Sunday, November 03, 2013

James Franco's Film Adaptation of As I Lay Dying

James Franco's film adaptation of William Faulkner's novel As I Lay Dying is both wonderful and frustrating. Wonderful because it succeeds in capturing the atmosphere of Faulkner's novel so well; frustrating because of the aspects that didn't work, and didn't have to fail.

James Franco As I Lay Dying movie photo
As I Lay Dying has been thought to be unfilmable because of the central narrative device of using various points of view to tell the story. Fifteen characters narrate a total of 59 chapters, and the book's power lies largely in seeing how different characters view the same events, how each person's hidden perspective and agenda shapes his or her view of the events they are describing.

The story centers on the Bundrens, a poor rural family, and on the death of the mother of that family, Addie. Addie's request has been to be buried with her family in the county seat of Jefferson, not among her husband Anse's family in the nearby town of New Hope. When Addie dies, the family sets out to fulfill her wishes, but we find out through the separate interior monologues that many members of the family have an ulterior motive for the journey.

The trip to Jefferson, taken by mule-drawn wagon, is a long one under good conditions, but is delayed by sons Darl and Jewel who return late through a storm from a delivery of lumber. Once under way, the family then encounters a flooded river with all its bridges out. I don't want to spoil too much of the plot, but the events of the novel proceed like a slow-motion car accident. You keep wanting to make the family stop, turn around, get Addie in the ground as quickly as possible, and stop the horrible nightmare that they're bent on putting themselves through.

Franco's film adaptation succeeds brilliantly in evoking the feel and atmosphere of the book. The musical soundtrack, mixed with the sound of the mule team's hooves and the creaking of the wagon, together with the beautiful visuals of the Mississippi woods and countryside, perfectly brings the viewer into the physical world of the novel. The character voice-overs and speeches directed toward the viewer have been criticized by many film critics, but do help to evoke the multiple narrative voices of the novel. They worked for me, possibly because I'm used to that sort of thing in film adaptations of Shakespearean dramatic soliloquoys. There were only a few occasions where I felt that the monologues were only there to reproduce Faulkner's prose on screen. There are couple of others, notably Vardaman's famous line, "My mother is a fish," which the novel prepares us to understand but the film doesn't.

The thing that really didn't work for me was the device that was evidently supposed to represent most clearly those multiple narrators: the split screen. The problem wasn't the split screen itself, but rather the use to which it was put. It could have represented the different perspectives of different narrative voices - most poignantly, the perspectives of Jewel and Darl, miles away from home, juxtaposed with that of the rest of the family, present for the last moments of Addie's life.  Instead, in most cases, it was used to show the same event from two separate camera angles (sometimes only slightly different), or two characters in dialogue with one another, when the same idea can be more effectively presented by showing the two characters on either edge of a widescreen, visually illustrating the distance between them. The split screen ended up being merely distracting, rather than enhancing the multiple points of view in the novel.

William Faulkner As I Lay Dying cover
Of course, an aficionado of the novel will notice missing elements. The character of Cora is all but missing from the film, and therefore the inflexible, religious perspective she represents fails to form the counterpoint to Addie's bitterly amoral viewpoint. We do find out that Reverend Whitfield, who leads the family in a hymn after Addie died, was the father of her favorite son Jewel, but we miss the significant scene in which Whitfield is determining to confess the affair, only to fail in his resolve when he arrives after Addie has died and realizes that she took their secret to the grave.

Franco's take on the character he plays, Darl, is different from mine, but it's a legitimate interpretive difference. Franco plays Darl pretty straight, as essentially the only sane member of the family, the only one who sees the folly and futility of the saga and tries to put a stop to it. This makes his final situation heavily ironic. The book hints that Darl was a veteran of World War I and had come back shell-shocked (what we now call post-traumatic stress disorder). While he narrates more chapters than any other character, and his perspective probably reflects Faulkner's own more than anyone else's, the book indicates that the events of the story actually do drive Darl over the edge. Perhaps Franco felt that the movie needed a character for the audience to identify with.

Faulkner famously called writing a "splendid failure" to attempt the impossible. I'd put Franco's As I Lay Dying in the same category, a splendid failure to live up to its ambitions. Nonetheless, a worthwhile attempt and very much worth watching.

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