Martin Eden (Marcello, 2019)

When I first heard that Jack London’s political novel Martin Eden was being made as a film set in modern-day Naples, I wasn’t sure how well the book’s themes would translate for a contemporary audience. After watching the film, I’m still not sure.

I recommend the film, so I guess it works well enough. Maybe I should say I am not sure whether it works as well as might a more straightforward adaptation. The story involves the eponymous working-class hero falling in love with a bourgeoisie woman. (Here she is called Elena.) He chances into her sphere when he saves her brother from getting beaten up on the docks. She is grateful — as is the rest of the family — and he is smitten.

One issue that I have with changing the setting from turn-of-the-century San Francisco to late-century Naples is that themes that translate are more general and generic. Star crossed lovers abound in all ages, and class differences are among the most common reasons for keeping them apart. This is the same conflict at the core of works as different as, say, The Great Gatsby and Mansfield Park.

Novels are made in the details, romances in the broad character and plot types. In the press kit, director Pietro Marcello underscores this point by calling Martin Eden “our story” and insisting that the Naples of the film “could be any city, anywhere in the world.” I suppose it could be, but that’s more of a drag than a bonus for people who want it to be San Francisco in 1900.

Sure lovers are separated by class everywhere. And yes, there are many developed countries where poor laborers dream of being writers. But isn’t that a historically embedded trope, particular to the early 20th century — and more common in economically developed cultures? If you doubt my word that the concepts that art and education (rather than income) would be the means of lifting the working class to social equality, go read Matthew Arnold’s Culture and Anarchy. Better yet, compare Leonard Bast in Howard’s End to Jamal in Slumdog Millionaire. For the postmodern (and beyond) audience, sports, television, entertainment, crime are all more probable vehicles out of poverty than are the arts. Culture won’t help you get the girl, even if she loves you back.

Maybe what doesn’t quite translate in Martin Eden isn’t the proletariat naivete about what will make the rich love and accept the working-class hero but rather the genuine anger at what doesn’t.

What does translate, what Martin Eden gets right, are the feelings of betrayal and disillusionment. Martin the character is not one who tries and fails. He tries, succeeds, and then realizes society is disingenuous about how it defines success and dishonest about what it promises as its rewards. The tenor of the metaphor still resonates with the modern audience even if the specifics of the vehicle don’t.

All that being said, it’s a welcome relief to see a work of narrative cinema that is unapologetically class conscious and not afraid to make bold claims about capitalism as a system rather than qualified claims about people who hold wealth and power within it.

Martin Eden opens in select physical cinemas on October 16, 2020, and it can also be streamed through Kino Lorber at:

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