William Faulkner’s novels are notoriously difficult to adapt into films. Even with techniques such as flashbacks and advanced editing, Faulkner’s stream of consciousness narratives, especially the masterpiece exempla of The Sound and the Fury and Absalom! Absalom!, are labyrinthine at best and chaotic at worst.
James Franco’s adaptation of As I Lay Dying has just been released straight to video following a limited release, and it’s a film that deserves broad consideration, partially because the novel is one of the most thought-provoking in American literature. The early reviews have been positive, if not glowing, but it’s a “small” film based on a difficult novel, and that means that it is likely to have strong acting and significant emotional impact. I’m looking forward to watching it.
The novel’s brevity has made it a staple in some high school classes, where Faulkner’s storytelling has become the bane of students who are lost after the first few chapters (15 narrators!?). By the time they flip to the Vardaman chapter that reads, in toto, “My mother is a fish” (yes, that’s the entire chapter!), they are as lost as, well, a fish out of water. I might add that I personally benefited from Andre Bleikasten’s helpful guide when I taught the novel.
Readers may easily dismiss the novel as cartoonish or stereotypical, but I can speak from personal experience that the characterizations ring true and the themes speak powerfully to human experiences. My grandmother (I am a proud, native-born Mississippian) used to call folks like the Bundrens “so inbred it’s a wonder they even have two eyes.” I’ve known proud rubes who were were ready to drive off a cliff just to prove that they were right about gravity being some sort of scientific conspiracy (I’ve known quite a few academics who were equally as stubborn). I’ve known husbands whose wives were dying and who had already finished grieving by the time their spouses actually died, leaving confused children in the wake of a hasty new marriages. I’ve known too many teenaged girls who have tried desperately to figure out what to do now that a baby was on the way.
As I Lay Dying follows many elements of previous works: Crane’s naturalism, Hawthorne’s morality, and Eliot’s early alienation. Its world is one of broken marriages, fractured relationships, and the kinds of natural tragedies that beset complicated lives: floods, fires, and death. This is not the South of the dewy-eyed fantasy writers of plantations and nostalgic honor; this is the inverse, with hardscrabble living and ridiculously rash vows. My beloved Magnolia State is dotted with bed and breakfasts in stately homes and annual Pilgrimages to revisit the past; Faulkner’s Bundrens are a sobering reminder that these visions are but a vapor, to some extent, like the happy dream of heaven that seems to vanish in the harsh light of dawn’s reality, at least for the cynic.
Recent discussion of Marilynne Robinson’s Calvinism caught my eye because I had As I Lay Dying on my mind. For some time I’ve viewed Faulkner as a very peculiar kind of Calvinist. He believed in total depravity and his novels explore original sin in all of its amazing variety. Unfortunately, he also seems to have believed that the atonement was limited, but so much so that no one was able to access it. My sense is that for him, God was a cruel judge who set up the rules, rigged the universe to punish fallen humankind, and then left us with a taunting glimmer of redemption, a risen Savior who has elected no one. It’s an amazing perversion of the Doctrine of Election to imagine an entire world that has realized that it has not been chosen to receive grace. If Faulkner is the creator god of his literary world, then certainly he himself is a cruel deity.
Addie Bundren (the titular “I”) concludes her solitary chapter with these words: “My father said that the reason for living is getting ready to stay dead. I knew at last what he meant and that he could not have known what he meant himself . . . . One day I was talking to Cora. She prayed for me because she believed I was blind to sin, wanting me to kneel and pray too, because people to whom sin is just a matter of words, to them salvation is just words too.”
Because there is no transcendent salvation possible, the best we can hope for is dignified endurance of suffering. Addie views her suffering as a sort of moral accounting of her sins. Faulkner himself noted that Dilsey, one of the primary narrators of The Sound and the Fury, was an ideal because she and her family “endured.” Suffering may not be redemptive, but it is character proving. Of course, proven character is a thin substitute for eternal redemption.
I am drawn to these tales because they pull me out of the Christian ghetto and return me to the state where I once lived, where desperation reigns and buzzards circle the remains of cramped lives. It’s a state that moans, “Oh, would that there were more to life than this misery!” It’s the words of weary and broken Job, which anticipate a longing that is realized in 19:25’s hopeful proclamation that “my redeemer liveth, and that he shall stand at the latter day upon the earth.”