Poetry in Cinema: To Boldly Rage…Where No Poem Has Raged Before.

I’m going to start with a huge film and equally huge poem, Chris Nolan’s Interstellar (2014) and Dylan Thomas’s “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night”. It was the film that made me think about all the poems used in films and why.

For those who don’t know the poem – it is worth a read. It is a villanelle, a French form with repeating lines, often meant to be light and airy like a dance. Thomas turns it into a slow and weighty poem about death and love, where he urges his father to keep living during his father’s last gasps for breath. It urges, it commands; keep living, don’t just give in to death ie“that Good Night”. It could also be about grief and acceptance too. 

Interstellar is a big budget, Hollywood heavyweight of a film and stars Matt Damon as the selfish Dr. Mann, Michael Caine as the rather tricksy Dr. Brand (both of these characters recite the poem) and Mathew McConaughey as Cooper. Cooper has to save the world from dying in a dustbowl. He has kids (a clever daughter) and a farm – but it’s all going horribly wrong on earth. Dr Brand has an idea (and a clever daughter). He won’t let humanity just fade away – it must fight and strive for life! The instruction is – cling onto life as long as you can. There is love I too, the daughters, Ann Hathaway, the love of popcorn. However there is also hubris and heavy dose of technical know how. In a way all those themes also link it to Thomas’ poem deftly. It’s an ambitious and technicallyamazing poem- which wrenches on the heart strings with a powerful repetitive formula. Thomas knows what he is doing. So does Chris Nolan. They both are writing of Fathers, asking how do we let our father’s go – the ones that are meant to protect us, how and why do our father’s leave us?

I hadn’t thought of that until I wondered how the poem and the film added value to each other. I read recently that Thomas didn’t much like his father and hadn’t seen him for years. That certainly doesn’t mean Thomas didn’t love his dad. Complex attachments make for great art and drama. The first time “Rage, Rage against the dying of the light” is heard is when Dr Brand is trying to rouse the crew to their mission, he addresses his daughter, the scene is all space suites, shots of the earth, the tiny ship lost against the vast light shining on a blue earth in the darkness, gripping Hans Zimmer music are all the backdrop of the poem.

It’s big stuff. Not giving a spoiler away but it’s not quite what it seems. There are ulterior plans afoot. You think it’s a big heroic thing, but the poem is a child screaming into the dark – prolonging the agony for everyone. It’s that that makes the poem great. The futility of it. 

The more telling scene is Matt Damon’s Dr.Mann – who is only saving himself, he won’t really help, can not help, and he uses “that poem” as a pathetic platitude as a man chokes. 

He’s watching a man suffer. He also can’t watch and turns his back all the while reciting the poem. We won’t ever know the real complicated relationship Thomas had with is father. Our loves are imprinted and we grieve in complex ways. When we watch the earth suffer, spout heroic rhetoric about saving it, sometimes write beautiful formal poetry for it, ultimately we die and leave it. Unless we can somehow go quantum and get to a wormhole. But that might be beyond a villanelle, a new form of poetry perhaps – boldly going where no poem has gone before.


  1. So it’s a long time since I watched Interstellar, but I did really enjoy the film – you’ve reminded me to go back and watch again, and I’ll be bearing this in mind when I do so! Are there literary connections in other Nolan films, do you know? There are some intermedial connections in the music of Dunkirk (connections to Elgar in particular) but I’ve not thought about the other films.

  2. […] and became obsessed, but I stuck with music and books. It was interesting to see, then, this week this post by Jess Mookherjee about the crossover between poetry and cinema, and in this case between […]

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