The Poetics of Point of View: Neil Jordan's the Butcher Boy

By Zucker, Carole | Literature/Film Quarterly, January 1, 2003 | Go to article overview

The Poetics of Point of View: Neil Jordan's the Butcher Boy


Zucker, Carole, Literature/Film Quarterly


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. …

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