Under Milk Wood: From "Play For Voices" To Movie

To begin at the beginning:
It is Spring, moonless night in the small town, starless and bible-black, the cobblestreets silent and the hunched, courters'-and- rabbits' wood limping invisible down to the sloeblack, slow, black, crowblack, fishingboat-bobbing sea.


Just lately there has been a great deal of talk, in my circles at least, about the difficulty of translating the written word into film. The Baz Luhrmann version of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Great Gatsby has divided opinion, but almost everyone familiar with the books seemed to dislike On The Road and The Rum Diary when they were made into movies. I actually liked both, with reservations, and I am rabidly enamoured of Kerouac and Thompson. But that’s another story.

Yesterday, after rereading Dylan Thomas’ “play for voices” Under Milk Wood, I watched the 1972 Andrew Sinclair film of the play. I’ve seen it before a couple of times before – I’ve even known an actress who played Polly Garter on the stage – but in the light of those recent discussions about movie versions I wondered how it would bear up with the play fresh in my mind. Some kind of semi-intelligent analysis (which is probably all I can manage) might illuminate why the translation from one medium to another has proven so difficult.

The answer is there, already. It’s because they are different media, with different conventions; they appeal to different senses and parts of the mind. Thomas’ play was conceived for the ear. Sinclair’s movie is conceived, necessarily, for the eye. Thomas’ play is a poem, a long poem, and therefore isn’t bound by realism or the rules of narrative progression, of linearity, that a conventional film must obey. The plot of the play does have a beginning and an ending of sorts, but only inasmuch as it starts and ends in the same way. Nothing is resolved; all will be the same the next day. As Thomas wrote Under Milk Wood, it is music.

Sinclair gets around this by personifying the first and second voices who narrate the play. Richard Burton and Ryan Davies are visitors to Llarregub, walking through the woods and over the hills that surround the village, descending into the streets as dawn comes; the reason for their presence is not explained, but Burton looks moved and melancholy, while Davies seems only to want to clown. Perhaps Burton is returning to the village after a lifetime’s absence, remembering the scenes and characters of his past? As an actor’s motivation that would certainly suit the tenor of lostness that permeates the rest of the narrative, with Captain Cat a prisoner of his own memories and Polly Garter singing her beautiful song for little Willy Wee:

And I loved a man whose name was Harry
Six feet tall and sweet as a cherry
But the one I loved best awake or asleep
Was little Willy Wee and he's six feet deep


The personification of the voices works well, but Sinclair spoils it to some extent, making the mystery of their presence in LLaregub seem illogical, when a woman they both recognise walks down the street towards them and allows herself to be taken out of the village for sex in a woodshed. The play and the film are a close character study of the people of Llaregub. We can guess who Burton might be, but the woman isn’t mentioned before and she’s only seen once after the woodshed episode. Editing even a classic work is fine if you know where to cut and you’re doing it for the right reasons; putting new elements into a classic isn’t an issue either – at least isn’t for me. But the woodshed seems a gratuitous addition, something designed to appeal to a 1972 audience who might expect more from their adult entertainment than poetry and whimsy.

And the movie is dated. One script edit references the then-young Prince of Wales; there’s lots of that peculiar, and now mercifully defunct, British humour mislabelled “saucy”; female nudity but not male; and actors who homegrown audiences grew up with on their televisions like Victor Spinetti and David Jason, doing, in the film, what they always did - trying too hard to be funny, overplaying their comedy to the point where whatever joke there once was has been strangled to death. But as mystifying as it might be, that’s what made us laugh in those days. It must have been, or Spinetti and Jason wouldn’t have been such stars.

What hasn’t dated in Under Milk Wood are the towering performances of Burton and Peter O’Toole, as Captain Cat; and, of course, the words of Dylan Thomas. The play may have been written seven decades ago but Dylan’s poetry could still turn a room full of would-be bards to powder in five seconds. The success of the film – it is a success, overall, whatever carping impression I’ve given – lies in the fact that for the most part, Sinclair is wise enough to stand back and let the man speak for himself. This might be easier in movies made from long poems or poem-plays, as long as the necessary adjustments are made. Howl, after all, is agreed by most to have been a very good (if not great) screen adaptation of Ginsberg’s poem. But it might be something for the adapters of novels to think about too.


We are not wholly bad or good
Who live our lives under Milk Wood,
And Thou, I know, wilt be the first
To see our best side, not our worst.

O let us see another day!
Bless us all this night, I pray,
And to the sun we all will bow
And say, good-bye--but just for now

All quotes from:

Thomas, Dylan. Under Milk Wood. London: Penguin, 2000.