Jay Craven’s Martin Eden Comes to the Sebastiani, By Jonah Raskin

The West Coast Premiere of  Jay Craven’s Martin Eden, in association with the Jack London Society, will be at the Sebastiani Theater in Sonoma, CA on Friday, December 10, 8 pm. Jonah Raskin will interview Jay Craven after the film, which will be followed by an Q&A session with the audience. Tickets for the Martin Eden film can be purchased online here for $15 (or at the door—cash only, $15).

More films seem to have been made of “To Build a Fire” than any other work of fiction by Jack London. There are six of them, some close to the original, others not. The Call of the Wild runs second. Martin Eden comes in third with films made in 1914, two years before London’s death, and again in 1942, 2019, and 2020. There’s also a recent two-minute video titled Je suis Martin Eden with a voice-over in French. The title might be a reference to Gustav Flaubert’s comment, apropos his tragic heroine, “I am Madame Bovary,” or to London himself who said in John Barleycorn, “I was Martin Eden.” The most recent feature-length version of London’s 1909 autobiographical novel is by the American producer, director and writer, Jay Craven, who is based in Vermont. It will be screened at the Sebastiani Theatre in the town of Sonoma on Friday December 10, and is open to the public. After the screening, there will be a Q & A with Craven. 

Viewers might pay particular attention to the start of the film, which offers black-and-white photos by London himself, which help set the stage and create the ambiance for the narrative that unfolds. Like the novel, Craven’s film tells a love story in which Martin Eden is caught between social classes and between two women, the gritty, down-to-earth Lizzie Connolly, and prim, proper Ruth Morse. Like the novel, Craven’s film depicts Eden as an oyster pirate—those scenes are among the first we see on the screen—and also as a book lover, a bicyclist, a brawler, and a born storyteller. References to Ibsen, Herbert Spencer, and Swinburne help fix the film in time.

Due to financial constraints, Craven was unable to shoot in the San Francisco Bay Area, where London set his drama. Nantucket Island provides a suitable substitute. Students at Sarah Lawrence University, where Craven teaches filmmaking, are among the cast members. They also helped shape the story and the characters. Perhaps what’s most surprising about Craven’s Martin Eden is that the film boasts actors of color. They assume the roles assigned to white characters in the novel: Brissenden, a writer, a socialist, and Martin’s comrade; Lizzie, who tugs at Martin’s heart; and Maria, his feisty landlady. “From the start, I wanted to work with Black and brown actors,” Craven says. “Unfortunately, the casting agent only sent me one Black guy who was supposed to play the role of Cheeseface and who is beaten up by Martin in one of the scenes at the start of the movie. That was unacceptable. We couldn’t show Martin doing that to a Black man.” No, indeed.

Martin Fights Cheeseface

Over the past several decades, Craven has made nine feature films and six documentaries. Along the way, he’s worked with Martin Sheen, Kris Kristofferson, Rip Torn, and the French Canadian star, Genevieve Bujold, who sizzles whenever she’s on the screen. There are no comparable stars in Craven’s Martin Eden, though Annet Mahendru, who plays a leading role in the TV series, The Russians, animates the role of Lizzie Connolly. Perhaps that’s because she was born in Kabul, Afghanistan to an Indian father and a Russian mother and can’t help but give the impression that Lizzie has a real depth of character. Andrew Richardson becomes Martin the longer he’s on-screen, while Hagley Griffith struggles with Ruth Morse, a character with whom it’s often difficult to empathize in the novel. She’s nearly as stiff as the proverbial board. 

Translating Martin Eden from book to movie presented Craven with challenges, especially when it came to the ending. “We massaged the last scene, which has some very beautiful writing,” Craven said. “The viewer sees Eden’s demise from his point of view.”

Craven has taken some liberties and divagated from the original, but he has, I think, remained true to the spirit of Jack London and his working-class hero who wonders, “Who are you?” and “Where do you belong?” Those questions the author likely asked himself. Watch the film, please, and see if you do or don’t come to a similar conclusion. 

Jonah Raskin is the editor of The Radical Jack London: Writings on War and Revolution.