Journal Article

William Blake and <i>Dead Man</i>

Troy Thomas

in Adaptation

Volume 5, issue 1, pages 57-87
Published in print March 2012 | ISSN: 1755-0637
Published online March 2011 | e-ISSN: 1755-0645 | DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1093/adaptation/apr004
William Blake and Dead Man

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Jim Jarmusch’s 1995 film Dead Man goes beyond merely quoting some lines from the poet and artist William Blake (1757–1827) and is in fact a screen adaptation with a narrative, characters, themes, and symbols largely based on his literary works. The film is an allegory and an anti-Western that richly represents Blake’s ideas; indeed, the film can only truly be understood if its complex relationship to Blake’s works is fully appreciated. Jarmusch chose as his themes a concern with death and quest for spiritual transcendence, the innocence of some men and the wickedness of others, and the evils of the industrial age, all subjects that preoccupied William Blake. The focus here is on the two principal characters in the film, the accountant William Blake and the Native American Nobody, who have been neglected in the critical literature in their relation to Blake’s ideas. Jarmusch’s film catches the spirit of Blake’s irony and his negative views of matter, materialism, and human existence on earth, and touches on his positive, highly developed, and personal philosophy of religion. In spite of its postmodern nihilism, the film succeeds in capturing some of the affirmative aspects of Blake’s thought, chiefly through Nobody, the true hero of the film. The central tenet of Blake, that each individual should strive to live in his imagination as a poet rather than merely to accept passively the limitations of the physical world, is exemplified in Nobody, who is committed to his mission of sending the slowly dying William Blake off to the spirit world.

Keywords: Adaptation; Dead Man; William Blake; Jim Jarmusch; Johnny Depp; literature/film

Journal Article.  15114 words.  Illustrated.

Subjects: Film ; Television ; Literature

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