Adapting any William Faulkner for movies is not easy — if it can be done at all. Legendary director Martin Ritt made a bad film in 1959 of Faulkner’s “The Sound and the Fury” with Yul Brynner and Joanne Woodward. Faulkner academics who stumble upon it are in for nightmares.
Yesterday multi -hyphenate James Franco premiered his ambitious adaptation of “As I Lay Dying,” a Rashomon like tale of a burial told by 15 characters from different perspectives. (Franco, I think, whittled the number down to 9.) To accommodate the many speakers of the novel Franco does two things: he uses split screens a lot and head on interview close ups. Sometimes these things work and sometimes they don’t. A few times when the split screen came up I thought it would have been more effective to just have a regular shot. The split screen diminishes powerful moments especially when of the halves is pedestrian.
At the press screening, you could see the divide: there were loads of exits before the film ended. And then there was applause. Go figure.
Of the critics, only Todd McCarthy really liked it. Everyone else was impressed but frustrated. It’s no easy sell. At a party last night one critic said, “It’s an English doctoral student’s take on Faulkner.”
The story is set in rural Mississippi in the late 1920s. Addie Bundren is dying, and then dies. She wants to be buried far away in Jefferson. Her children and husband, a not exactly brilliant bunch, must take her by wagon over a river and through the woods. Along the way a few things happen including the burning of a barn, a rape, and the revelation of a pregnancy. Also someone gets a new set of teeth.
Franco cast himself as the main child, named Darl, probably because it would help sell the movie. But he stands out like a sore thumb among the other players. Move star looks and clean white chompers– yes, this movie is about dentistry–make Darl seem like a documentary filmmaker who came to Yoknapatowpha County in search of a story.
And there are some problems with casting Tim Blake Nelson as Anse, the father of all but one of these adult children. Physically he looks nothing ike them, and he’s too young. Also, he spends most of the movie gaping, mouth wide open, toothless. His speech is largely unintelligible. I thought I’d need subtitles to understand him. Of course, this is how Anse is described, so what can you do ? But TBN is just too convincing.
What’s good about “As I Lay Dying”: Ahna O’Reilly, who is also in “Fruitvale Station” and is Franco’s ex girlfriend, lights up the screen. She’s aided by cinematographer Christina Voros, who applies a pale palette that brings a dusty flourish to the landscapes. Also the third act of this laconic screenplay suddenly jolts into action after a lot of meandering. It suggests there could be more to all this if it had been drafted one more time.
Some of the problems can be fixed. For the mother, Addie, to work, she needs a great narrator in voice over (I was thinking Melissa Leo) who could explain and comment on what’s happening, That would make the mother, played on screen briefly by veteran character actress Beth Grant, much more engaging and sympathetic.
In the end, as I said, this wasn’t easy. There’s a reason why no one tackles Faulkner like they make Jane Austen movies. And this movie can still be improved and tweaked and polished up to make it less grim and a little more accessible before it’s released by Millennium later this year.