An Analysis of the Depth of Characters in Angela's Ashes by Frank McCourt

Topics: Angela'S Ashes

How does the sense of emotion and depth of characterization diminish in the film version of Angela’s Ashes”

“The book was much better than the film” is the ultimate clich of the pretentious cinemagoer. However, as is the case with most clich, there is an element of truth in this statement. For, while a picture might say a thousand words, there are some words that pictures can never express. When the words of great literature are translated into scripted lines and stage directions, some of the depth and beauty are lost.

Cinema simply cannot convey internal thoughts and emotions with the same subtlety and clarity as the novel. This was certainly the case when one of the most acclaimed works of contemporary autobiographical writing was recently adapted for the screen. Frank McCourt’s Pulitzer Prize-winning memoir, Angela’s Ashes, is a bittersweet narrative of growing up in poverty in 1940s Ireland. Seen through the eyes of a child, the events are intricately linked to childlike innocence and wonderment.

In the film version, this very personal outlook is lost because the film genre requires a more omniscient perspective. The loss of personal perspective and its accompanying insight into the protagonist’s thoughts and emotions results in both a diminished depth of characterization and a reduced emotional impact in the film version of Angela’s Ashes.

When I look back on my childhood I wonder how I managed to survive at all. It was, of course, a miserable childhood: a happy childhood is hardly worth your while.

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Worse than the ordinary miserable childhood is the miserable Irish childhood, and worse yet is the miserable Irish Catholic childhood. (McCourt, 1996, p. 11)

So begins the luminous memoir of Frank McCourt, born in the Great Depression in Brooklyn to recently arrived Irish immigrants and raised in the slums of Limerick, Ireland. Frank’s mother, Angela, has no money to feed the children as Frank’s father, Malachy, rarely works and, when he does, he drinks his wage. Malachy is exasperating and irresponsible but strangely beguiling. Frank lives for his father’s tales of Cuchulain who saved Ireland and of the Angel on the Seventh Step who brings his mother’s babies. Wearing rags for diapers, begging a pig’s head for Christmas dinner, and gathering coal from the roadside to light a fire, Frank endures poverty, near-starvation, and the casual cruelty of relatives and neighbors.

Frank McCourt writes his narrative in the present tense and the first person from the perspective of a young boy. Throughout the book, there is often a distance between Frank, the young boy who reports on events without forming opinions, and McCourt the writer, who explains to the reader the adult perspective of those events. In comparison, the film portrayed Frank as the central character who did not report on events, but instead only had an adult Frank narrating and forming opinions, which only gave an adult perspective. The book portrayed Frank McCourt’s memoir in much more depth than the film as the reader became more involved by viewing his life through his eyes and feeling his emotion with Frank. In comparison to the book, the film seemed to create a distance between the viewer and the character Frank.

Both the book and the film successfully depict the poverty in Ireland before and after the war. The McCourts never have enough to eat and are continually plagued by hunger. Often because Frank’s father is out of work and drinking away the money, the mother is forced to beg for food. “This is my mother, begging. This is worse than the dole, the St. Vincent de Paul Society, the Dispensary. It’s the worst kind of shame” (pg 250). This sense of desperation can be seen in greater depth in the novel than in the film. As a reader, there is a distinct impression that Frank and his family are physically weak and prone to infection. In a short space of time, three of Frank’s siblings die from disease and the reader feels the pain and suffering of the McCourt family. Emotional turmoil is felt in the book’s description, when baby Margaret dies and Angela’s reaction to the death. “When Dad reaches for Margaret my mother pulls away against the wall, She has the wild look, her black curly hair is damp on her forehead and there is sweat all over her face, her eyes are wide open and her face is shiny with tears, she keeps shaking her head and moaning…till Dad eases the baby from her arms” (pg 36). The film glazed over this touching event briefly, preventing the viewer from empathizing with the mother.

With poverty comes slums and the McCourt family lived in the worst areas of Limerick. Although the film accurately reproduces Roden Lane, where the McCourt’s live for most of Frank’s childhood, it lacks sensations of smell, dampness and discomfort. When the McCourt’s first move in, they discover that the lavatory outside their kitchen door is to be shared by the whole lane. “There’s a powerful stink in our kitchen …Why are you emptying your bucket in our lavatory?… You’ll see passing here the buckets of eleven families and I can tell you it gets very powerful here in the warm weather…you’ll be calling for a gas mask” (pg 92). Throughout the book, this problem is ongoing and the reader is constantly reminded that poverty brings hygiene concerns, “Day and night we’re tormented in that kitchen with people emptying their buckets… It’s bad enough in the winter when everything flows over and seeps under our door but worse in the warm weather when there are flies and bluebottles and rats” (pg 210). In comparison to the book, the film did not seem to make as much of an issue of this hygiene problem, which brought illness to the family.

From October to April, Limerick is constantly wet. The McCourt family downstairs flat is flooded, as the whole lane seems to drain into the kitchen creating a lake. In the book, a vivid description of the dampness is expressed, “With the walls of Limerick glistened with damp, clothes never dried, and the coats housed living things”. The family was forced to live upstairs where it was warm and dry and was referred to as Italy, while downstairs was Ireland. “Dad says it’s like going away on our holidays” (pg 96). The film showed the family moving upstairs, but the viewer lacks insight as to what it would feel like living in constant dampness.

Frank McCourt grew up in a dysfunctional family whose plight was made worse by returning to Limerick in Ireland. The McCourt’s were greeted with a cold reception from Angela’s family. In contrast to the film, the book sets the scene for the ongoing disproving relationship between Angela’s Northern Irish husband and American children. “There she was on the platform, Grandma, with white hair, sour eyes, a black shawl, and no smile for my mother or any of us” (pg 56). Aunt Aggie was always angry and complaining, “Even though her flat is warm and dry, has electric lights, her lavatory in the backyard, and her husband has a steady job and brings home his wages every Friday”. Aunt Aggie has everything in Frank’s observation. He is too young to understand that Aunt Aggie is jealous of the fact she can’t have children. The film did portray these aspects of the dysfunctional family, however, the coldness, unwillingness to help, and the disproval of the McCourt family seemed more evident in the book.

Malachy is an alcoholic father, who is from Northern Ireland and is never accepted by Angela’s family and Limerick. In comparison to the film, the book tends to express in-depth Malachy’s exasperating and extremely irresponsible behavior in supporting his family as he rarely works, and when he does he drinks his wages. His pride and values obstruct him from succeeding in life. “Why can’t you talk like a Limerick man? He says he’ll never sink that low…and a man without a collar and tie is a man with no respect for himself” (pg 94). Malachy adores his family despite his bad behavior and throughout the book, he spends time with his children telling tales of Cuchulain, who saved Ireland, singing songs from the North of Roddy McCorley and Kevin Barry, and of the Angel on the Seventh Step who brings the babies. Frank lives for his father’s tales and can distinguish between the good and the bad. “I think my father is like the Holy Trinity with three people in him, the one in the morning with the paper, the one at night with the stories and the prayers, and the one who does the bad thing and comes home with the smell of whiskey and wants us to die for Ireland” (pg 210). To verbally admit love to your father is seen as being weak, “You’re allowed to say you love God and babies and horses that win but everything else is a softness in the head” (pg 210). Malachy’s character is similarly portrayed both in the book and in the film version, however, the book gives a far greater understanding and depth of Malachy’s complex personality.

The book portrays Angela as a loving mother who is prepared to sacrifice her standards of dignity and class to provide for her children. This is illustrated when Angela is prepared to go out into the cold and gather coal off the road, while Frank’s father is too proud. Angela angrily responds, “If you’re too grand to pick coal off the road I’ll put on my coat and go down to the Dock Road” (pg 69). In the film, she is portrayed more as a defeated mother, moaning by the fire. However, in the book, she has a dry sense of humor that is highlighted in a conversation with a friend Bridey. “Bridey drags on her Woodbine…and declares that God is good… Mam says she’s sure God is good for someone somewhere but He hasn’t been seen lately in the lanes of Limerick. Bridey laughs. Oh, Angela, you could go to hell for that, and Mam says, Aren’t I there already, Bridey? And they laugh and drink their tea and smoke their Woodbines and tell one another the fag is the only comfort they have” (pg145). The film version of Angela’s character made her look like a sad loner, whereas in fact in the book she had friends such as Bridey who she often drink tea and smoked Woodbines with.

In Frank McCourt’s memoirs, many forms of prejudice impacted on young Frank when he was growing up. Being poor in Ireland exposed prejudice from all classes of society, from the neighbors, classmates, teachers, priests, charity organizations and of course the snobbery from the wealthier class. Frank and Malachy were made to feel shame when the other boys at school jeered at them because their shoes were mended with pieces of rubber tiretiresthan then in. However, the prejudice conveyed by the priests was the worst form of rejection for Frank and his family. First, he was rejected as an altar boy and years later refused a chance of going to secondary school by the Christian Brothers. The anger and emotion of this rejection are captured in more depth in the book with Angela’s expression, “That’s the second time a door was slammed in your face by the Church… Stephan Carey told you and your father you couldn’t be an altar boy…now Brother Murray slams the door in your face. Her face tightens and she’s angry. You are never to let anybody slam the door in your face again. Do you hear me?” (pg 289). This scene was also portrayed in the film, however, the strong emotion of rejection was more deeply felt in the book.

The book constantly reminds the reader about the hatred of the anti-English sentiment and most of the adult characters transfer these emotions to the children. At school Frank observes, that the teacher’s hit you for many reasons, “Mr. O’Dea hates England and you have to remember to hate England or he’ll hit you. If you ever say anything good about Oliver Cromwell they’ll all hit you (pg 80). Frank and his peers are brought up assuming that the English are evil and immoral. This feeling is evident when a nurse chastises Frank for reading an English poem and that he, “should beg God’s forgiveness…and be well advised to tell the priest in confession” (pg 198). This event was not included in the film and the noticeable dislike of the English is constantly referred to in the book, thanthenin the film version.

The McCourt’s lack of acceptance and a feeling of not belonging because they were not quite American and not quite Irish and were treated as outsiders wherever they went was a very obvious attitude throughout the book. This was seen when they first arrived in Limerick. Angela’s family did not accept them because they were half Northern Irish and American. The children’s self-esteem suffered from the constant criticism. This non-acceptance is captured on page 247, “Aunt Aggie torments me all the time. She calls me scabby eyes. She says I’m the spitting image of my father, I have the odd manner, I have the sneaky air of a northern Presbyterian, I’ll probably grow up and build an altar to Oliver Cromwell himself, I’ll run off and marry an English tart and cover my house with pictures of the royal family”. Franks father felt the impact of not being accepted because he was from Northern Ireland and was often rejected when he applied for a job, “…but when he opens his mouth and they hear the North of Ireland accent, they take a Limerickman instead” (pg 94). Although the film version did depict the McCourt family not being accepted, the book tended to present a deeper sense of not belonging and not being accepted in Limerick.

Throughout Frank’s childhood, religion played a major role, discouraging individual thinking as the church had all the answers. Frank was afraid as a child as practically everything a child did was a sin to be confessed with the fear of going to hell. The film does not convey the sense of guilt as well as the book, “God is watching every move and the slightest disobedience will send us straight to hell where we’ll never have to worry about the cold again” (pg 96). Catholicism pervades everyday life and First Communion is a rite of passage of immense importance which is expressed in the book, “…our First Communion is the holiest moment of our lives…we must never forget that the moment the Holy Communion is placed on our tongues we become members of that most glorious congregation, the One, Holy, Roman, Catholic and Apostolic Church, that for two thousand years men, women, and children have died for the Faith” (pg 122). In comparison to the film, the book illustrated the powerful impact that religion had on their daily lives.

The film is based on the book, director Alan Parker of Angela’s Ashes admitted that the book was treated like the Bible in the making of the film. There are many similarities between the book and the film that portray Frank and his family struggling to survive in adverse conditions. However, the loss of detail of character depth causes the viewer to lose empathy in many situations as often the film glosses over traumatic events such as the deaths of Frank’s siblings and the psychological wearing down of Angela’s resilience to her husband’s irresponsible actions. The author’s humor and wit lighten the book and make, it enjoyable to the reader by painting entertaining images, whereas the film lessens the need for the use of imagination. The sense of emotion and depth of characterization is diminished in the film version of Angela’s Ashes.

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An Analysis of the Depth of Characters in Angela's Ashes by Frank McCourt. (2022, Aug 14). Retrieved from

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