Monday, November 25, 2013

As I Lay Dying:
How to Deal with a Classic

Chez Buce took in a screening last night of James Franco's As I Lay Dying last.  It's a good movie, maybe a a very good movie, but it screws up one of my hobbyhorse theories of moviemaking.  Let me see if I can explain.

First; it's a movie-from-a-book.  More precisely a movie from a famous book: William Faulkner's first or second or third best novel, depending upon taste.  We did it as a readaloud a few years ago, and sign on to the conventional opinion.

But here's the hobbyhorse. It's not original with me, but I share the view that to make a good movie from a book, you need a second-rate book. Think Gone with the Wind, or Wizard of Oz, or Bridges of Madison County.  A really good book, either the director just uses the franchise for his own private flight of fancy: think The Great Gatsby. Or he tries to be faithful to the original and winds up with an expensive high-end visual aid: think Merchant-Ivory (admit it now--has anybody ever watched a Merchant-Ivory movie twice?).

Franco's Faulkner is not at all a directorial private fancy (with one glaring exception-see infra).   It's  faithful--you might almost say obsessive--attempt to remain loyal to its source.  So far, sounds like trouble, but the odd thing is, it works.  This is, in short, the most successful obsessive recreation I can remember.

I'm not certain I understand why it works.  I can offer a tentative guess: it's the style of the telling in the source.  Faulkner's novel (not all Faulkner novels, but this one) is a monument to artistic restraint.    It's short: Amazon says 267 pages but that overstates because so much of it is in the form of short chapters that leave  lot of white space on the page.  It needs to be savored.   And so much of what you come to appreciate is unstated, so as to make you seek it out for yourself.  In this sense it is almost the opposite of the (even shorter) Great Gatsby, where so much of its appeal is in the magic of the prose.

So my guess is that you don't need to worry about the stuff that is left out: it was left out in the first place, and we are the better for it.  

But there is a perplexing flip side here. That is: I 'm not in a position to know but this is one movie where I suspect you really do want to have read the book beforehand.  There is a lot going on beneath and around the surface, and you're always saying "wait a minute--what?"  With the novel, you can stop and think.  Or you can flip back a few pages and double check.  Without the book as a crutch, you don't have that luxury.  So it might be that this really not so satisfying a movie for one who does not know the original.  Still, we thought it was great.

Well--I said one exception.  That is: Franco never should have cast himself.  Too much of a pretty boy. Way too self-indulgent.  Not an easy task, I suppose to fit out a cast of semi-human scrub farmers.  Tim Blake  Nelson as Anse  and Logan Marshall-Green as Jewel filled the bill admirably: one step short of Planet of the Apes.  Ahna O'Reilly as Dewey Dell was conscientious and honorable but somebody should have fitted her out with a set of rotten teeth.  Franco himself makes you think (at least for a moment) to Leonard DeCaprio, and that is never a good thing

1 comment:

Denkof Zwemmen said...

There’s actually a third option: you can deliberately make a “bad” movie out of a great book. That is, you can ignore the greatness of the book and just milk it for its cinematic elements. No, “cinematic” is too high-falutin'. You can milk it for its drama, Hollywood-style.
I’m thinking in particular of one of my favorite movies, “The Brother Karamazov” with Yul Brynner, Maria Schell, Claire Bloom; Lee J. Cobb is Daddy K. There is absolutely no pretension in this movie, no effort to plumb the Dostoevskian depths, no stunning religious paradox; it’s just a good Hollywood movie – made a little better, maybe, by the fact that everyone is aware, the writers, the actors, the director, that they are ignoring greatness, and through that awareness, the greatness seeps in