James Franco's As I Lay Dying: A Scholarly Review

Drs. Christopher Rieger and Ted Atkinson

Franco’s 2013 adaptation of William Faulkner’s widely taught As I Lay Dying was met with skepticism by many Faulkner fans and scholars. But was the end product so bad? In this review, two Faulkner scholars debate the merits of the film and its usefulness in the classroom.

Ted Atkinson is an associate professor of English at Mississippi State University, where he also serves as interim editor of Mississippi Quarterly. He is the author of Faulkner and the Great Depression: Aesthetics, Ideology, and Cultural Politics (2006) and is the Vice President of The William Faulkner Society.

Christopher Rieger is an associate professor of English at Southeast Missouri State University and the Director of the Center for Faulkner Studies. He is the author of Clear-Cutting Eden: Ecology and the Pastoral in Southern Literature (2009) and the co-editor of the essay collections Faulkner & Chopin (2010) and Faulkner & Morrison (2013).

Christopher Rieger (CR): We have both recently watched the long anticipated film version of Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, directed by and starring James Franco, and I know you commented on Facebook right after watching it that it “wasn’t terrible” while I was willing to go slightly further and say it “wasn’t half bad.” Reviews from critics and reactions from Faulkner fans and scholars have not exactly been kind either.

Now that it’s been a week since I watched it, though, I think I’m starting to like it better as an adaptation or interpretation of the novel (though maybe that’s because I just showed my class Kenneth Branagh’s version of Frankenstein). I was impressed by how much of the movie’s dialogue was word-for-word from the novel, and aside from cutting some episodes out, there really weren’t any egregious changes to the plot or characters. Overall, it was a fairly faithful adaptation of the novel, and isn’t that what Faulkner fans and scholars were hoping for?

Ted Atkinson (TA): My comment that Franco's As I Lay Dying “wasn't terrible” marks the earliest point on my timeline (in Facebook terms and otherwise) of responding to the film. In retrospect, I suspect that my (barely) thumbs-up review was influenced by the spate of negative reviews published after the film premiered and by preconceived notions about what movies that go straight to VOD and DVD release must be like. (I also had trouble getting past the unfortunate cameo appearance by a boom mic that dipped into the frame in one scene.)

I must say that I'm experiencing the same increasing regard that you describe. So I'll see your "wasn't half bad" and raise you a "surprisingly good." This upgrade is influenced in large part by the faithful adaptation. I, too, was pleased that the most memorable lines from the novel appear in the film and that the episodic structure remains intact. And, yes, I am sure the majority of Faulknerians hoped for fidelity above all. There was a palpable sense of anxiety, even dread, coursing through social media about what the final product might be. Much of it had to do with the fact that James Franco—a self-styled postmodern Renaissance man popping up everywhere from graduate school at Yale to General Hospital in recent years—was at the helm. "I just don't think Franco can do Faulkner—or do Faulkner justice," I recall someone saying at the Faulkner conference in Oxford.

When I first saw the trailer, I wondered about the effects of the split-screen technique. Franco may be guilty of relying on it too much, but it seems to work well as a cinematic translation of the simultaneous and shifting perspectives that Faulkner creates through narrative. I wonder what you think about the prevalence of the split screen, especially as a teaching tool. I’m thinking it might be an effective way to approach the form of the novel with students.

CR: I think you’re right that the split-screen technique could be interesting to discuss in the classroom. For me, the split screen was an imperfect way to capture the novel’s multiple perspectives, but I’m not sure what else you could do that would work better. At times, I thought it worked quite well in the film. For example, in the scene in which Darl “sees” Addie’s death while he and Jewel are taking the load of wood to sell, the split-screen approach was very effective at translating Darl’s clairvoyance or intuition or however it is exactly that he knows such things.

A lot of other times, though, I found the split screen distracting and even underutilized. Too often the shots in the two frames were extremely similar, and I felt like if he was going to use that technique, then he should have pushed it further and had much different shots or at least very different angles of the same character. For me, it worked best at those times when the two frames were somewhat “off” from one another. I have to give Franco kudos for simply attempting some sort of formal innovation while adapting the novel of such a renowned experimenter with fictional forms. In short, the split-screen technique may not have been a “splendid failure,” but it certainly wasn’t a total failure either.

As long as we’re talking about using this film in the classroom, I wonder what other aspects you think would be helpful. For instance, students are often quite puzzled by Vardaman’s (in)famous “My mother is a fish” chapter. How did you think this version handled that tricky bit?

TA: I take your points about Franco’s use of the split screen, particularly the implication that it is uneven. My understanding is that Franco’s adaptation of The Sound and the Fury will soon move into production, if it hasn’t already. It’s not too late for him to achieve a “splendid failure,” I suppose. 

I’m glad you mentioned The Fish. I found that sequence of the film lacking, though certainly not in need of a shape to fill it: that fish was enormous! If I use that sequence in class, it will likely be to suggest a stark point of contrast between the novel and the film. It seems to me that the ambiguous force of Vardaman’s subjective symbolism was somehow lost in translation. What reads as laconically evocative language in the novel becomes overdetermined, even literal, as a consequence of the blend of visual effects and voice-over employed in the adaptation.

I can see how the flood sequence might be useful in class. When I teach As I Lay Dying in American literature survey courses,students express frustration with that part of the novel because they have trouble orienting themselves to the space and action. When I propose that that the disorientation is likely by design—a skillful fusion of form and content that enables readers to experience the Bundrens’ plight through simulation—some students hold fast to their resistance on the grounds that conventional narrative is inherently more effective than Faulkner’s difficulty. Screening the flood sequence in the film might provide such students a point of access to a part of the novel that they struggle to comprehend.

Since you asked me about a tricky bit, I’ll do the same. What do you think about the depiction of Darl’s mental condition and his forcible removal to the state asylum? Does this part of the film serve up any teachable moments?        

CR: If anything, I think that aspect of the film is teachable in the sense that it demonstrates how difficult it is to translate the characters’ inner monologues and narration to the medium of film. Without knowing the novel, it would be difficult to pick up on Darl’s deteriorating mental state throughout the film, though Franco does try to clue us into it in the barn burning scene. Without constant access to his thoughts like we have in the novel, though, it’s much harder to recognize his increasing mental instability. I think you’re right that the action of the flood sequence may by clearer seeing it on film, but the opposite may be true for rendering characters’ mental states.

Another aspect that was lost or at least buried was the unspoken connection between Darl and Dewey Dell. Her attack on her brother when they come to take him away to Jackson therefore seems more unmotivated than it does in the novel. On the other hand, I thought the issue of Dewey Dell’s pregnancy was handled quite well, especially the two actors playing Moseley and MacGowan. I thought they did a fantastic job of capturing their smarminess and sleaziness in very brief scenes.

TA: Since you mentioned the skillful rendition of smarminess and sleaziness by two supporting cast members, I can’t resist sharing a bit of Mississippiana involving one of them: the actor who plays Moseley is John Maxwell, a longtime fixture in Mississippi theater and public television who is well known for his spot-on portrayal of Faulkner in his one-man show, “Oh, Mr. Faulkner, Do You Write?”

You raise an important point in noting the lack of interior access to the characters. As Faulkner enthusiasts know, the challenge of solving that problem has contributed to the dearth of attempts to adapt the novels widely regarded as his masterpieces to film. We need only look to Martin Ritt’s 1959 adaptation of The Sound and the Fury to see evidence of the many disastrous pitfalls that await filmmakers. It occurs to me that this problem offers a formal explanation for what some film critics have identified as Franco’s generosity in eschewing the star turn and letting other cast members shine. Not to take anything away from Franco, but perhaps this perception owes more to the fact that without Darl’s interior thoughts, viewers have to wait until the barn burning to see an external manifestation of his deeply felt and psychologically debilitating personal stake in the harrowing journey.

For the other members of the family, though, personal stakes are established early on and in material forms: Anse’s teeth, Cash’s bevel design, Jewel’s horse, Vardaman’s fish/mother, and Dewey Dell’s pregnancy. Since actor Franco is not known for his expressiveness, maybe director Franco could have used voice-over more extensively to preserve Darl’s centrality and to plot his mental deterioration more methodically. But then he would have run the risk, as with the split-screen technique, of overdoing it. Besides, more of that from Franco as Darl might have crowded out Beth Grant’s deft delivery of Addie Bundren’s transcendent monologue—the essential voice-over.

CR: You’re right about Addie’s monologue. I was impressed how much of it was included and how faithful it was to Faulkner’s words. I also liked how her voice over would come in at times during the film when the on-screen action had nothing to do with Addie. That technique worked well, for me anyway, as another approximation of the multiple viewpoints and voices in the novel.

Speaking of voices, what did you think of Tim Blake Nelson’s choice for Anse’s speaking style? Wow. A bold choice, for sure, but a wise one? I almost needed subtitles (and students might demand them), at least until I got used to it. I suppose the case could be made that he made an accurate choice for a backwoods farmer with no teeth. Perhaps it could even be seen as contributing to the novel’s larger point about the breakdown of language “like the cries of the geese out of the wild darkness in the old terrible nights.” Frankly, goose calls are more intelligible than Nelson was at times, but it sure did make his acquisition of the new teeth all the more glorious at the end.

TA: I had high hopes when I read that Tim Blake Nelson had been cast as Anse, but I thought his performance was disappointing on the whole. The vocal delivery was a majordrawback. As I have said to others, it seemed like Nelson had a mouthful of mulch while delivering most of his lines. I wondered if his preparation might have involved watching (and trying to emulate) Robert Duvall’s accent when he portrayed Jackson Fentry in Tomorrow (1972), the film adaptation of Faulkner’s short story of the same name. The odd cadences were similar, but at least Duvall’s voice was intelligible.

Nelson’s strange performance, coupled with Franco’s understated presence, gave Jim Parrack, as Cash, and Logan Marshall-Green, as Jewel, the chance to deliver standout performances. I thought Parrack effectively captured Cash’s earnest, self-sacrificing devotion to the family, particularly early on when Cash constructs the coffin as both labor of love and plea for maternal recognition. He was skillful in the sequence involving the concrete cast as well, convincingly portraying Cash’s seemingly endless reserve of quiet deference to mask excruciating pain. I thought Marshall-Green was attuned to Jewel’s intensity, expressing it most dramatically in his fierce affection for his horse and disaffection for Anse. Both of these performances suggested that the actors had a keen understanding of Faulkner’s characterization.

CR: I would have to agree that Parrack as Cash and Marshall-Green as Jewel gave the best performances in the cast. The story of Jewel’s attachment to his horse was severely lacking though and left out an important part of his character. I thought Franco as Darl was okay, certainly an understated performance as you say, though not particularly forceful or memorable. I feel like Darl’s presence was missing from the film, though this may be because his words are what’s important in the novel. Overall, I thought the film was a successful adaptation that made some interesting choices, not all of which worked—plus, it will be a useful teaching aid. Since there are quite a few bad films out there based on Faulkner’s works, it doesn’t seem out of line to ask, despite its shortcomings: Is As I Lay Dying the best film version of a Faulkner story or novel yet made?

TA: While I was willing to upgrade my rating to “surprisingly good,” I wouldn’t go so far as to say that this is the best adaptation of Faulkner to date. While Franco successfully steered his film away from the lot full of clunkers that preceded it, I don’t think it earns the superlative distinction. I’m partial to Aaron Schneider’s Oscar-winning adaptation of Faulkner’s short story “Two Soldiers,” in part because I think it makes such a bold statement for film having the capacity to improve on Faulkner. I’m pleased that Franco managed a respectable adaptation, and I hope it bodes well for the others that are in the works now.

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