Nation and Narration: Rewriting the Field

By Cavanagh, Dermot | Literature/Film Quarterly, January 1, 2003 | Go to article overview

Nation and Narration: Rewriting the Field


Cavanagh, Dermot, Literature/Film Quarterly


"No homeland," suggests T. W. Adorno, "can survive being processed by the films which celebrate it" (236). Yet, in a material sense, homelands can not only survive but prosper by allowing their experience to be represented on film. This allows, for example, a national identity to be promoted in ways that elicit both recognition and good will. There is a price to be paid, however, for manufacturing such "advertisements produced for the world" (Adorno 233) and Adorno identifies this as standardization. Reproducing a commercially successful version of nationality converts a complex, unique character into an "interchangeable sameness," a repertoire of familiar images and gestures that are as instantly recognizable as a trademark or a brand name. Critical reflection upon national identity is arrested, therefore, by the continuous presentation of what is already known. Culture "in the true sense, did not simply accommodate itself to human beings" but "raised a protest against the petrified relations under which they lived" (Adorno 232). The commodities of the culture industry satisfy only the most conventional social understanding.

The fixed or essentializing nature of national imagery has been of acute concern to criticism of Irish cinema, especially given the preponderance of foreign capital and cultural expectations in films concerned with the country.1 As Lance Pettitt observes, Ireland's national cinema is often "defined by its subordinate, promiscuous relations and exchanges with Hollywood, British and European cinemas" (67). This has produced a number of cinematic conventions that are used habitually to convey the essence of Irish experience. One familiar form of visual rhetoric associates Irish identity with an immemorial world of rural tradition. Cinematic narratives that depict an entrapment in and resistance to fatal circumstances have often accompanied this.2 Yet, the substantial presence of these tropes in Jim Sheridan's The Field (1990)-adapted from the play of the same name by John B. Keane-has drawn little attention.3 The film was acclaimed upon its release and described in The Irish Times, by Michael Dwyer, as "uniquely Irish" and as making "no concession to the international cinema-going audience." This reviewer praised the "culture shock" it would deliver to "many of its young and even youngish Irish urban audience today"(10). British critics concurred. The Sunday Times's George Perry praised the elemental, as well as the symbolic, qualities of Richard Harris's performance in the central role: "Nature is raw and rough, and there is a sense of allegory, that Harris stands for old Erin, trampled on and exploited for centuries, even by its kith who have quit its shores for better pickings." To such reactions one might well transpose Adorno's observation concerning the "fetish character of music" to cinema : "The familiarity of the piece is a surrogate for the quality ascribed to it. To like it is almost the same thing as to recognize it" (26). As this essay will argue, despite its distinguished Irish director, The Field demonstrates the continuing power of a stereotypical and homogenous view of Irish temperament, history, and landscape in contemporary film. This is more noticeable when Sheridan's screenplay and direction are compared with Keane's play. In short, Sheridan rewrites The Field by instating a conventional ideological narrative that its source refuses to provide.

Readings of films that privilege a source's priority have been subjected, however, to searching and much-needed critique. Brian McFarlane's observation is both representative and salutary: "There are many kinds of relations which may exist between film and literature, and fidelity is only one-and rarely the most exciting" (11). Seeing literary texts as resources for adaptation and, consequently, film as a critical and creative interpretation of these has been a fertile process. This should not inhibit, however, an awareness of how films can transform texts in ways that are ideologically regressive. …

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