gap between his account of the events and circumstances as they are recorded by other aspects of the film's discourse. The voice-over declines to mention his parent's emotionally pitched dispute; it does not indicate a response to his mother's distressing conduct, nor to his father's state of inebriation. He speaks with the voice of Francie, the child, who has learned-as children in abusive homes often do-to live in an unhealthy state of denial, adjusting to the emotional devastation. This is an example in which the voice-over neglects salient details, which are supplied by Jordan's mise en scene. It is the work of the latter to register the intensity of the embattled couple's unceasing quarrel, the literal and figurative messiness of their lives, the oppression and helplessness Francie experiences in the face of his chaotic world. The words of the ballad address Ma's feelings of regretfulness and despondency in her dismal and ultimately doomed marriage.
The scene shifts to the Christmas party, where Da is found, sodden again, barely able to raise himself out of his chair. Da is a mean drunk, incapable of tolerating the fugitive moments of happiness experienced by his friends and family. Da's rage inevitably detonates, as he lashes out at his brother, Alo. Ma tries in vain to quell the tempest, moving the scene from contentious words to physical violence, as Da strikes his wife, whereupon the argument escalates. The camera pulls into a photo of Annie and Benny as young lovers, suggesting that happy times once existed for the couple. In this instance, the reliability of this cinematic gesture is called into question, as it is disclosed later in the story that Da, even on his honeymoon, had to be dragged out of pubs, and treated his wife "no better than a pig." Thus the articulation of the narrative becomes like a series of Borges-like Chinese boxes, with duplicity lurking at each level of enunciation.
The voice-over continues:
It was a grand party but to tell you the truth I was getting a bit tired. Singing's alright. Singing's grand but I think five beautiful Bundorans is enough for me thank you, not to mention two Old Bog Roads and one Never Do a Tango With An Eskimo. But sure you might as well be talking to the wall as trying to tell them it was time for bed.
Once his mother has been physically brutalized, the narrating Francie speaks: "Ahem. Excuse me. Ah yes. It's me, Francie. I do believe I shall be off to Slumberdown Mansions if you please. I've had a rather long day, begging your pardon."
The fighting continues, and the voice-over says:
Yes-I do believe I shall be off on my travels. Excuse me but did you happen to see Mr. Francis Brady by any chance? I'm sorry old bean but I really wouldn't know. I hope he's not going travelling through the wastes of space and time with Algernon Carruthers.
Here we witness Francie retreating-in the face of domestic carnage-into one of the many personae he adopts during the course of the film, largely influenced by British and American television and comic book characters, including Richard Kimble of The Fugitive, The Lone Ranger, and the upper-class British stereotype of the well-mannered Algernon Carruthers. It is worth noting that, as Tom Herron points out, these British and American models are ". . . always out of his [Francie's] reach" (172), perhaps most poignantly displayed as he and Joe watch The Fugitive on the Nugent's television, from outside the house. As greater violence is enacted upon Francie's psyche, his regression into an imaginary world is amplified. The important distinction to be made is that the older Francie is often unreliable, creating what Wayne Booth calls "a confusion of distance . . ." (Booth 311-36) on the part of the viewer. We do not know whom to trust.
The younger Francie is the focalizer, or the point of view character-the person who has the experience in the story. This would be an example of external focalization (Branigan 103), where we see what the character sees, not strictly through his literal point of view, but from an inferred point of view. What has been termed "dual voiced" narration (Hayman and Rabkin 95) which is the merging of the focalizers and the narrator's consciousness, here becomes trebled, amalgamating the voice of the director/writer, the older Francie, and the boy Francie. When I refer to the writer/director, I am speaking solely of Neil Jordan. In an article in the Canadian newspaper, The Globe and Mail (3 Apr. 1988, C3), Jordan said, "I paid Patrick [McCabe] money to write the screenplay, . . . But he seemed not to grapple with it and just kept writing parallel works, telling the same story in different ways. So I said I better do it myself." Thus, I am crediting Jordan as the author of the screenplay, although McCabe's name appears as co-screenwriter in the credits.
When Gerard Genette discusses localization and vision, he provides instances in which the narrator gives over the perceptual sphere to a character, but remains in control, which is precisely the case in segments of The Butcher Boy (Genette 189-94). Consider the scene in which Francie's father visits him in the "School for Pigs." Father "Bubbles" ushers Da into the room, as the voice-over begins:
There was Da in his Al Capone coat, "How are you father? No, that's not a bottle of whiskey in me pocket. I know how to behave in a place like this. Sure wasn't I in a home like this with Alo all those years ago."
Da surreptitiously takes a swig from his hidden whiskey bottle. Francie is bitter and upset because he has been placed, with the apparent cooperation of his father, in precisely the sort of church-run borstal that was the source of Da's childhood misery. Francie remains on one side of the room, as his father claims how much he loved Francie's now-deceased mother. Da reminisces about their honeymoon, the "lovebirds" idyllic time in Bundoran (standing for a mythicized Irish haven) at the "Over the Waves" boarding house. Francie not only flatly refuses to listen to his father's nostalgia ("Shut up, shut up about it . . ."), but to his father's incredulity, mocks him by repeating Da's recrimination to his wife, "May the curse of Christ light upon you, you bitch. The day I took you out of that hole of a shop in Deny was a bitter one for me." Francie remains turned away from his father, as Da puts his hand tentatively on his child's shoulder and says very softly, "I loved you like no father ever loved a son, Francie." After so much anger, abuse, and neglect, Francie cannot tolerate this belated endearment, nor can he respond to the apparent loneliness and need of his father. The voice-over states: "It was hard for him to say it, I could barely hear it. It would have been better if he drew out and hit me." Here, Francie takes on the classical Irish role of the exile, a figure who is ". . . incapable of entering the community . . . of those who have been touched by him" (O'Brien 44). Francie cannot negotiate the emotional gulf between himself and his father; he protects himself from the inconsistency in their relationship by distancing himself-quite understandably-from one of the few remaining contacts that is a representative of home. As George O'Brien writes, "exile [becomes] a means of structuring the inner reality of. . . characters . . ." (O'Brien, ibid). The scene recounts what Francie sees, as well as his internal perceptions. Nonetheless, it is the narrating voice that hovers over the proceedings, governing the amount of information dispensed, as well as opening and closing the scene.
The notorious "poo" scene is one in which Francie the elder and his corporeal incarnation most famously trace a complex dialogue with one another. The child Francie has broken into the Nugent's house, and amidst the performance of other transgressive activities (e.g., smashing Mrs. Nugents cakes, scrawling "PHILLIP IS A PIG" in lipstick across the walls and family photos), creates a mock schoolroom. The grown-up Francie, in voice-over, plays the schoolmaster, beginning his lesson: "Today we are going to do the farmyard. Now can anyone tell me what animals we find in the farmyard?" The embodied Francie plays the Nugent family, and responds to the questions of his interrogator. The scene climaxes when Francie-as Mrs. Nugent-defecates on the floor, urged on by the "schoolmaster": "Now show us Mrs. Nugent-you can do it! Excellent work Mrs. Nugent!" The most radical aspect of this sequence is that not only are the two Francies toe to toe (or voice to body), but they are also role playing other characters, intensifying the delirious tone of a scene that is both horrifying and immensely comical. The older Francie plays the catalyzer in the scene, taking on the part of the "instructor" to his mentor, the child Francie. The latter, in turn, enacts both Phillip and Mrs. Nugent, both of whom are in response to the questions and instructions provided by the voice-over. The humorous temper of Francie's actions-and he is always poised somewhere between the innocent and the malign-serves both to distance us from the explicit unbalance of Francie's mental state, and to retard the moments of genuine lunacy that will mark the film's latter sections. (Interestingly, Jordan does not focus on Francie's desire to "be a Nugent," as McCabe does in his novel. In the novel, McCabe goes so far as to have Phillip say, "He wants to be one of us. He wants his name to be Francis Nugent." After which, Mrs. Nugent unbuttons her blouse and gives suck to Francie from her breast [McCabe 60].) One can only hypothesize that this scene may have been too shocking to film. As screenplays generally require more focus on the specific objectives, goals, and desires of a character, Jordan may have felt the wanting-to-be-a-Nugent plot line was a dispersal of focus in terms of Francie's are in the story.
The complex use of voice and vision gains in importance and profundity as Francie spirals out of control. He has no recourse to language, which would serve as a conduit to understanding the events that befall him. He has been raised in an atmosphere of inhumanity, and thus the completion of the cycle of brutality with the murder of Mrs. Nugent seems preordained. As Neil Jordan has said:
. . . the relationship between Francie and Joe is all the more important because Francie loses his mother and father. Another thing you ought to remember-and what the film tries to show-is that children have no language, no expression for certain enormous tragedies, like the death of a parent. Of course, it's a loss, and they are desperately sad, but they can't really express it. But a mate betrays them, and they have the language and the justice of the playground that's something they can invoke. Francie's anger sends him over the edge to destroy whatever took Joe away from him. But he can't destroy what took his father away-alcoholism. Or his mother-suicide. He can't really do anything much about that. But he can kill Mrs. Nugent. (Jaehne 4)
Both manifestations of Francie, young and old, return to the site of the boy's ostensible wound, the loss of Joe's friendship, by continually dwelling on Joe's betrayal of Francie-receiving goldfish given to him by the despised Nugent boy, Phillip. The voice-over dolefully cries, "But what did Joe have to take it for? Why why why? Why didn't he say Phillip, you can keep your goldfish?" The goldfish and the Nugents-Mrs. Nugent in particular-become the locus of Francie's sense of irretrievable loss, obsessive hostility and finally, murderous aggression. Neil Jordan has said of Francie, ". . . He's the unaccommodated man. He's somebody who refuses to learn the rules of disappointment. He refuses to civilize his feelings because that would do his feelings an injustice" (Falsetto 251).
The narrational voices in The Butcher Boy slip amongst a variety of registers and defy strict categorization. The young Francie is the active agent within the film's fictional world, but he, in turn, is the vivid and engaging creation of the older Francie who narrates the film (Lanser 265-67). In narratological terms, we can consider the young Francie to be the primary focalizer, while the disembodied Francie of the voice-over may also be seen to focalize, as Edward Branigan says, "by becoming a character of sorts" (107). A claim can easily be made that the older Francie has a distinct personality, which, although it often merges with the young Francie, maintains its own identity. Stephen Rea discusses his performance of the voice-over in an interview:
It was very tricky, because a kid's speech patterns are different from an adult's . . . so I had to try and suggest that thirty years later I was that boy grown up. That's hard. I couldn't just imitate him otherwise it would have been stupid. . . . The thing I'm most pleased with in The Butcher Boy is the voice-over narration, which makes a big contribution to the irony of the film. (Zucker 95)
I would emphasize that this strategy is not a structural trope, but a poetic one, which is used to record Francie's unraveling world and his slide into deeper and deeper alienation, mania, and eventually psychosis. Of course, I would be remiss not to point out that both the younger and older Francie owe their existence to the voice of the filmmaker, Neil Jordan.
Perhaps the most powerful example of internal focalization, where the privileged view is at its most private and subjective, occurs after Francie is discovered with the decaying body of his father. The doctor sticks a needle in his arm, and as he goes under, rose petals begin to fall first on him, then on his dead father. Francie is then found in a field of snowdrops-in one of the film's increasingly rare peaceful images, as the horrifying denouement approaches. Francie rises, as Joe's head pops into the frame. Frank Sinatra's cover "Where Are You?" plays on the soundtrack. Francie and Joe are now standing in the hills by "their" lake; the lake explodes as if a nuclear bomb had been detonated. The shot then frames Francie and Joe as they walk through their town, now devastated by the bomb, covered with ash and strewn with the flaming wreckage of buildings. Bits of dialogue from previous scenes are heard as the boys pass various locations used in the film; charred pig bodies have replaced the human presence. The voice-over says, "Thank God I had Joe. Me and Joe Purcell, the last two in the universe in this bitter, bitter day when the world had ended." As the hallucination or fantasy draws to a close, a figure on a black horse rides into town. It is an alien dressed in a priest's cassock, who intones menacingly: "You've unlocked something very, very precious Francie." The pigs (Francie's nomination as a "pig" is a particular trigger for his rage and sense of inferiority), nuclear war, and the invasion of aliens (who in turn, reference "the Communists") are spectacles that conflate many of Francie's preoccupations and fears. In this instance, the voice-over narration is extremely limited, and the responsibility for the narrative is ceded to Francie's intense inner imaginings.
There is a great deal more to be said about the issues of "who speaks?" and "who sees?" in The Butcher Boy. The structure of authority in the text is a tangled web; the resonating voices of a human consciousness are articulated with great subtlety and expression. I can only hope to suggest the labyrinthine pathways that make Neil Jordan's masterful adaptation of The Butcher Boy such a richly textured and provocative experience.
History repeats itself, first as tragedy, then as tragedy.
-Timothy Pat Coogan
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