In a recent article for Vice, James Franco charged the detractors of Baz Luhrmann’s ‘The Great Gatsby’ with hypocrisy. He argued that the film was Luhrmann’s interpretation of the book, and that critics who make their living from interpreting texts shouldn’t demand absolute loyalty to the source material. Was this a pre-emptive defence of his own adaptation of William Faulkner’s modernist classic? If so, he needn’t have bothered, for ‘As I Lay Dying’ is about as faithful to the novel as is cinematically possible.
This is no mean feat, given its dense prose and complex structure – Faulkner deploys 15 narrators over 59 fragmented chapters to tell the story of a family of Southern farmers struggling to give their late mother a decent burial. Franco tackles this with split screens, which are very effective at conveying parallel narratives, but slide into redundancy when juxtaposing two POVs within a scene (often they don’t even match up with a character’s viewpoint). The script retains much of Faulkner’s prose verbatim; while this works for the dialogue, commendably rendered in the mumbling local accent, the scenes in which the actors speak their streams of consciousness straight to the camera feel like rehearsals for an open mic night at a student poetry society.
Kudos to Franco, rather, for his restraint. There are scenes here – an arson attack, a mad attempt to carry the coffin across a swollen river – that could have been given the epic Hollywood treatment. The mother’s death might have been played up for tears. Yet the script skirts melodrama in favour of an intimate study of family dynamics (though budget considerations may be a factor here). In his debut feature, Franco also reveals himself to be an assured director of actors, eliciting wonderfully unshowy performances all round (Tim Blake Nelson as the toothless patriarch stands out). Whether he takes a leaf out of Luhrmann’s book and stamps a more personal creative vision on future projects remains to be seen.