Published in 1909, Martin Eden was author Jack London’s least successful venture; at least as far as interpretation is concerned. A socialist himself, London intended for the novel to be a satire of American individualism. Instead, it is often regarded as the story of a poor man who, by his own talents in writing, is able to earn his wealth. Judging from Pietro Marcello’s new adaptation, this misconception isn’t likely to change for the uninitiated. It does, however, ask the viewer to reflect on their own ideas about class.
The narrative itself isn’t anything groundbreaking. Marcello, a native Italian, places the story in mid-20th century Naples, where Eden (portrayed by the charmingly erratic Luca Marinelli) is a ship-worker who falls in love with an heiress after defending her brother from a security guard on the docks. The heiress in question, Elena (Jessica Cressy) is intelligent and well-read. The illiterate Eden takes on the challenge of learning to read and write, deciding to become a writer in order to impress his love. He decides to write about his life as a sailor and the discontent of the lower class, but no one will publish his stories. By the third act, he’s rich and famous, but it isn’t what he expected. It is the rags to riches story we all know and love.
This is well and good, but it’s not the center-point of the film. The time we spend in Eden’s head as he stares out the window or at his typewriter (all of this is shot on vibrant 16mm, so it’s not hard to sit through) is just as important as the conversations had between him and Elena. This alone time makes us believe in him, diving into his work because his life depends on it. And really, there’s nothing wrong with hard work; far from it, we should all value passion in this way. However, this work is consistently devalued by those of a higher class. Elena doesn’t understand his work, she wants him to write happier stories. He is made fun of at parties and gets rejected over and over again. It is class discrimination of the subtlest kind; they will let him in, but only if he plays by their rules.
Eden’s attitude toward his fellow working-men further complicates the film. Multiple scenes take place at socialist rallies in which workers get up and give furious speeches about needing a new regime. Each time, Eden makes his own voice heard. He urges the workers to look inside themselves, advocating for individual success. He believes that success can be found on this level, away from structural change. He believes this until he doesn’t, but by then it is too late.
Perhaps all of this appears obvious in print, but Marcello’s style of filmmaking keeps the themes relatively obscure. He relies on visual cues and small tics by actors to portray meaning. The big speeches in the rally scenes say exactly what he doesn’t mean. Also of note is Martin Eden’s length, being just over two hours. For a film this contemplative, it can feel like too much to take in at once. Though it gives ample breathing room between new ideas, it begins to feel muddled toward the end of the film. It is a puzzle of interpretation with an ending that will leave you with more questions than answers. Regardless, it may be worth digging into for those interested in socialist theory, class struggle, or a dense literary film. For those not interested in such things, the cinematography and lush score may be worth the price of admission anyway.
Martin Eden played at the 43rd Portland International Film Festival. More info about the film and future screenings can be found at kinolorber.com/film/martineden
Main illustration by Haley Riley
This article has been updated with relevant information about the film, a fresh new illustration from our print edition, and with minor grammar corrections. Due to the spread of coronavirus many screenings for the film festival were cancelled to reduced the possibility of more people contracting COVID-19.
Martin Eden plays Wednesday, March 11 at 5:45 p.m. at Whitsell Auditorium and Friday, March 13 at 8:30 p.m. at Cinemagic.