Another Portrait, Another Artist: Connecting James Joyce’s A PORTRAIT OF THE ARTIST AS A YOUNG MAN Man with Tim Burton’s EDWARD SCISSORHANDS
4 December 2011
According to Tim Burton, there is a semi-autobiographical element to his 1990 feature Edward Scissorhands. Certainly, Burton is not the first filmmaker to create a semi-autobiographical film; Fellini did something very similar in his 1963 film 8 ½. Yet, comparatively, Edward Scissorhands has almost nothing in common with 8 ½, or most other cinematic semi-autobiographies. However, Burton’s film is similar to another work of an autobiographical nature. Although different artistic mediums, Edward Scissorhands is strikingly similar to James Joyce’s novel A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, particularly regarding the loss of faith or death of religion.
Briefly, Joyce’s Portrait is about the early years in the life of Irishman, Stephen Dedalus. Raised a devout Catholic, as the pressures of faith begin to weigh on him heavily, Stephen questions his beliefs. Sent to a strict Catholic boarding-school, where he spends most of his formative years, Stephen struggles with guilt, specifically guilt associated with doubting God. Ultimately, Stephen rejects religion and the society that imposes it. He vows to live his life freely as a writer.
Burton’s Edward Scissorhands is about a young man, Edward (Johnny Depp), who has scissors instead of hands (just in case that was not easily inferred from the film’s title). He lives alone in a dilapidated mansion, which looms over a well manicured, uniformed suburban neighborhood. Created by The Inventor (Vincent Price), Edward was supposed to receive human hands, which would make him a complete person, but, sadly, the Inventor died before finishing Edward. Subsequently, Peg (Dianne Wiest), a bold and good-hearted mother from the neighborhood, wanders up to the mansion one afternoon, finds Edward all alone, and takes him home to live as a member of her family. Acclimation into society proves difficult for Edward, not only because of his physical difference, but also because of his ignorance to social customs. Ultimately, although Peg and her family love Edward a great deal, and he them, society becomes too much for Edward and he retreats back to his gloomy mansion, where nobody hears from him again.
While the respective summations may seem dissimilar, the two works are a great deal alike. Similarities between the two works come on a variety of levels. On the surface, both Burton and Joyce set their works in a town from their upbringings: Joyce in Ireland and Burton in a residential neighborhood like the Burbank, California community he grew up in. Also, thematically, both works address the divergence between appearance and reality, or how society wants people to behave, and how people actual feel compelled to live. However, the largest similarity between Portrait and Edward Scissorhands is clearly the loss of faith, or death of religion. In Portrait, Stephen’s struggle with God defines his young life until he finally frees himself of the guilt by denouncing his faith altogether. Tim Burton’s treatment of religion is indirect and more subtle than Joyce’s, yet, similarly, the loss of God is Edward’s greatest struggle in Edward Scissorhands.
The Inventor is a god-like character in Edward Scissorhands. First, he has no name, simply The Inventor. Also, he, literally, creates life. Springing from another famous literary work, Burton’s Inventor is similar to Mary Shelley’s Doctor Frankenstein who creates life in the Creature. Yet, Burton’s Inventor is much more refined, creating Edward in stages and with lessons in etiquette and poetry. Nevertheless, creating Edward is a god-like quality, thus, in Edward Scissorhands, the Inventor represents God.
Just as the Inventor is about to assemble Edward’s traditional forearms and hands he dies, leaving his creation unfinished. Reminiscent of Stephen, Edward loses God. Also like Stephen, this loss of God leaves Edward is a precarious situation. When Peg first finds Edward, in the attic of the mansion, one of the first things has says to her is, “I’m not finished yet.” Edward’s causal explanation to Peg about why his has scissors for hands is tragic. At this point, Edward still believes he can be finished, which, of course, could never be the case. Peg and her friends repeatedly tell Edward they “know someone” who can complete him, but that is impossible. God died, and, according to the film, without The Inventor the creation cannot be completed.
Since the loss of faith is the crux of both Portrait and Edward Scissorhands, the two works ultimately end identically. Without faith and a God to believe in, Stephen nor Edward withdraw from society feeling alone and outcasted. By the conclusion, both Steven and Edward attempt to remove themselves from society entirely; however, it is impossible to remove oneself from society all together, so Stephen and Edward, from their isolation, contribute what they can to the society they live apart from. Both men are artists in their own respects, thus each artist can offer something to society. Stephen, offers his writing, and Edward, though his sculpting, offers the community he once briefly inhabited snow.
Since both Joyce and Burton claim their works are semi-autobiographical, it stands to reason what is true of the work’s fictional artists is also true of the actual artists. Through his own writing, James Joyce contributed something to the society he had such a difficult time with, a contribution people still study and value even decades after his death. And, Tim Burton, with his signature macabre style, continues to contribute cinematic pleasure to audiences around the world.