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  • Alex North's Adapted Score for The Dead (John Huston, 1987)
  • John O'Flynn (bio)

Based on James Joyce's short story from Dubliners in 1914, The Dead is a 1987 international film production directed by Irish American (and later Irish citizen) John Huston, with an adapted screenplay by his son Tony Huston.1 Many of Huston's prior films were adapted from literature, with several others again interpreted as containing autobiographical elements,2 including the widely held view that The Dead represented Huston's epitaph, given that he was terminally ill during production and died shortly before the film's release.

Composer Alex North, who had collaborated with Huston in five previous Hollywood productions,3 had considerable experience in responding creatively to adaptations of diverse literary sources by the time he had begun working on his score for The Dead in 1986.4 North preferred to become holistically and emotionally involved in each project he undertook,5 and one of the hallmarks of his approach was the investment he made in researching musical texts and associated contexts, including an empathetic view of non-Western music(s) that would distinguish him from many of his contemporaries.6 Scoring for The Dead, however, would represent the American composer's only foray into an Irish-themed sound world and as such would inevitably have presented him with many challenges, not least, the need to negotiate the many contestations [End Page 222] surrounding music in Ireland in Joyce's time—debates that have not entirely abated at the time of writing.

Joyce's celebrated short story has been extensively explored in literary scholarship from its first publication in 1914 to the present day, with Huston's adaptation also receiving substantial critical and academic attention over the past three decades. Given its prominence in Joyce's original text, music in and of "The Dead" has also come under close scrutiny by several scholars, including Paul Barolsky, Martin Dowling, Hugh Shields, Gerry Smyth, and Harry White. Against this, relatively little attention has been given to music in and for Huston's The Dead, with most analysts of the film reverting to the musical, textual, and intertextual references that abound in the original Joycean text.

Arguably, Joyce's allusions to music and wider cultural associations should form a vital layer in any reading of music produced as part of the film adaptation, particularly when considering what would appear as a close fidelity in Huston's film. But I also contend that as with any investigation of soundtrack in literature-to-film adaptation, the analytic approach here also needs to consider overall sound design and film score as they relate to the entirety of the film text. The discussion that follows is premised on an expectation that most readers will be acquainted with both texts: Joyce's short story and Huston's film. For those who have not yet encountered either text, I strongly recommend that you engage with both in whichever order appeals more; an additional resource for readers already familiar with Joyce's text can be found in the scholarly podcast series Joyce's Dublin: An Exploration of "The Dead."7

Alex North's Score and Overall Sound Design in The Dead

John Huston would go to great lengths to reproduce the visual dimensions of Joyce's story by assembling a "period piece" that was lovingly detailed with Edwardian artifacts in a Hollywood set that was built to the exact proportions of the home of Kate and Julia Morkan at 15 Ussher's Island (although the film's exterior scenes of arrival, departure, and a coach journey to the Gresham Hotel were shot on location in Dublin).8 Similarly, we can recognize a largely comprehensive approach to musical sources and performance style in both the film's diegesis and its underscore, although I later qualify and discuss the perceived qualities of authenticity for both types of film music. This attention and apparent faithfulness to detail notwithstanding, it can be noted that several aspects of the film's screenplay, cinematography, and sound design (including diegetic and nondiegetic music) involved several omissions, modifications, and additions in relation to the source text. One of the most notable inclusions...


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