Pietro Marcello’s intelligent film adaptation of Jack London’s classic novel Martin Eden investigates the impossible dilemmas faced by a working-class artist. By Christos Tsiolkas.

Martin Eden

Luca Marinelli in Pietro Marcello’s film.
Luca Marinelli in Pietro Marcello’s film.
Credit: Francesca Errichiello

This review contains spoilers.

Jack London’s novel Martin Eden, first published in 1909, is a caustic denunciation of the hypocrisy and venality of the bourgeois literary world. The eponymous hero is a merchant sailor and an autodidact, who comes to the aid of a middle-class man in a bar brawl and is subsequently introduced to the man’s rich family. Martin falls in love with the daughter, Ruth Morse, and vows that within two years he will become a published writer and so prove to her disapproving parents that his working-class background is no impediment to his being a worthy suitor and fiancé.

Martin dedicates himself to writing short stories and poems but every work he submits is returned. As he sinks into poverty, he is abandoned by his own family. He finally comprehends that the Morses will never accept him into their world. When he does achieve success, he realises that fashion and expediency dominate the worlds of art and literature. His writing hasn’t changed: his status is elevated by commercial success. Filled with disgust and rancour, he decides to kill himself.

One of the most troubling, tantalising aspects of the book is the tension between the author’s clear socialist sympathies and the compelling, iconoclastic individualism of Martin Eden himself. London has created a character of immense protean rage and strength and Martin’s scathing attacks on both working-class and genteel society are genuinely ecstatic in their fury.

Martin becomes influenced by the social Darwinism of Herbert Spencer, and a reader is acutely aware of London working hard to critique the reactionary consequences of such philosophy. However, more than Spencer – or Karl Marx for that matter – the dominant philosopher that animates the writing is Friedrich Nietzsche. Martin Eden is closer to Ayn Rand’s Howard Roark or John Galt than he is to the proletarian heroes of London’s near contemporaries of the Progressive era, such as Ida Tarbell or Upton Sinclair.

Martin Eden, Pietro Marcello’s film adaptation of the novel, transfers Martin’s story from San Francisco to the docks and slums of Naples. The Morse family are now the Orsinis, and their daughter Ruth’s name has been changed to Elena. As an Italian filmmaker, Marcello is aware that the political speculations of the original novel must be challenged by the terrifying legacies of 20th-century totalitarianism. His strategy is to ostensibly keep the action to the early years of that century but to continually interrupt this temporal schema by interspersing documentary images that refer to the history of Italian fascism and to the great poverty and mass migrations of the postwar years.

It’s a highly successful strategy. His choices, both visually and on the soundtrack, are expert and illuminating. To take just one example, the loving but compromised bond between Martin and his older sister – a key and poignant relationship in the original novel – is indicated by a short, lovely sequence of a boy and girl dancing in the street while 1980s synth Italo-disco plays on the soundtrack. As viewers we accept this dissonance as a sign that this will not be a straightforward retelling of a classic story.

Just as the cuts to documentary images of people labouring or children playing among the war ruins reminds us of the future lives at stake in the cerebral arguments between Martin and his associates, the obviously contemporary Neapolitan street scenes link the past to the present. The cumulative effect is to make us aware of how the conflicts of class still operate across the decades.

The filmmakers display great acumen in their casting. As Martin, Luca Marinelli is an imposing presence, capturing both the character’s physicality but also his vulnerability and innocence. Martin trusts the middle-class world he is entering for the first time and Marinelli isn’t afraid of exposing Martin’s gullibility. Marinelli justifiably won the Best Actor award at the 2019 Venice Film Festival for his performance.

Jessica Cressy plays Elena. She conveys the sense of a reciprocal fascination in her developing attraction to Martin, and also a hint of the fear that stems from his being from another class. In smaller roles, Elisabetta Valgoi as Elena’s suspicious mother and Denise Sardisco as Martin’s former girlfriend are also very well cast. Marcello has largely worked in documentary, but his felicity with actors shows promise for his continuing work in narrative film.

In many scenes Cressy is lit and costumed to resemble the young Dominique Sanda, whose ethereal presence was an indelible part of some of the great films from 1970s Italian cinema. The tension that marks the novel – between the promise of collective action and the seduction of individualism – is consciously played out through a critical engagement with the history of Italian cinema itself.

The jarring intrusions of archival footage speak to the primacy of neorealism in that history. However, the framing and staging of the fractured love relationship between Martin and Elena and his desperate descent into poverty owe more to the operatic flourishes of Bernardo Bertolucci and most particularly, I think, to the baroque melodramas of Lina Wertmüller. Along with some of the best contemporary Italian directors – Luca Guadagnino, Davide Maldi, Alice Rohrwacher – Marcello is avowing his choice to be influenced across the range of ideology and aesthetics that marks the legacy of Italian cinema.

The film is not completely successful. The role of Elena hasn’t been rethought with the same diligence that Marcello has brought to the narrative structure. As with the novel, we get no sense of what it means for a woman, regardless of her class, to strive for education and creative independence. I recently watched Liliana Cavani’s 1977 film, Beyond Good and Evil, about a ménage à trois between Nietzsche, Paul Rée and Lou Andreas-Salomé. Sanda is superb as Andreas-Salomé, illuminating what it costs a bourgeois woman to revolt against patriarchal norms and expectations in fin-de-siècle Europe.

Marcello clearly knows Cavani’s work and I couldn’t help wishing that Elena were written as more than a cypher for her family’s conservatism. If Elena were a woman who desires creative freedom for herself, it wouldn’t sentimentally demolish the class differences that separate her from Martin. In fact, I think it would make for a more subtle and powerful story.

Inevitably, the novel’s long middle passage – which deals with Martin’s failure as a writer – has been truncated for the film. The cut to his sudden wealth and success is abrupt and disorienting. Marinelli loses some of the confidence that has marked his performance up to this point, and he isn’t helped by the splatter of garish make-up that is meant to suggest the dissolution and decadence that comes with wealth. Marcello has found no cinematic equivalent to convey the arduousness of Martin’s work as a writer. We don’t experience the lacerating sense of failure that is part of the epic sweep of the novel and consequently his suicide lacks tragic resonance.

Just before Martin enters the sea to drown himself, he looks across to a group of asylum seekers washed up on the beach in southern Italy. We understand what Marcello is wanting to do here: to overlay more critical distance between his adaptation and the original novel and to suggest historic legacies of colonialism that eluded London as a writer. But the image of the stranded refugee has become such an overworked ploy, used by countless European filmmakers to lend unearned gravity to their storytelling – Luca Guadagnino’s A Bigger Splash being a particularly egregious example – that I found myself stepping outside Martin’s story and wondering why Marcello hadn’t integrated his critique of racism within the narrative. As with the one-dimensionality of Elena’s character, these missed opportunities compromise the intellectual integrity and emotional power of the film.

Yet Martin Eden is far from inconsequential. It takes seriously the dilemma of what class relations might now mean in an age that is characterised as post-industrial. At its best, it makes us grasp the almost impossible situation in which working-class artists find themselves, with the price of success requiring their separation from their communities and families. That is the despair at the centre of London’s novel and why it remains resonant even when its politics and philosophy have dated. Marcello’s Martin Eden doesn’t betray that anguished howl.


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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on June 19, 2021 as "A howl of anguish".

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