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Various Reactions to James Franco’s Adaptation of As I Lay Dying

Darl

Darl is clearly a poet and seer of sorts in the book; his monologues are full of rich language, and it becomes clear that he is picking up upon and understanding events that no other character understands.  That’s his role in the book, and, in the end, when he burns down the barn and is sent to Jackson as insane, it’s a consequence of all the horrible things that precede the fire. In the movie, the barn burning is far more random, and (in the context of Faulkner, generally) reduces Darl to the level of Ab Snopes in “Barn Burning.”

Darl is a misunderstood poet, who grasps everything that happens around him and ends up in the mental hospital because of it.  (He’s a stand-in, of sorts, for Faulkner). The movie, by stripping away Darl’s poetry and language, strips away this point that Faulkner is clearly trying to make with him.

The movie completely omits this understanding of Darl as a character, and doesn’t offer anything as a substitute.

Vardaman

Faulkner had a number of autistic or retarded characters, most famously Benjy Compson in The Sound and the Fury.  Vardaman in As I Lay Dying is one of them.

The way Faulkner depicts these characters is to view them as, more or less, cameras: They take in what they see, and say it in words, but words that are somehow transposed.  Thus, after the reader sees death a number of ways, the reader hears Vardaman, carrying up a catfish from the river, announce:  “My mother is a fish.”

Without doubt that’s the most famous line in the book  If one is unaware of the background about Vardaman, it is incoherent.

There is nothing in the movie that would make a viewer understand that Vardaman is anything but a normal child.  And, if Vardaman is a normal child, he is incoherent.  The movie doesn’t provide the explanation a reader of the book grasps or any alternative.

I would have found a way to use the part of the story where Vardaman steals his brother’s drill and drills holes in the top of the coffin after his mother is nailed up in it.

Dewey Dell 

She starts out bothering me in the movie– the actress is way too old to be playing a sixteen year old, or someone as innocent/ignorant as Dewey Dell is in both book and movie.  Somewhere about midway in the movie, though, her performance picked up steam and I wasn’t bothered by it any more.

Jewell

I would like to know from someone who saw the movie and was unfamiliar with the book whether they had any idea about Jewell’s relationship with his mother or what was peculiar about his relationship with the family.  I’m not sure it would be visible to someone coming to the material for the first time.

Anse

The first half of the movie doesn’t take the time to develop just what a selfish leech Anse is to his family or in his dealing with his neighbors; it’s not until the second half that it really fleshes out this central part of his character.  They almost pull it off.  A simple way they could have done some of this:  They never have Anse tell that (according to him) he can’t sweat because he’d had heat stroke years before, that if he sweats, he’ll just die.  And thus everyone else has to do the farm work while he stands in the shade and complains how put-upon he is.

Split screen

The movie makes constant use of split screens.  When I read about that, I assumed it was used as an attempt to deal with the way the material in the book comes from multiple points of view.  I was wrong.  It’s just there, and a fairly annoying affectation.  I spent some time trying to figure out some sort of pattern, or way the split screen was being used to tell or advance the story.  Nothing there.  And it’s not esthetics, either.  Just a kind of tic.

Nits

If you are going to have Cash, the carpenter who makes his mother’s coffin, do the speech where he explains why he uses a bevel on the coffin’s lid, the coffin’s lid should have a bevel.  Maybe even learn what a bevel is.

No, folks did not use fords “to cross the river at high water.”

Why is the one scene where there is Spanish moss a scene in a graveyard?  Why is there Spanish moss in any scene? (this bothered others more than it bothered me.  I accepted it as a reflexively used ignorant movie cliche).

There’s a large thing made of the Bundrens’ poverty in the book, including that they have only one lamp, and its chimney is almost fully blackened out by carbon.  Lots of details in the movie (including a front porch with multiple lamps, that really healthy and good looking team on the family’s wagon, a pressed wood chair one would not expect in the country then I don’t think, painted window frames) are not consistent with that poverty.

As someone noted afterwards, the attempt by some of the actors to produce Southern accents means that the only folks one can consistently clearly understand are the Mississippi actors the production hired.

Upshot

The movie really looks like it was filmed in Mississippi, to its credit, and in the right season (the book is set in late July).  It makes an earnest effort to be faithful to the book, although tripping up occasionally and, sadly, omitting most of the humor.

The comparisons to the book are not based on any expectation that a movie adaptation have a duty of fidelity to the book.  If you are going to tell the same stories but leave out character aspects that drove the action, one would hope or expect for something else by way of substitute rather than more-or-less gaping holes.

All that said, if you are going to spend a couple of hours with As I Lay Dying, the time would be better spent with the book.  By a lot.

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