Martin Eden: Jack London's Dilemma
Updated: May 26, 2022
Every great artist has one great lifelong dilemma: Ingmar Bergman and his faith; Andy Warhol and his suppressed desire for intimacy to the point of despair; Vincent Van Gogh and his depression; Christopher Nolan's insistence on not owning a cell phone (how does he do it?); and so much more. Jack London, besides his alcoholism, had a long and hard fight within himself between the socialist he desired to be and the individualism his success as a writer led him to be. He tried to express this dilemma, of course, through a novel.
After roughing it in the Klondike and working as a seaman, London wrote “The Call of the Wild” and “White Fang” and other stories, propelling himself to the top of the literary world. But these literary elites tousled the fur of his soul like he was a rescued dog, their hypocrisy about the art they created and the lifestyles they led flared him up. Thus, London’s great novel “Martin Eden” was released in 1909, confronting these elitists through the fictional yet semi-autobiographical Martin Eden; a young sailor in Oakland inspired to be a writer by his love for a wealthy girl but becomes demoralized by the people around her who only revere him when his writing succeeds. The book was critically derided at the time, London’s indictment of individualism wasn’t self-aware enough and people missed the point (including my young brain when I read it years ago, I was just enjoying a simple romantic story about an aspiring writer). But that’s the beauty of it, a true work of art, London made a statement not only in the story itself but in the act of writing it. Like his own character Martin Eden, his need for self-expression obfuscated any chance for the socialist utopia he dreamt of.
Pietro Marcello’s loose adaptation takes the tragic story of Martin Eden to Italy during an unknown time period (it’s hard to tell, technology and clothes are ostensibly anachronistic). Shot in colorful 16mm with frenzied camera movements and cuts to archival footage of Italy, Marcello’s film is a really fun watch but doesn’t fully grasp what London was trying to say and actually uses his very same playbook. At the same time, that’s why it is also a wonderful film. Marcello doesn’t care whether we’ve read the book or how smart we are, he gets right to business. It’s a scholarly, romantic, and studious ride that unfortunately doesn’t quite stick the landing. It’s not the disorienting time period changes, the arguments about socialism, or even the romance (that part is solid, actress Jessica Cressy also great as Elena, Martin Eden’s one true love whose name is Ruth in the book), it’s the downfall of Martin Eden that only the life-affirming efficacy of London’s words could portray (He has to be as tough as Hemingway to adapt to the screen; no one talks about Ethan Hawke’s 1990s White Fang, I’ve never seen it and the CGI attempt at The Call of the Wild this year took out all the grit and blood for a kid-friendly joy ride of an adventure). The young, handsome actor Luca Marinelli isn’t a problem either, he’s great as the affable Martin Eden who loses himself to himself as he berates socialists while secretly wishing class distinctions weren’t a thing; he then becomes the famous writer he longed to be but with it came the affluent living he wanted more for the real life subjects of his stories rather than for himself.
London’s novel is a thick book, so the huge time jump to the final act is understandable but it really hinders the more modern message Marcello was getting to before it can really hit. In the end, we’re left with a lonely and bitter, self-hating Martin Eden swimming into the sunset stained sea with nothing to show for except his acclaimed stories and his continual disdain for his new peers.
Having a creative mind and being a good person are two things that don't always go hand in hand. The narcissism of self-expression is a venomous thing and many great artists have tried and failed to reconcile it with their hearts. London posited that in order for a better and kinder life, the culture needed a broader, more collective change and Marcello does a decent job (just needed a little more oomph) of putting it to the screen. Whether you agree with this notion or not, it’s a nice sentiment and proves that London, a hardened exterior but a very soft man on the inside (and apparently was a really likeable guy), was more than just a dilemma-riddled artist. He wanted the best for humanity and believed that everyone should feel the surge that is the ecstasy of life.
Martin Eden is available in Kino Lorber's Virtual Cinema through your local arthouse theater.