Martin Eden

Review by Willard Manus

The anguished cry you hear is that of Jack London protesting from the grave at what the Italians have done to his novel, “Martin Eden.”

Published in 1909, the semi-autobiographical book was an inversion of the American Dream. As London explained in a letter to Upton Sinclair, “Martin Eden lived only for himself, fought only for himself, and, if you please died for himself. He fought for entrance into bourgeois circles, where he expected to find refinement, culture, high-living and high-thinking. He won his way into those circles and was appalled by the colossal, unlovely mediocrity of the bourgeoisie. When he learned that love had tricked and failed him, and that all the things he had attained meant nothing to him, being a consistent individualist, being unaware of the collective human need, there remained nothing for which to live and fight. And so he died.”

Writer/director Pietro Marcello gets Martin Eden’s character all wrong in his updated version of London’s novel. There is no growth to Martin (well-performed by Luca Marinelli), no change in the way he thinks and acts. He is a grouch, a rebel, an outsider from day one. Vain, self-loathing, contemptuous of the human race, he may very well be the most unsympathetic character in cinematic history. Except for a few tender moments with Luisa (Jessica Cressy), the rich girl he loves, he spends his time denouncing workers and bosses alike, calling them slaves, fools and scoundrels.

He also sees himself as a superman, even when he is impoverished and working in a factory. Uneducated, poor and bad-tempered, his only redeeming quality is his desire to become a writer. This is where MARTIN EDEN works best: in showing how the proletarian Martin overcomes illiteracy, isolation and rejection to finally break through and achieve success. That struggle is well-dramatized and believable, though marred by his insufferable egoism and selfishness.

Equally off-putting is Marcello’s decision to set the story in modern-day Italy, with references to neo-liberalism, the free market and fascism sprinkled throughout, even as other scenes occur in the 19th century. The mixture of old and new is meant to be daring and inventive. Instead it comes off as annoying and alienating.

There are also bewildering time jumps. Suddenly, without warning, Martin is seen with a second wife and a luxurious life style (thanks to his overnight fame as a writer). But he’s just as glum, grim and downbeat as ever, “a vapor arisen from the mob mind” (as London confided to Sinclair).

This isn’t the first time an Italian filmmaker has mangled a Jack London novel. Back in 1975, director Giuseppi Vari decided to remake WOLF LARSEN, Hollywood’s 1958 version of “The Sea Wolf.” Vari botched that job and now Marcello has done the same with MARTIN EDEN. All one can say to the Italians is: “Basta! Please let poor Jack London rest in peace!”