Addie Bundren is the stopped heart at the centre of ‘As I Lay Dying’, and director James Franco very properly begins his split-screen adaptation of William Faulkner's work of Great American Literature with Addie. In some family ensemble dramas, the mother is the pump that keeps things flowing. Here, she's the cause of stagnation, rot and inertia, as she passes away some 20 minutes into the story, leaving behind her a request that her impoverished family bury her in Jefferson, her hometown. In Faulkner's novel, it feels like we take longer to get to this point. Franco and his co-writer Matt Rager have performed some relatively unobtrusive surgery on the narrative, which would otherwise have made for a slow first act. And it’s hard to imagine too many viewers getting purple-faced with indignation over reduced screen time for a character like Cora Tull, a pious presence in the book, and – to be brutally honest –kind of a bore.
Faulkner fans, then, need not be up in arms about this version of his Nobel Prize winner. More experienced directors than Franco have come to stickier ends adapting ‘unfilmable’ classics, and his chosen split-screen technique is not as gimmicky as it sounds. At its best, it's used to simultaneously convey different people's perspectives within the same scene, which clearly echoes the multiple first person narration of the book. It is less interesting when used to simply show long shot and close-up side by side. This approach doesn't transform ‘As I Lay Dying’ into an unqualified success as an adaptation, but it's satisfying to see the novel's set pieces come alive in often visceral sequences including a wagon wreck, amateur first aid, and subsequent rural surgery.
The compression of narrative fairly gallops towards the climax, where the crucial psychological trajectory of second Bundren son Darl, played by Franco himself, is sketched in hurriedly; if you don't already know where he's headed, you'll probably find it a little abrupt. The great ironic finale involving rotten-toothed Anse (Tim Blake Nelson, returning here to ‘O Brother Where Art Thou’ territory) achieving his heart's desire plays nicely, though would be more heartrending and less funny if we'd come to care a little more for the ill-starred Bundren brood first.