In The Miscellany News’s October 2 issue, Lily Sloss ’14 published “Gordon-Levitt script looks at vice, morality,” a great review of Joseph Gordon Levitt’s “Don Jon” by outlining the film in what she called “classic Intro to Screenwriting film analysis format.” Her point-by-point plot summary not only primes her subsequent criticisms, but is itself infused with wit and opinion. It totally works. I reference this piece because it calls attention to an important quality of the subject of my review, director James Franco’s adaptation of William Faulkner’s literary classic As I Lay Dying. If I wanted to steal Lily’s approach for my present task, I would be met with a struggle. It would be heavy-handed and perhaps ignorant to argue that textbook-style screenplay structure is totally absent from the film. Many sticklers would contend, reasonably so, that a screenplay would not have reached the production stage if it did follow the “rules,” even if it is not immediately discernible which scenes satisfy each checkpoint. I can buy it. I can also say this: The industry standard narrative structure is at most a distant blur behind Franco’s As I Lay Dying, and Faulkner would have had it no other way.
One of the film’s many strengths is that its composition is inchoate rather than logical, liquid rather than solid, if you will. Although this quality alone is not necessarily Franco making a good decision—he did not really have a choice, working with Faulkner’s novel. To deny plot structure and narrative logic their usual authority is to show a basic but essential understanding of the novel. Luckily for us, it does not stop there. The film is an impressively convincing adaptation, successfully communicating the novel’s deeper themes and bringing its characters to life.
Adaptations are often seen as objective-based tasks rather than independent works of creativity, as an attempt at direct translation, and the translator as one who either gets it right or wrong. This is especially the case with film versions of high-brow literature. I think those of us who are familiar with the original work when viewing an adaptation are compelled to assert a kind of superiority by pointing out ways in which the celebrities got it wrong, and believe me, I have been guilty of this. But we would do well for ourselves to loosen up, and not lower our standards for adaptations, accepting that a book is a book and a movie is a movie. One is not a prerequisite for the other, and each has its own experience to offer.
With that disclaimer out of the way, I will admit that the most productive way to discuss Franco’s adaptation is to analyze the artistic correlations between book and film. It is difficult to picture what the film would be like for a viewer new to the story. Does it work without having read the book? All I can offer is: yes, I believe so.
It is a challenge, no doubt, to make the film medium work for a piece of literature like As I Lay Dying, and so it is impressive that Franco has not shied away from the challenge, but taken advantage of his medium. In the novel, Faulkner achieves multiple perspectives by switching the narrator from chapter to chapter. Franco adapts this method by making use of the split screen, which is not used from beginning to end (thank goodness), but appears in artistically appropriate scenes, depicting the back of a character’s head on one side and his face on the other, for example. Sometimes the difference in perspective of the two screens is a matter of five feet, sometimes it is a matter of major location or time. This is the obvious method for achieving simultaneous perspective differences in film , but that does not keep it from succeeding as a persuasive and respectful reinvention of Faulkner’s storytelling mode .
Frequently a character looks directly into the camera and recites lines lifted straight from the page. This confessional-style monologuing is jarring at first, but you can learn to love it for its awkwardness, with the novel’s help. Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying has a large meta-fictional element, in its contemplation of language as a successful tool for communication and its attention to the absurdity of human reliance on words. As the novel tries to achieve streams of consciousness chapter by chapter, it questions its own success. It brings attention to its own weaknesses in accurately representing human thought with the only tool at its disposal: the written word. In turn, Franco brings attention to the awkwardness of his medium, also feeding consciousness through a bulky, distorting filter. Both Faulkner and Franco find the opportunity for beauty in this artistic problem, embracing the form of expression that gave them trouble—Faulkner in his brilliant lyricism, and Franco in his well-composed close-ups.
It was a joy to see each of Faulkner’s somewhat mysterious characters materialize in the way movie characters tend to do: with the human body and all its mannerisms, with the speaking voice and all its intonations. The cast is overall up to task, barring the occasional unneeded melodrama of Dewey Dell (Ahna O’Reilly) and the strain in divorcing the character of Darl from James Franco’s celebrity (that’s a difficult task for an actor with such a flood of external associations). Jewel (Logan Marshall-Green) is a successful, silent introvert. Cash (Jim Parrack) is the perfect embodiment of a young and already broken carpenter, and Anse (Tim Blake Nelson), the father of the group, is a delightfully repulsive, with his rotting slack-jaw and disingenuous invocations of faith. As for the backdrop of this tragic family, the dirty, hot, earth-toned world of the poor South takes on a new vividness through its cinematic portrayal. There is nothing like watching a movie that thrusts you into a world you wouldn’t otherwise understand.