James Franco’s Film Adaption of Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying

John C. Henegan

Article by John C. Henegan Featured Author


Local Color

Crossroads Film Society of Jackson, www.crossroadsfilmsociety.com, held an exclusive preview of James Franco’s film adaptation of As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner on Tuesday, October 22, at Malco Grandview Cinema in Madison, Mississippi, as a fundraiser for the Society. Crossroads had announced that it would have a single screening with some members of the film’s cast and crew attending. Publicity went out only a couple of weeks before the screening, but the demand for tickets was so great that, even with limited publicity, Crossroads had two showings rather than one as initially planned.

This was a preview, not a premiere. There were no floodlights scanning the night sky, no red carpet, limousines, evening gowns or tuxedos, no flashing cameras. That may happen later after the movie is previewed for a week in New York and another week in Los Angeles. The screenings in Madison were sandwiched between a screening in Oxford and another on the Gulf Coast.

There was a low key buzz in the lobby and the theater in Madison that night. Word had begun to spread that a single screening fundraiser had morphed into two shows that evening. Early arrivers tried to appear casual as they craned to identify members of the cast and crew when they arrived and took their reserved seats in the first few rows. Crossroads had the coffin of Addie Bundren on display in the theater lobby. CABA’s own energetic, imaginative, and talented Anita Modak-Truran, a successful documentary filmmaker and charter member of Crossroads, interviewed people for local television that night. Ward Emling, Director of the Mississippi Film Office, who has brought dozens of film projects and hundreds of people to Mississippi and created untold jobs in the process, welcomed everyone. He then introduced the cast and crew that were there, and gave a little background about the sites used in the filming, all of which took place in Mississippi, before the lights went down and the screen came up.

The Book(s)

As I Lay Dying is the second of five novels that the autodidact Faulkner wrote in Oxford, Mississippi in a virtually unprecedented and unsurpassed display of creative imagination and genius between 1928 and 1936. The five works include The Sound And The Fury, Sanctuary, Light In August, and Absalom! Absalom!

The Sound And The Fury and As I Lay Dying are companions in contrast. Highly experimental in form, to borrow from Faulkner, they are about “the problems of the human heart in conflict with itself.” More than 80 years after publication, they continue to be read, discussed, and re-issued in new editions with fresh commentary by scholars and novelists. They have been translated into numerous foreign languages for Faulkner devotees around the world, found on virtually every list of the “top 100” works of American literature, included on most required summer reading lists in high school and college, and are the object of undergrad and post-grad literature courses.

The Sound And The Fury, which is also now in film production in Mississippi, is about the Compson family that lives a few blocks south of the square in Faulkner’s “apocryphal” Jefferson, Yoknapatawpha County, Mississippi. It was reportedly rejected by 13 different publishers before finally being accepted by an editor who understood Faulkner’s undertaking and had the courage to risk publication of what even today remains Faulkner’s most challenging work. The novel tells the same story four times from the perspective of four different people: three siblings — Quentin Compson, his sister, Caddy, and their idiot brother, Benjy — and an omniscient narrator. One of the novel’s most famous scenes occurs along the Charles River in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Such is its power that an anonymously placed brass plaque commemorates the site. The concluding scene — with Luster and Benjy entering the square of Jefferson in the Compson’s horse drawn carriage as they had a hundred times before, only this time turning left — is equally magisterial, and if you take it in, it will forever alter your experience of approaching the south entrance to the square of Oxford. As of this writing, no plaque marks the spot to tell the public what happened that fated Sunday afternoon, April 8, 1928. The Sound And The Fury was published in 1929, and its initial sales were limited.

Faulkner soon followed with As I Lay Dying. He once claimed that he wrote it in six weeks on the back of a wheelbarrow while working nights at the physical plant of the University of Mississippi, having been dismissed as its Post Master. The novel appeared in 1930. It is about the trials and ordeals of a single family living as far from Jefferson as possible while remaining within the county. The Bundrens are simple, hardworking country folk; they are impoverished and uneducated even by the standards of an isolated, rural Mississippi. Faulkner again uses the stream of consciousness method: the story is told once rather than four times with each successive chapter told from the solitary view of a different member of the Bundren family.

The novel opens while Addie Bundren, who is dying, looks out her bedroom window and hears and sees her carpenter son, Cash, making her wooden coffin. Addie has asked that she be buried in the town cemetery in Jefferson, and for a variety of different and gradually revealed reasons, the Bundrens are determined, save one, to fufill her dying wish. The other family members are Anse, the patriarch; their three other sons — Jewel, Darl, and Vardaman, who is a mere child; and Dewey Dell, their comely but unknowing teenage daughter. Following Addie’s death and a final at home visitation by their rural neighbors, the Bundrens’ pilgrimage by mule drawn wagon to the cemetery in Jefferson takes several days while her unembalmed body slowly decomposes before Addie is finally buried.

The title of the novel is taken from The Odyssey, and not since Sophocles’ Antigone have individual members of a family sacrificed so heroically and all the while absurdly and tragically to see that their flesh and blood are buried within a city’s walls. Antigone’s desire to have her brother buried within the walls of Thebes is religious. While the novel is rich with Biblical images of prophetic dreams, gathering clouds and torrential rains, pilgrimage, the crossing of the river, flood, trial by fire, water, blood, and fish, each Bundren has his or her own separate motivation — most ir — or a-religious — for enduring their at first comedic and then grotesque journey. All except Vardaman, who is too young to understand the events of life and death that whirl around him yet gives us the novel’s most famous line: “My mother was a fish”, the sum total of one of the book’s chapters.

The Film

A film and a novel are entirely different art forms. Can a successful film be made from a classic, path breaking novel that eschews a standard narrative in favor of a story told through the intermittent, seemingly random interior monologues of its different characters, who are without unlimited access to the deeds and thoughts and therefore the motivations of their companions, without sacrificing the artistic integrity or central core and message of the medium of the novel?

To take this novel … and transform it into a film would seem to be no small challenge.

The book is celebrated in large measure by its ability to convey the complexity of the personality and character of each member of what initially appears to be a very ordinary, even subnormal family that seems barely capable of making it outside their house and down to the road much less capable of overcoming the ordeals that they must endure to reach Jefferson and bury Addie. To take this novel (which in certain ways is a cult classic — how many rock bands take the name of a novel), and transform it into a film would seem to be no small challenge. From the perspective of this viewer, James Franco, who also co-wrote the screenplay, co-produced the film, and portrayed Darl, the prescient but lunatic brother, has met this challenge and admirably so.

The film’s depiction of the persona of each character within and without the Brunden family, the relationship of each Bundren to one another and to those outside the family — outsiders whom are not without their strong opinions and different convictions about the utility much less the wisdom of Bundrens’ journey — and the pace and unfolding of the events that move the novel forward to its climatic and stunning ending are all successfully captured cinematically and emotionally.

Franco, who has studied filmmaking formally at UCLA and NYU, is reportedly a voracious reader, and is also working on a Ph.D. in American Literature at Yale, directs the film with a deft mixture of image, humor, and suspense that surprises and even astonishes the audience with the ordeals and obstacles that the Bundrens create for themselves and the sacrifices that they endure to fufill Addie’s wish. There is not a weak performance in the movie. The portrayals of each one of the Bundrens is compelling. Tim Blake Wilson (“O Brother, Where Art Thou?”) fully conveys the slovenly, worthless, wholly selfish, ultimately despicable nature of Anse. Anha O’Reilly (“The Help”) captivates as the wholly naïve, fallen Dewey Dell. Logan Marshall-Green (“Prometheus”) is relentless and indefatigable as Jewel. The final scene of the film successfully captures the simultaneously exhausted and astonished faces of Jewel, Cash, Dewey Dell, and Vardaman as Anse approaches their mule-drawn wagon in an entirely unanticipated manner that shatters. It is a powerful, authentic rendering of the book’s ending.

There are several successful film adaptations of Faulkner novels, including Intruder In The Dust (Juano Hernandez), The Long Hot Summer (Paul Newman, Joanne Woodward, and Orson Wells), Sanctuary (Lee Remick), The Reivers (Steve McQueen), and Tomorrow (Robert Duvall), one of his short stories. Franco’s adaptation of As I Lay Dying is a worthy addition to this catalogue of films.

Between the date of the Grandview showing and this review, Millennium Films, which has the distribution rights, announced that rather than showing it in movie houses, it would release the film on iTunes on November 5, and it is now available through Amazon on DVD and VOD/iVOD. This reviewer has no idea about the basis for the decision, but it is presumptively based on economics. By coincidence, after not going to the movie house for several months, I saw “Gravity” and “As I Lay Dying” within a four day interval of one another. I am glad that I saw “Gravity,” but for all its special effects and outstanding performances by Sandra Bullock and George Clooney, I do not plan to see it again or any other movie about outer space for at least another five years. If I had the opportunity to see “As I Lay Dying” a second time at the movie house with a roomful of rapt moviegoers, which was the setting a few weeks ago, I would go as soon as it returned to Mississippi. The experience of a community coming together and watching actors perform comedy and tragedy and then leaving to discuss their shared experiences about the play or the film has been going on for over twenty five hundred years. The film adaptation of As I Lay Dying is a part of that venerable tradition, and it is surprising to learn that it did not receive at least a limited release in selected theaters and different sections of the country. Perhaps the distributor will revisit its decision later. For now, viewing the film at home will be an evening well spent.

The Pitch

James Franco, who grew up in Palo Alto, California and was educated on the west and east coasts, is a painter, published author, screen writer, actor, and director, whose work is being taken seriously enough for him to land an evening solo on the Charlie Rose show. Franco is a voracious reader who may have been exposed to Faulkner at Yale from the work of Professor Cleanth Brooks, now deceased, or Professor Harold Bloom, both iconic American literary critics and admirers of the works of Faulkner. Franco is not only creative and talented, but he is willing to take risks as an actor and as a director beyond those associated with ordinary films, much less one based on a classic novel. Thus, he appears to be too unconventional to do another film adaptation of a Faulkner novel (unless he picked Absalom! Absalom! —  once included on a list of novels least likely to be made into a movie).

Franco should make a film based on Faulkner’s Intruder In The Dust. Written 40 years before Presumed Innocent by Scott Turow and A Time To Kill by John Grisham, it is a suspenseful, crisply paced murder mystery with themes of redemption, reconciliation, and equal justice under the law, preceding To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee by nearly 15 years. Intruder was a path breaking book with Faulkner owing a greater debt to The Thin Man by Dashiell Hammett and The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler than any other authors, not to mention Howard Hawks who hired Faulkner to do the screenplay for the adaptation of Chandler’s most famous work.

Rather than do a film based on Intruder, Franco should do a film about the filming of Intruder In The Dust, which took place in and around Oxford, and the time between Faulkner’s writing of the novel and his helping Clarence Brown, the director, with the script and the film, which had its world premiere in Oxford. During this period, Faulkner received the Nobel Prize for Literature, sold the movie rights to MGM for $50,000, and suddenly had more money than he had had in his entire life as an author. Think of a cross between the raw violence of “Pulp Fiction” tempered by the gauntlet dropped to the artistic imagination by a monarchial authority in “Shakespeare In Love.” It would be right up Franco’s (and Hollywood’s) alley: a movie about a writer whose book set in an “apocryphal” town became a movie filmed in the actual town, with the book and the film having extremely satisfying endings.

Movies with small budgets are anathema in Hollywood. To address this, Franco should ask Morgan Freeman to play Juano Fernandez playing Lucas Beauchamp. Glenn Close or Sissy Spacek could play Elizabeth Patterson playing Miss Habersham. Franco or Brad Pitt or Leonardo Dicaprio could play Faulkner as he advises Clarence Brown played by Rob Reiner or Ron Howard. George Clooney or Franco could play Beauchamp’s lawyer, Gavin Stevens, etc. John Grisham could do the screenplay. Richard Howorth, the owner of Square Books and former Mayor and lifelong resident of Oxford, could be film consultant.

If the movie rights to Intruder are tied up, Franco could make a film of The Moviegoer, the existential novel by Walker Percy that is set in New Orleans and the Mississippi Gulf Coast. A film of The Moviegoer has been attempted twice — once in an adaptation by Terrence Malik with Sam Waterston as Binx Bolling — but never completed. Franco could play Binx Bolling. Anha O’Reilly could play Cousin Kate. Holly Hunter could play Binx’s mother. Meryl Streep could play Aunt Emily. Phillip Seymour Hoffman could play Lonnie, Binx’s half — brother. You get the idea. May Mississippi forever remain a fertile place for writers, film makers, and moviegoers.

John C. Henegan, Sr., is a member of CABA and a regular contributor to the CABA newsletter.