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Adaptation Evaluation: ‘Martin Eden’

Pietro Marcello's film finds a way to change the source text but also keep its core ideas

By MovieBabblePublished 3 years ago 3 min read
Kino Lorber



Even if you’ve never actually read anything by Jack London, likely you’re familiar with his two most famous novels, The Call of the Wild and White Fang, which have both been adapted into films a number of times (as recently as 2020 and 2018 respectively). You may have even been assigned the delightfully bleak short story “To Build a Fire” in school. London’s synonymous with images of rugged masculinity eeking out an existence against the backdrop of an uncaring nature. And for good reason. He was an authentic working-class writer who came to the craft after years of sailing the Pacific, panning for gold in the Klondike, and working as an oyster pirate.

But many might be surprised to learn that London was also a committed socialist, a political belief informed by years of grueling, body-destroying labor. It was out of this worldview that London decided to write Martin Eden, which was recently adapted into a film by Italian director Pietro Marcello. Despite the fact that the Italian director transported the events of the novel to Italy, the film retains much of London’s basic outline, including dialogue nearly mimicking what’s in the book. Marcello’s Martin Eden isn’t only a smart adaptation, it’s also one of the few examples of a European director pulling from the American literary canon rather than the other way around.

The Movie

Martin Eden is the story of two lovers separated by class. After saving an upper-class scion, Arturo, from a beating, Martin Eden, a sailor, is invited to his family’s bourgeois estate where he meets Arturo’s sister Elena. Instantly, Eden falls for her, and becomes determined to elevate himself as a suitor worthy of her affections.

Elena suggests that Eden first work on his grammar, which sends him on a journey of self-improvement to not only know how to properly conjugate his verbs but also to read anything he can get his hands on. He falls in love with the written word so much that he soon becomes enchanted by the idea of making it as a writer, and after a final stint as a sailor, he takes a cheap room as a boarder where he hones his craft.

At Eden’s first supper with Elena’s family, her mother, like the good upper-middle-class woman she is, tells him that she believes that education is how we eliminate poverty, and Eden eagerly agrees. But in the end, he finds that there are limits to education. As an autodidact, Eden can teach himself anything he wants, but he still lacks the wealth necessary to make a good match for Elena. Elena’s father offers Eden a job, but it would mean giving up the one thing he loves and is good at: writing.

Director Pietro Marcello’s greatest trick is to disrupt our sense of time. He subtly melds clothing and technology from different eras, and shoots the film using beautiful, grainy 16mm film, which allows him to seamlessly incorporate stock footage with the audience barely noticing. Throughout, silent film as interstitials function to either motion towards the tumultuous twentieth century or point us towards Eden’s interior state. At some points, we might see film stock of revolutions or, while Eden’s at his lowest point, we see an image of a sinking ship.

Not only do these stylistic flourishes liven up a story from 1909, but they also place Eden within the broad political context of the twentieth century. It’s a film about Eden’s attempt to crawl his way out of his class, but it’s also about the historical tumult and eddies that can disrupt our lives. We can’t choose our class like we can’t choose our century; we’re born into both.


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