PERHAPS NO ONE in contemporary American cinema is as serious about exploring the literary possibilities of film as James Franco. In 2010, Franco, who is not only an actor and filmmaker, but also the author of a collection of short stories and a PhD student in English, starred in Howl, directed by Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman, a film that includes a complete reading of Allen Ginsberg’s sprawling mid-century poem. In 2011, for his MFA thesis project in the film program at New York University, Franco directed and starred in The Broken Tower, a Hart Crane biopic, which featured voice-over readings of several Crane poems. Now, in his most ambitious undertaking yet, Franco directs and co-stars in As I Lay Dying, a feature-length adaptation (from a screenplay by Franco and Matt Rager) of William Faulkner’s dense and decentered 1930 novel about a family of dirt-poor Mississippi farmers, the Bundrens, who undertake a multi-day journey by wagon to bury the family matriarch, Addie (played by Beth Grant), in her hometown.
As readers of the novel know, the family’s odyssey takes a series of calamitous, even absurd, turns. On the first day, the wagon spills into a flooded river and the coffin slips down stream; Cash (Jim Parrack), the eldest Bundren sibling, breaks his leg and to stabilize it, his brother Darl (Franco) encases it in cement, which leads to gangrene. In order to pay for a new mule team, and then a set of false teeth, Addie’s manipulative husband Anse (Tim Blake Nelson) pilfers money from his children and sells his son Jewel’s (Logan Marshall-Green) beloved horse. Sister Dewey Dell (Ahna O’Reilly), pregnant and seeking an abortion, is taken advantage of by a young pharmacist in the city, and Darl, after setting fire to the barn where the coffin is resting one night, is apprehended and sent to a mental asylum. Through it all, the youngest Bundren sibling (Brady Permenter), grapples with the meaning of his mother’s death through the symbolic significance of a large fish he catches and cleans. (The novel’s shortest and perhaps most well-known chapter is a single, imagistic sentence from Vardaman: “My mother is a fish.”)
Faulkner’s famously fragmented novel is composed of 59 first-person chapters, written in the voices of fifteen different characters. Translating such a polyglossic text to the screen poses some daunting challenges, which may explain why Franco is the first director to make the attempt. In Faulkner’s novel, form and content converge: the disjointed narrative structure, which lacks a presiding narrator, manifests the isolation that defines the characters’ lives, which are marked by hidden secrets and unspoken desires. In an effort to convey the splintered, often opaque quality of the novel’s writing, Franco employs several unconventional techniques, including hand-held camera work, split screen compositions, and rapid cutting between simultaneously occurring events.
At times, these devices work effectively, such as when the Bundrens’ wagon and the coffin splash into the river on the first day of their journey. Here, the divided screens convey the watery struggle through the eyes of different characters, enhancing the sense of confusion and chaos. In several of the film’s most compelling moments, Franco offers refreshingly direct access to Faulkner’s monologues, such as Cash’s 13-point explanation of the coffin design or Dewey Dell’s sensuous description of her love affair in the cotton fields, which are delivered in tightly-framed shots of the characters looking unswervingly into the lens.
The unconventional filmic techniques may rankle some viewers, but set against the provocative and perplexing nature of Faulkner’s prose, they arguably don’t go far enough. The novel is not only about isolation, which the film emphasizes, but also about the way isolation, and fundamental questions of subjectivity and perception, are structured by language. As just one example, Vardaman sneaks into the barn after learning of his mother’s death, and sees Jewel’s horse, “as though the dark were resolving him out of his integrity, into an unrelated scattering of components — snuffings and stampings, smells of cooling flesh and ammoniac hair; an illusion of a coordinated whole of splotched hide and strong bones within which, detached and secret and familiar, an is different from my is.” To grapple with such passages, the novel — itself a “scattering of components,” “an illusion of a coordinated whole” — insists that we slow down, read and re-read. The expectations of narrative clarity that drive a major motion picture, in which the progress of the plot ultimately takes priority over innovations in cinematic form, make the medium an uneasy fit for Faulkner’s novel, the content of which is so often manifested in the very texture of the writing.
In addition to using experimental techniques to echo the novel’s fractured structure, the film also strives valiantly to do justice to two other dimensions of Faulkner’s text. The first is the mythic significance of the Bundrens’ story. The ambition of Faulkner’s story can be gauged in part by his attempt to lend an epic quality to the struggles of ordinary, even debased, people — uncivilized, inarticulate “folk,” as they might have been considered by middle-class, metropolitan readers in the early 1930s. Both through the poetic power and linguistic complexity of the monologues, which undercut any assumptions that the characters are simple-minded, and through the archetypal nature of the family’s journey, which passes through fire and water in an epic cycle, the novel elevates the Bundrens and their struggles. They become, as Darl notes in one of his monologues in the novel, “figures in a Greek frieze, isolated out of all reality.” Even more than the novel, the film stresses the mythic potential of the trip, using slow-motion camera work and swelling, discordant string music to underscore the symbolic valence, for instance, of the scene when the coffin spills into the rushing river as the brothers try to ford a river where the bridge has been washed out. In one of the few substantial alterations to the novel, this fairly early scene becomes the occasion for Addie’s lyrical, if brutal meditation — delivered with steely intensity by Grant — on the poverty of words, which Addie famously refers to as “shapes to fill a lack.” To his credit, Franco realizes that Addie’s stress on the gap between words and deeds, and her blistering critique of “love” as an empty signifier, are at the heart of the novel’s commentary on the modern condition, and this section of the film is particularly well-fashioned and memorable, although for viewers less familiar with the original text, the full significance of Addie’s monologue may be hard to absorb.
While the film emphasizes the transcendental potential of the Bundrens’ journey, it also underscores the material immediacy of the story with crunching, realist detail and visceral force. In particular, the deteriorating condition of Cash’s broken, bleeding leg, which doesn’t receive medical attention until the only remedy is a gruesomely-rendered amputation, is excruciating to watch, and gives physical form to the layers of psychic pain suffered by the Bundren clan as a whole. Like many modernist narratives, this is a story of disintegration and decay — a tale of a family’s, and an historic era’s, collapse. In As I Lay Dying, death and burial, trial by water and fire, are not followed by birth, but by rape and abortion. While the epic resonance of the Bundren’s quest lends the poor farmers an unlikely dignity, neither the novel nor the film sanctifies the family members, who are self-absorbed, desperate, and often manipulative (“God’s will be done,” Anse intones immediately after Addie’s death, “Now I can get me them [false] teeth”). Modernism has been described as the advent of “grim reading,” and Franco’s film doesn’t shy away from the bleak nature of Faulkner’s tale. The film is largely absent of the black humor that punctuates Faulkner’s novel, but like the book, it ends abruptly, leaving viewers little solace.
As I Lay Dying is one of Faulkner’s most formally daring works, but it is also one of his most socially and politically engaged novels. As Faulkner biographer Joseph Blotner explains, Faulkner started writing the book the day after the Wall Street collapse in October 1929, and completed it in a short, two-month burst. As such, it can arguably be considered America’s first novel of the Great Depression. While there’s no indication that Franco intended the film to be a political work of art, it comes five years into the deepest economic recession since the 1930s. Seen in context of the current era’s mortgage foreclosures, declining wages, and financial suffering, Franco’s adaptation of Faulkner’s novel about the plight of an impoverished family isolated and stymied by economic hardship and social obstacles reminds us that high-minded works of art — even a period piece like this one — can also speak to contemporary historical concerns.
The film certainly has its weaknesses. Perhaps preoccupied by his directorial demands, Franco’s performance as Darl comes across as unfocused and flat, and the character’s descent into madness is inadequately developed. Some viewers may be frustrated by the slow pacing, the experimental techniques, or the absence of definitive answers about the characters’ internal motives. More significant, the film does not (and perhaps cannot) fully render the wondrously expansive poetic and philosophical complexity of Faulkner’s novel. The film is ideally suited to viewers who have not only read the original text, but are also familiar enough with it to appreciate the challenge of transposing the text’s modernist forms into filmic ones. This is a limited audience, of course, and one that, ironically, will understand what gets lost in the process of translation from book to screen. Yet Franco’s As I Lay Dying is an earnest attempt to use the visual power of cinema to convey the pain and pathos of the Bundrens’ condition, and to gesture to the demanding nature of Faulkner’s story-telling style. While there are limitations to how deeply the film reflects the profoundly searching nature of Faulkner’s modernism, the making of it is no minor undertaking, and the final product is a commendable and provocative project.