James Franco is directing As I Lay Dying. I'm not sure what to say. Granted, this is the guy who played Allen Ginsberg in Howl and Hart Crane in the biopic The Broken Tower. And he's taken the English-grad-student route, so he's probably got some idea of what he's getting himself into. It doesn't hurt that he’s already cast a bumper crop of Southern actors, including Danny McBride, Tim Blake Nelson (aka Delmar from O Brother Where Art Thou), and Ahna O’Reilly from The Help.
But still. As I Lay Dying? Our own Mr. Fee just did a post on films adapted from difficult books, but Faulkner is a whole new level of unfilmability. Let's look at a few of Franco's gravest challenges.
First, an overview for those of us who didn't read it in high school: As I Lay Dying is the story of a deceased matriarch, Addie Bundren, and her family's journey from her deathbed to Jefferson County, where she asked to be buried. The genius is in the fifteen narrators who tell the tale, from Addie's oddly named children (Cash, Jewel, Dewey Dell, Darl, Vardaman) to a rogue's gallery of opinionated neighbors and countryfolk. One of the chapters is narrated by Addie herself; she declares from beyond the grave that “people to whom sin is just a matter of words, to them salvation is just words too.”
Faulkner actually worked as a screenwriter in Hollywood. It makes sense: his characters are that vivid, that real. So it should be sort of feasible.
But. But, but, but.
How could a film possibly do justice to this page, the most famous page in the entire book?
I’m serious. The rest of the page is blank. Film just can't withhold information like this. If we see Vardaman onscreen, a small boy sitting on a porch or eavesdropping or smelling the fish that we later learn is cooking nearby, then that thought, my mother is a fish, simply won’t carry the same weight. The audiobook has an exaggerated pause, and that’s as close as we can get.
That's not all. Right before that chapter, another one of Addie's sons has a numbered list explaining how and why he built his mother's coffin the way he did.
Pretty sure that's going to get adapted beyond all recognition.
James Franco was able to pull off Allen Ginsberg and Hart Crane because they were essentially biopics. But here, he's set himself the task of extracting the story from the book. And the story really isn't the point.
I can’t wait to hear James Franco’s brilliant cast toss around lines like “I gave Anse Dewey Dell to negative Jewel” and “I feel like a wet seed wild in the hot blind earth.” But if I go to see As I Lay Dying, I guess I'll be prepared to experience something completely different from what I read in English class. Good luck, Franco; you’re up against Faulkner now.
Image credits: photosmoviessongs.com; bigbowlofsoup.tumblr.com