Jack London's Novel 'Martin Eden' Gets a New Life via Filmmakers — Including Vermonter Jay Craven | Movie+TV Reviews | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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Jack London's Novel 'Martin Eden' Gets a New Life via Filmmakers — Including Vermonter Jay Craven

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PLAYING FOR TIME Social class comes between young lovers Richardson and Griffith in Craven's adaptation of Martin Eden. - COURTESY OF JAY CRAVEN
  • Courtesy Of Jay Craven
  • PLAYING FOR TIME Social class comes between young lovers Richardson and Griffith in Craven's adaptation of Martin Eden.

Most of us know American writer Jack London for his adventure classic The Call of the Wild or his harrowing short story "To Build a Fire." His 1909 autobiographical novel Martin Eden is less likely to show up on high school reading lists. Yet, in a mysterious cultural convergence, two directors of different nationalities recently released separate adaptations of the book.

Pietro Marcello's Martin Eden, set in Naples, was nominated for the Golden Lion at the 2019 Venice Film Festival. (It's currently available to rent or with a Showtime subscription.) Vermont filmmaker Jay Craven's take on the novel, Jack London's Martin Eden, was shot with the help of college students in the director's Semester Cinema program. The movie premiered at the Nantucket Film Festival in June 2021 and won best film and best director awards at the Boston Film Festival.

With Craven's film screening this week in Burlington, Montpelier and St. Johnsbury (see below), I decided to watch both Martin Edens and find out what's suddenly so compelling about this tale from the dawn of the 20th century.

Both movies follow the basic plot of London's novel, which is what lit professors call a Künstlerroman — the story of how an artist becomes an artist. Martin Eden (Andrew Richardson in Craven's version) is a working-class young man accustomed to the rough life of a sailor. His world expands when he meets the refined Ruth Morse (Hayley Griffith), who tutors him and gives him reading lists. Soon they're in love and engaged. But Ruth's bourgeois parents have doubts about Martin's new ambition: to make his living as a writer.

As Martin's collection of rejection slips grows, and strikes and social unrest erupt around him, he struggles to fulfill a creative mission in which only he has complete faith. Although Martin insists he's an "individualist," at odds with the new trend of socialism, he's drawn to leftist gatherings. By befriending the ailing socialist writer Russ Brissenden (Phil McGlaston), he puts himself on a collision course with his conservative would-be in-laws.

Craven's adaptation is by far the more straightforward of the two, retaining the novel's setting in early 20th-century America. Marcello's version, by contrast, takes place in an indeterminate period that alternately evokes the 1930s and the early '70s. The director has called the movie "a metaphor for the history of the 20th century as such." Mixing grainy 16mm film with archival footage that represents Martin's memories and fictions, Marcello's Martin Eden makes a dramatic stylistic statement that telegraphs its status as modern parable rather than realism.

Why parable? Because London sets a trap in his novel. Gilded Age readers loved tales of triumphant individualism and poor boys making good, epitomized by the novels of Horatio Alger. Martin Eden fits the pattern — then turns it upside down. After many travails, Martin does find riches and fame as an author, just as London did, but his triumph is empty and puts him on a tragic course.

In both films, this twist feels startlingly abrupt, almost surreal. In the Italian version, however, Luca Marinelli's magnetic performance as Martin sows the seeds of the character's transformation, making it easier to track. From the beginning, we see the young man's pluck and charisma but also his simmering class rage. Once he's accepted into polite society, he loses outlets for that rage — and, like some modern celebrities, enters a self-destructive spiral.

In Craven's version, Martin is less of a smoldering volcano. He comes off as a stalwart, charming fellow, generally confining his anger to fantasies of telling off Ruth's parents. His love interest, by contrast, has more depth and dimensions in Craven's film than she does in Marcello's. Flirty and fussy as she may be, this Ruth also has genuine convictions that draw her toward the women's suffrage movement. Her counterpart in the Italian film feels more like an icon of genteel femininity than a real woman.

Watching both films offers a fascinating lesson in how differently a single story can be brought to the screen, especially when the source material is rich in ambiguity. Himself an avowed socialist, London told his friend Upton Sinclair that critics had failed to see Martin Eden as the "attack on individualism" that he intended. European readers may have been more receptive to a veiled communitarian message. For that reason, Marcello told Filmmaker, the novel has been more popular in his homeland than in the U.S.

In both of these films, Martin Eden is less a full-throated endorsement of socialism than the cautionary tale of a socialist manqué. The story poses a perennial question: What part can artists play in a revolution? Is there something inherently selfish in their creative pursuits, even when they chronicle the plight of the oppressed? That question tears Martin Eden apart, and it's no easier to answer today.

Upcoming screenings of Jack London's Martin Eden

  • Thursday, May 5, 7 p.m., at Main Street Landing Film House, Burlington (presented by the Vermont International Film Foundation with a director Q&A). $12. Also streaming Friday through Sunday, May 6 to 8, at vtiff.org.
  • Friday through Thursday, May 6 to 12, at the Savoy Theater in Montpelier (check online for price and times).
  • Saturday, May 7, 5:30 and 7:30 p.m., at Catamount Arts, St. Johnsbury. $6-9.