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ESSAY: Faulkner in Film

Bizarro Faulkner:

Can James Franco film the unfilmable?

james franco

James Franco is a busy guy. You may know him best for his roles in the original Spider-Man films or Pineapple Express, but in the last few years he’s also crafted a reputation as this millennium’s most tabloid-ready Renaissance man. Collecting graduate degrees like some people collect stamps, he’s recently written a book of short stories and now teaches a film course at USC. He took a brief break from film to appear on General Hospital as the performance artist/serial killer “Franco,” and then used that experience as the basis for a meta-documentary about himself. When he received an Oscar nomination for 127 Hours, he wasn’t content just to attend the ceremony—he hosted it.

Somewhere in that busy and bizarre schedule he found time for another venture, having just completed directing an adaptation of William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying. Mimicking the Bundren family’s odyssey across apocryphal Yoknapatawpha County to bury their mother, Franco and crew have been crisscrossing central Mississippi this last month for what will be the first—yes, first—film adaptation of Faulkner’s “tour de force.”

That may be the strangest thing about this project. Aside from an adaptation on the TV anthology Camera Three way back in 1955, no one has touched the Bundrens. Nor, for that matter, has anyone attempted to film Faulkner’s other modernist mythologies like Light in August or Absalom, Absalom! For a man of Faulkner’s stature, there have been shockingly few films made of his work, and none since 1969. Compare that to a contemporary like F. Scott Fitzgerald: The Great Gatsby has seen five iterations, with a sixth is on its way in 2013.

Perhaps that shouldn’t come as a surprise. His work is often labeled unfilmable due to its modernist sensibilities; As I Lay Dying, for instance, features fifteen narrators. Still, dozens of other previously “unfilmable” books have been adapted—think The Lords of the Rings or Atonement or, hell, Everything You
Always Wanted to Know About Sex* (*But Were Afraid to Ask). Faulkner, it appears, is too much to handle. It’s a challenge he may have appreciated, having adapted Hemingway’s To Have and Have Not and Chandler’s The Big Sleep during his stints in Hollywood. Aside from providing dialogue for Today We Live (1933)—based on his short story “Turn About”—he never tackled his own material.

There’s a veritable graveyard of mediocre Faulkner adaptations. Today We Live (1933) was followed first by The Story of Temple Drake (1933), based on Sanctuary, and then Intruder in the Dust (1949). Once Faulkner became a Nobel laureate, the pace picked up. Douglas Sirk tackled Pylon in The Tarnished Angels (1957), while Tony Richardson revisited Temple Drake in Sanctuary (1961), both to mixed reviews.

Martin Ritt, remembered today for Hud (1963), directed perhaps the best regarded of the lot: The Long, Hot Summer (1958), a loose adaptation of The Hamlet that in truth is more Tennessee Williams than Faulkner. Still, it proved a critical success, and this inspired Ritt to undertake the herculean task of filming The Sound and the Fury. As Ritt’s producer buddy Jerry Wald saw it, “When we made The Long, Hot Summer last year we were actually doing rehearsal on film for The Sound and the Fury…. It was the first time the public had been given Faulkner in heroic doses—and they went for it.”


Ritt’s The Sound and the Fury (1959) has long been something of a curiosity, the only adaptation of one of Faulkner’s “major” works. In the fifty-three years since its release, it’s been relegated to late-night showings on television, never released on either tape or DVD. That changed last month when Twilight Time released a limited edition Blu-Ray, with a target audience ostensibly consisting of high-schoolers unwilling to read Faulkner.

As it turns out, that banishment came with good reason. Though the film’s opening credits label it William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury, it barely evokes its namesake. Watching it is a terrifying thing, like stepping inside one’s home to find your entire family replaced by stand-ins with only passing resemblances to the originals. It’s Bizarro Faulkner.

Whereas the book tackles everything from gender to race in its depiction of the Compson family’s downfall, the film throws all that out the window in favor of a “story of love and transgression.” To fit that tagline, the book’s two most reprehensible characters—Jason (a badly bewigged Yul Brynner) and his niece Miss Quentin (Joanne Woodward)—are turned into its heroes and lovers. To decrease the ick factor, Jason becomes a Compson by marriage, emerging from the Louisiana bayou with his Cajun mother, the second Mrs. Compson. (Presumably this was done to explain Brynner’s accent, but he still sounds more Vladivostok than Yoknapatawpha.) He also gets a new personality. While the Jason of the book concocted delightful truisms like “Once a bitch, always a bitch,” this Jason is wholly invested in family. When he catches Miss Quentin playing hooky, he implores her to remember “knowledge is power!” à la Schoolhouse Rock.

In retooling The Sound and the Fury, the rest of the Compsons lose out, a side effect also of the conscious choice to eschew flashbacks. Mentally retarded Benjy, now confined to the third person, becomes everything the townspeople of Jefferson think he is: violent, destructive, worthy of institutionalization. At one point the Compson maid Dilsey remarks that she doesn’t “know what goes on in this poor child’s head…nobody does”—a disturbing observation, since Faulkner ensures we do know what goes on in his mind.

The film inserts Quentin and Caddy into the present-day narrative to detrimental effect. Caddy, existing in the book in mere memory, returns to Jefferson to reunite with Miss Quentin, but she has ulterior motives, after discovering in middle age that she can no longer find a sugar daddy. By the film’s end, she resorts to sleeping with Jason’s boss at the local convenience store. This Caddy is little like her literary counterpart, instead resembling a second-hand Blanche DuBois. Quentin, resurrected from the dead, is now a middle-aged lush named Howard. At one point, he and Caddy get drunk together, leading him to recall his confrontation with Gerald Bland over Caddy’s honor: “Didn’t you ever have a sister?” But here Quentin’s hurt over her lost innocence is rendered into parody, his angst transformed into drunken shrieking. Faulkner’s prose is twisted, its syntax replicated but its meaning tortured. It reduces the mythic to the pathetic.

Critics rightly derided the film. Fox banished its release to the spring, well outside Oscar season, despite trumpeting it as the latest addition “to the distinguished handful of motion pictures that will be remembered as long as the screen endures.”

Ritt himself later acknowledged problems with the film. “I shouldn’t do Faulkner again,” he said. “There’s something in the language that’s too rich…it’s almost untranslatable.”


That aforementioned Blu-Ray release seems almost perfectly timed to offer Franco some lessons on how to adapt Faulkner properly.

For one, there’s the issue of perspective. Ritt’s film failed to compensate for the loss of the first person. Of course, there’s no way Franco’s As I Lay Dying will be able to give us the same level of insight into all fifteen narrators that the novel affords us. It’s a shortcoming endemic to all adaptations: How do you squeeze two hundred and fifty pages worth of content into two hours?

Franco acknowledged this problem in a 2011 interview with Entertainment Weekly: “You want to capture the tone, but you can’t work in exactly the same way…you can slip into the characters’ heads and give them their inner voice for a while, but it has to be more fluid because movies just work differently than books.” Film certainly has its own ways of getting to the heart of a character, something that someone like Terrence Malick has accomplished beautifully in his films.

as i lay dying as i lay dying

Images from the set of As I Lay Dying, courtesy

There’s also the matter of place. Faulkner tilled the same “little postage stamp of earth” for most of his novels, and one of the faults with Ritt’s film is that it feels utterly disconnected from its setting, a byproduct of filming on a studio backlot. Franco has opted to film in Faulkner country, and his production utilizes native Mississippians for its supporting roles. Even among the main cast, several actors have experience filming in the state, including Tim Blake Nelson (O Brother, Where Art Thou?) and Ahna O’Reilly (The Help).

Passion also plays a role. Franco wrote the script for this adaptation himself, and he’s pursued the project for the last two years (it was first announced publicly in January 2011). With his obvious interest in film and literature, he has an advantage over others. Franco’s previous projects also show a clear interest in eclectic and adventurous projects, and he may be weird enough for As I Lay Dying. Just because the book is part of the canon doesn’t mean it should be a solemn venture. For all its narrative experimentation, it’s a funny, strange, weird little book.

Undoubtedly there will be changes—all adaptations make them, whether out of choice or necessity. Franco has already acknowledged as much: “I want to be loyal to the book…but in order to be loyal I will have to change some things.” As strange as it sounds, this will be James Franco’s As I Lay Dying as much as it is William Faulkner’s, which is how it should be. And no matter what happens with this film, we’ll always have Faulkner.

(As I Lay Dying directed by James Franco is set to be released in 2013.)

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