Library of America fans in need of a good movie—and isn’t everyone, in late 2020?—are urged to seek out the new Italian adaptation of Jack London’s 1909 novel Martin Eden, a hit at last year’s Venice and New York film festivals that is now available to watch via streaming and in a handful of movie theaters around the United States.
London’s autobiographical novel is set in and around a fin de siècle San Francisco Bay Area, but director Pietro Marcello’s 2019 film boldly relocates the story in twentieth-century Naples—and the aesthetic adventurousness doesn’t stop there. Interposed footage variously evokes the silent era and Italian Neorealism, and a playful sleight-of-hand regarding sets and costume design blurs the time frame—lightly suggesting that the tragic arc of the title character, and the class conflicts he internalizes, are in fact timeless.
That the movie works as well as it does is in large part due to its central performance. London’s protagonist, a young sailor who propels himself into an education and a literary career through sheer force of will as much as through any native ability, is embodied with such roughneck charisma by actor Luca Marinelli that audiences will readily believe it when another character says to him, early in the film, “You are very likeable, Mr. Eden.”
Viewers may be initially skeptical of a Jack London novel transposed halfway into Elena Ferrante territory. But the surprise is how many details of the book smoothly find their way into the film, right down to Martin’s troubling fixation on the writings of the English philosopher and social Darwinist Herbert Spencer.
An overdue reminder that London was much more than a writer of adventure stories involving men and dogs, Marcello’s Martin Eden should bring deserved attention to a strange, powerful novel that’s ripe for rediscovery. Although contemporary readers may be nonplussed by London’s attitudes concerning race (which suggest his vision of class solidarity didn’t cross the color line), the book’s engagement with a still-vital socialist movement has new resonances today, as does its unsparing portrayal of the sheer drudgery that defined working-class life at the turn of the last century. While the film shows Martin shoveling manure and laboring in a foundry, it doesn’t try to match the long hallucinatory episode in the novel when Martin lands a job at a hotel laundry and finds himself trapped in “the unending limbo of toil.” It’s an indelible sequence that bears out Jorge Luis Borges’s praise of Martin Eden as “magnificent” and Paul Berman’s description of the title character as “one of the great twisted heroes of American literature.”
Martin Eden is currently available to stream via Kino Marquee.
Watch the Martin Eden trailer (2:10)