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Eyes Wide Shut: Adaptation Of Dream Story

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Film Studies
Wordcount: 3116 words Published: 4th May 2017

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This essay is a critical analysis on the adaptation of Dream Story as Eyes Wide Shut. The analysis is organised around the key points identified within the argument such as ideology, point of view and the gendering of representation in narrative cinema.

Stanley Kubrick masterful film Eyes Wide Shut (1999) is a faithful adaptation of Arthur Schnitzler’s novella – Dream Story (Traumnovelle, published in 1926 for the first time). In terms of genre Eyes Wide Shut combines a drama, a thriller, a neo-noir conspiracy mystery, a road story, erotic and melodrama. Both Kubrick and his co-screenwriter Frederic Raphael created a very faithful script, with only few alterations that were made because of the artistic narration that is very difficult to put on screen. Kubrick merged in his film the boundaries between different types of adaptation making the film both a transposition and a commentary on Dream Story. According to credits Eyes Wide Shut was “inspired by Traumnovelle”.

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The book was originally published as ‘Traumnovelle’ and its literal translation – Dream Story loses the word ‘trauma’, which was one of Sigmund Freud’s areas of research. The novel represent the period of time of Vienna during the decadent 20th century when Freud’s theories were extremely popular, and Arthur Schnitzler, being his devoted follower, attempted to describe his character’s emotions and real motives. Freud famously joked that he did not want to meet the writer, and that was based on the belief that one could die upon meeting his double.

In his adaptation Kubrick has transposed Schnitzler’s Vienna to contemporary Manhattan and has altered the main character’s names with Fridolin becoming Bill and Albertine becoming Alice. His fidelity to Schnitzler’s story is remarkable and only few scenes are invented for the movie.

The plot is following the relationship between Fridolin/Bill (Tom Cruise) and Albertine/Alice (Nicole Kidman) and their erotic fantasies. Their marriage was stable until Albertine has shattered Bill’s faith in her fidelity by confessing that during holidays in Denmark, she had a sexual fantasy about naval officer and at some point she was ready to abandon her husband and daughter in pursuit of forbidden attraction. This revelation generates despair in Bill and propels his sexual odyssey. He sets out on a two days quest for sexual thrills that entails: admission of love from deceased patient’s daughter, almost sleeping with prostitute, a masked orgy with amazing women at a ball. Returning home he tells Albertine about his adventures and from that point on the couple begins to patch up their marriage.

In terms of non-linguistic sound codes, as Randy Rassmusen wrote, Dmitri Shostakovich’s “Jazz Suite Waltz No. 2” begins with the opening credits and that light music helps to reinforce our impression of a happy (on a surface) marriage with a hint of cynical flavour, but also moves us back to Viennese waltzes played in ballrooms. After all turbulences the marriage has to go through the same waltz returns during the final credits, suggesting a return to daily marital boredom (Rassmusen: 356).

According to Raphael Schnitzler was aware of the disintegration of individual citizens within Austrian society, which has a clear expression in Dream Story, in where a happy marriage is dissected into perverse impulses of murderous madness and carefree sensuality, of mutual attraction and revulsion. Schnitzler said that: “Feelings und understanding may sleep under the same roof, but they run completely separate households in the human souls” (Schnitzler: xvi). It is the institution of a ‘perfect marriage’ that Kubrick thoroughly examined in his film.

According to Peter Bogdanowich – “Most sources state that Kubrick was introduced to the novel itself by his Austrian-born second wife Ruth Sobotka, whom he divorced in 1961. “What struck Kubrick so much about Traumnovelle was that it would allow him to examine his own dark side, and one can speculate that he also saw it as a way to expiate his guilt – suggests Kubrick’s biographer, John Baxter, referring to Subotka suicide in 1968.” (Peter Bogdanowich: 243).

Dream Story focuses solely on the male half of the marriage. This is also a case with Eyes Wide Shut, but Kubrick, unlike Schnitzler, gives his female lead moments of psychological independence from her partner. In Dream Story, Albertine is never given a moment away from Fridolin, but in Eyes Wide Shot Alice is given several without Bill, such as when she dances with a Hungarian millionaire at Victor Ziegler’s ball. In most cases though she is either stoned or drunk or has just woken up. Nicole Kidman didn’t mind this and said in the interview: “If my character’s got one line, one word, I’ll play Alice (…) We (Kidman and Cruise) want to dedicate our lives to making this film” (Bogdanovich: 245)

In terms of narrative organisation Mario Falsetto argues that “the main patterns established in film are repetition and variation of narrative incident as key structuring devices” (Falsetto: 16). In addition to this Eyes Wide Shut is full of allusions, symbolism and dream logic. Although Dream Story was responsible for most of the plot, according to Falsetto, Kubrick added many structural elements to his adaptation, that are not to be traced to the novel and which helps to allude scenes with each other such as Ziegler’s Christmas ball at the beginning of the movie that later echoed masked ball. “The most apparent series of repetitions around which much of the film’s narrative trajectory is propelled is the series of subjective shots of Bill imagining Alice and the naval officer having sex” (Falsetto: 17). These fantasy shots repeat couple of times thorough the film and they help adjust the story to Bill’s point of view and his consciousness. Falsetto argues that: “The conception and articulation of Bill’s subjective universe is often expressed through a deliberate use of perceptual point-of-view shots to create an emotional, as well as spatial, relationships to his world” (Falsetto: 131)

Seymour Chatman in Coming to Terms suggest, “according to his dictionary, two senses of point of view: “a point from which things are viewed” and “a mental position of viewpoint”. The basic distinction is between a physical place from which something is seen (a “vista” and a “lookout”), and a viewer’s mental attitude or posture”.

At the beginning of the film Kubrick added the scene of Alice undressing in front of the mirror. That scene is missing from the book, as nudity in literature was rather bold during Schnitzler’s life. This moment suggest that Alice is being watched though the doorway from the next room, and therefore, the audience assume the point of view is her husband’s. His point of view is never really stated too obviously though and we are constantly made to wonder what exactly we are watching: a reality, a nightmare or a lucid dream?

Dream Story’s plot follows though Eyes Wide Shut with particular respect to magic word ‘fidelity’. Audience is left to wonder if the password to masked ball – ‘Fidelio’ (‘Denmark’ in the novel) refers to Beethoven’s famous opera, fidelity with original story, fidelity in marriage or fidelity to hidden underworld where sex magic are not just a fantasy? Randy Rasmussen argues that in Kubrick’s last film: “(…) chance, coincidence, and misperception play in the fortunes of its characters. Just like Bill Hartford, we are constantly given an impression only to have it challenged or overturned. An in the final analysis, there are some things about which we can draw no definitive conclusions. In short, real life can be as difficult to figure out as a dream. (Rasmussen: 333).

In that sense Kubrick may be trying to open people’s eyes. The first attempt to make public see takes place during the Christmas ball where Bill is called by Ziegler to resuscitate a call girl that had overdose. Bill says to her – “Can you open your eyes for me? Mandy, can you do that? Let me see you open your eyes. There you go, come on. Come on, look at me. Look at me (screenplay). The aim of making audience see was at the heart of Kubrick cinematography and that can be explained by the change of title from Dream Story to oxymoron – Eyes Wide Shut which suggests a confused perception between reality and dream.

As Brian McFarlane argues in ‘Novel to Film’: “Commentators in the field are fond of quoting Joseph Conrad’s famous statement of his novelistic intention: “My task which I am trying to achieve is, by the powers of the written word, to make you, before all, to make you see. This remark of 1897 is echoed, consciously or otherwise, 16 years later by D. W. Griffith, whose cinematic intentions is recorded as: The task I am trying to achieve is above all to make you see.” McFarlane continues: “Whereas Griffith used his images to tell a story, as means to understanding, Conrad wanted the reader to ‘”see” in and through and finally past his language and his narrative concept to the hard, clear bedrock of images.” (McFarlane: 3)

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Kubrick in Eyes Wide Shut wanted public to see with the use of image: cinematography, lightning, costumes and colour (lots of blue and red used as contrast). As Falsetto points out: “They reinforce the reading that much of the film is a poetic rendering of Bill’s consciousness and often stands in for his emotions” (Falsetto: 138). In Eyes Wide Shut Kubrick’s choice of image symbolism over dialogue in communicating his ideas is especially helpful because of third person and subjective narration of Dream Story that is extremely difficult to film. Falsetto argues that: “One brief illustration is a shot that frames Bill stalker standing beside a STOP sign intercut with Bill holding a copy of the New York Post that carries the headline “Lucky to Be Alive.” (Falsetto: 138-139). That shot is accompanied by The Musica Ricercata II that was earlier heard in the orgy scene and it comes back later when Bill is reading the news about call girl’s death. The use of conspiracy thematic allusion seems to be more convincing and striking than mere words.

In terms of gendering representation, around which the film is constructed, in the opening shot Alice, seen from behind, tosses her black dress out, revealing her naked body to the unseen male character. Undressing before the Ziegler’s party she asks: “How do I look?” Her body in that scene is revealed as an object of contemplation in a form of “too-be-look-at-ness” (Mulvey: 19). According to Mulvey, the woman’s body is an object of pure erotic observation, while the man, who is an active subject of gender representation, controls the direction of the gaze onto a female body.

It was Kubrick’s choice to organise gender representation around the male visual pleasure. While Fridolin is a regular 19th century General Practitioner, Bill’s specialisation is plastic surgery which strengthens the connection with female bodies displayed in cinema as an erotic object, according to Mulvey. “The determining male gaze projects its fantasy onto the female figure, which is styled accordingly.” (Mulvey: 19). The ritual prostitutes, masked but naked mannequins, are the ultimate symbol of patriarchal visuality. Mulvey argues that “women are excluded from cultural or governmental participation, their image has been stolen and their bodies exploited.” (Mulvey: 112). Henry Kissinger famously said: “Power is the ultimate aphrodisiac” and sadly most women are excluded from sharing its pleasures as according to the dolly bird culture women are told how to behave and look and are commodified by men.

Besides gender politics Kubrick attempted to depict the naked wealth of USA and the destructive effect it has on the society in general. The movie starts with a Christmas ball at the Ziegler’s mansion, which Kubrick invented for the purpose of his story as he was more concerned about social divisions than Schnitzler in his novel where Fridolin was not wealthy, but simply middle-class. Bill has reached the top of the social ladder only to discover that far above him there is another one to climb. Ziegler invited his to his party full of millionaires, where Bill didn’t know a soul but no matter high he climbs the social ladder, the secret underworld he trespassed at the Black Mass will always be out of reach. In the end he is just a doctor.

Originally Bill shows off his social status and wealth and because of that many doors are being open for him (in Schnitzler’s original story his profession is not of such importance). Randy Rasmussen in his book ‘Stanley Kubrick Seven Films Analysed’ says that “Dr. Bill Hartford deceptively employs his identity as a physician to access information and material which advance his personal desires. And so, in their own ways, do the hospital staff member, amorous hotel clerk and balding costume shot proprietor upon whom he works his professional magic” (Rasmussen: 330). However Bill’s exploitation of his professional status sometimes has benevolent consequences, as when he (and similarly Fridolin) tries to help a prostitute that offered to redeem him during the underworld masked orgy when he was told to take off his mask. He leaves the ball humiliated and is being warned that if he reveals the upper-crust secrets “there will be the most serious consequences for him and his family.” (screenplay)

Kubrick changed the scene in which Fridolin is confronted by a band of members of ‘Alemannic’ club (being in film confronted by average teenage yobs), which echoed the fact that Jews during Schnitzler’s lifetime were banned from such fraternities and the apprehension of Jews facing Gentile provocation (Schnitzler: Xiii). Kubrick came back with issue of Alemannic clubs in his orgy scene in which he depicted black mass of secret society. In film, as well as book, the lead character is being threatened twice but is in both cases is lucky enough to get away unharmed.

The sex-death connection continuous repeatedly through the film. Kubrick’s second wife Christine said of Eyes Wide Shut – “It had nothing to do with sex and everything to do with fear” (Falsetto: 243). Those two opposite instincts always walk hand in hand during Bills nocturnal odyssey. Victor Ziegler sexual encounter at the beginning of the film almost ends with death from overdose of the call girl (scene invented by Kubrick); Alice suggests that terminally ill breast cancer patients may be actually sexually aroused in his presence (invented by Kubrick); Marion Nathanson reveals her feelings towards Bill in front of her father who has just died (same as in novel); Bill finds out that a prostitute who recently offered him her services is HIV positive (invented).

Bills sexual desires can never be fulfilled in the same way like our dreams can hardly be controlled. Freud in Interpretation of Dreams (Part 4) argued that “…in each human being, as the primary cause of dream formation, two psychic forces (streams, systems), of which one constitutes the wish expressed by the dream, while the other acts as a censor upon this dream wish, and by means of this censoring forces a distortion of its expression”. Bill is continuously being placed in dubious and dangerous situations which metaphorically act like coitus interruptus to his sexual adventures.


As Falsetto pointed out (Falsetto: 75) Eyes Wide Shot is a typically Freudian film, as it explores the psychological areas that drive sexual desires and death instincts. It replays gender conventions constructed within social and symbolic relations patterned within mainstream cinema. But what differentiate Eyes Wide Shut from the typical Hollywood pattern is the scene in which Bill’ subjectivity is threatened during the masked ball when he is asked to remove his mask and clothes. This time he is the one to be watched by hundred of hidden eyes and his anxiety reaches crucial point. Ironically, a gazing male becomes “gazed at”. To Freud this is a typical anxiety dream that symbolizes impotence and insecurity. It seems like to Kubrick it was his trademark as a filmmaker to question established and seemingly flawless patterns within basically patriarchal society and Hollywood gender representation.

What is also made differently from typical gendering of representation is the first scene in which Alice is looking into a mirror, resembling Alice’s journey ‘Through the Looking-Glass’. Thanks to that metaphor Kubrick provides the female lead with a fantasy world and subjectivity which Albertine lacks. They are both housewives, dependant on their husbands, with Alice a previous owner of failed art gallery but, unlike Albertine, she is given several moment of privacy from her partner.

Schnitzler and Freud believed that women have unhealthy desire for sex. For that reason Albertine fantasized about Fridolin being tortured and crucified but Kubrick got rid of those misogynist and archaic ideas altogether and in his film Alice fantasized “healthily” about the naval officer and is not scolded for it. Schnitzler’s characters taking part in Black Mass orgy are all dressed as nun and priests but Kubrick, being aware that some of Freud’s ideas were out of date, removed all references to religious symbolism.

In summary EWS attempts to provide women with subjectivity and with fantasies and it also depicts the alienation of female sexuality within gendering representation of patriarchal social and political pattern. Kubrick reveals the deceit of man’s claim to power and domination, which seems to come from selected Freud’s critical ideas of religion and his analysis of family conflicts, sexual desires, guilt and the death instincts.


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