Thursday, October 25, 2012

The Sound and the Fury (film)

The 1959 adaptation of Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury chooses to tell its story through the frame of the fourth section of the novel.  This is the one of the four sections that narrates the 1929 novel from an “objective” viewpoint rather than through the first-person subjective view of a character.  This strategy solves some problems for the filmmakers, and creates others, in particular, how to convey information from the earlier chapters, without which the fourth one would make no sense.  It also causes a significant transformation in the story itself.  The existential confusion that marks Benjy’s narrative, the suicidal angst of Quentin’s, the fuming anger of the Jason chapter—all disappear, and the adaptation doesn’t seek to resurrect them.  Rather it makes the story one about a family in an advanced state of decay, attempting to adjust to its circumstances, set in contrast against the more modern setting of the town itself.  And it also becomes the story of how two individuals—Jason and Caddy--make their accommodation with one another and the world.  This is a reasonable approach to adapting the novel, but it carries risks.

In the fourth section of Faulkner’s novel, two absences are crucial.  One is the absence of Caddy, the only sister in the family, who disappeared some 16 years in the past, since then never seen again, except briefly.  Her absence is the haunting, melancholic force that gives the final section and the rest of the novel much of its force.  She’s the tragic absent mother and sister.  The other absence is one that occurs midway through the chapter: the flight of the young Quentin, Caddy’s daughter, who runs away with her uncle’s money.  Of course, there are other absences too, in particular that of brother Quentin, who committed suicide in 1910, and of father Jason, who drank himself to death some years before.  How can a film convey the impact of these absences, especially Caddy’s, when they involve characters who play no role in the novel’s final section?

Normally, I would not emphasize differences between the source novel and the film itself.  I want to consider a film in its own context.  I am pleased when a successful film is also successful in retelling the novel it’s based on—but a successful film need not be faithful to its source in order to be a successful film.

The changes made in the 1959 film to the story in Faulkner’s novel help to explain the film’s abject failure.  In The Long Hot Summer (1957), another adaptation of a Faulkner text, director Martin Ritt at least produced a film that had entertaining qualities.  The story as adapted was not really a Faulknerian tale, but the way the screenwriters Ravetch and Frank reinvented it, along with some wise casting decisions (Paul Newman, Joanne Woodward, Lee Remick) and some profoundly bad ones (Tony Franciosa as Jody Varner, Orson Welles as father Will) made it amusing in ways they likely did and did not intend.  What one realizes about The Long Hot Summer, especially on repeated viewings, is that the screenwriters and director really had no interest in producing a film true to its source, no interest in fidelity to Faulkner.  Instead they wanted to use whatever elements they could distill from the original texts (the story “Barn Burning” and the novel The Hamlet) to capitalize on the public interest in Woodward and Newman and to make a film that would earn money.  The apparently true tale of Orson Welles mumbling his lines for the film with pebbles in his mouth, which necessitated that he record them again without pebbles, alone makes the film worth watching.
The Long Hot Summer is much more a Tennessee Williams tale—with its emphasis on father-son rivalries and on sexual repression—than a Faulkner story.

There are numerous similarities between the adaptations of The Sound and the Fury and of The Long Hot Summer.  Sexual repression and jealousy are a common issue.  Both films are centered in a plantation house.  Both feature a prominent young woman character attempting to find her place in life.  Both involve issues of patrimony, of inheritance, though in different ways.  Both occur in the same part of the American South in the late 1950s.  With all these points in common, what is curious is that one film works as well as it does and the other doesn’t work at all.  Casting certainly posed a challenge.   Yul Brynner portrays Jason Compson—his prominent Russian accent is noticeable whenever he speaks—the film had to come up with some way to explain the accent.  Joanne Woodward appears as the young Quentin[1] Compson in need of love, a mother, and womanly fulfillment—Woodward is too mature for the character she portrays, and it strains one’s credulity when the film suggests that her character would run off with a greasy haired carny.  To account for the odd casting choices, and to make accommodations for several missing family characters, the adapters make changes that fundamentally undermine, subvert, and ruin the story that might well have provided the basis for a successful film.

A major change is that the time of the novel’s story is moved forward from 1927 to the year (apparently) in which the film was made, 1959.  This is a problematic move, but not one necessarily insurmountable.  Pushing the story 30 years forward moves it further away historically from the time in which the older Compsons might actually have remembered their years of glory in the hometown.  The entire novel occurs within the shadow of that heyday and of its disappearance.  That shadow would have been considerably less visible in the late 1950s than in the 1920s, but at least the notion that older formerly well-established families in the town still mourn over their lost days of glory is plausible.

The film also engages in several strategies to compensate for the absence of the dead Quentin Compson (who’s described simply as a brother who shot himself) and the dead Mr. Compson.  First, it creates a new Compson brother, Howard.  He does little more than sit around on the veranda and drink and look miserable, literally (much like Uncle Maury in the novel).  He has no other function, other than to repeat a few lines once uttered in the novel by the deceased Mr. Compson and to act out with the middle-aged Caddy an encounter that in the novel takes place in their late teens. 
To explain Jason’s accent, and to achieve other goals, the screenwriters create a backstory in which Mr. Compson marries a woman named Caroline.  He adopts her son and gives him the family name and (given the suicide and drunkenness and idiocy of his other three sons) makes him his heir, or at least his namesake. Over the years, Jason has taken on responsibility for saving the Compson family name, as he explains to young Quentin.  Biologically Jason is not related to anyone in the film, except his mother.  Played by Francoise Rosay, and like the aging mother of the novel’s fourth section, Caroline is always calling out to Dilsey for assistance and complaining about humiliations imposed on her by the family, but in the film she does so with a loud French accent.  That still doesn’t explain Yul Brynner’s Russian accent.

Why did the film need to make this change?  Yul Brynner in 1959 was a popular actor whose star was on the rise.  Undoubtedly, the filmmakers hoped to capitalize on his popularity by placing him in the film.  It had to find an explanation for Jason’s accent.  This change accomplishes another result as well.  Every film needs a little romance.  Jason’s identity as the adopted brother allows the constant hostility between him and Quentin that creates much of the tension in the film gradually to develop into what appears to be the beginnings of a romantic relationship.  To make clear to those who have read both the novel and the previous sentence in this paragraph, allow me to restate:  the end of the film prepares us for a romantic relationship between Quentin II and Jason.  Since they are unrelated, nothing wrong there.  And, I suppose, even if one does consider them related, there is nothing wrong there either--this is the Deep South.

The most significant absence in the novel’s fourth section is Caddy’s.  The film solves her absence by having her come home, permanently.  In the novel, she passes very briefly through Jefferson and pleads with Jason to allow her to see Quentin.  He agrees, and Caddy gets her chance when he drives by with her daughter sitting in his car.  This is a terribly painful moment.  Caddy then vanishes, to appear briefly again in what many refer to as "The Compson Appendix” (1945), when she has, at least according to the local librarian, taken up with Nazis.  The plaintive sadness of the novel is, among other things, deeply tied up with Caddy’s absence, with the vacuum that her name evokes.  In the film, Jason allows Caddy to come home.  She moves back in and reunites with young Quentin and begins talking about the parties and dresses she’ll buy for her daughter, and how a woman has to capitalize on her best assets, by which she means her body.  In the film, Caddy is a faded, histrionic, drunk and probable former prostitute.  She’s the reality we never see in the novel, and because she is who she is—a faded Southern belle from a Tennessee Williams play—she destroys the illusion.
Ethel Waters appears as Dilsey, a long-suffering black Southern woman and servant, the mammy of the family.  She does as well with the part as the writing might allow, which is not much.  She receives less attention in the film than the novel, an ironic difference given that she is a central character in the novel’s fourth section.

Until the point of Caddy’s return, I was willing to give this film credit for at least making a failed try at adapting a difficult novel.  But with Caddy’s return, and with the promise of love between Jason and Quentin, I gave up.   A world of surreal absurdities had erupted.  Bruce Kawin, describing how the screenwriters undertook the adaptation of Faulkner’s novel, has observed:  “Their operating method was to retain as many of the novel’s scenes and characters as possible, rearranging and recasting them in the narrative present.  The problem is that they kept the surfaces and lost the meanings—and even this would not be so much of a problem if the new meanings they created had been dramatically interesting.”[2]  Alex North’s brassy, smarmy soundtrack, better suited for a Las Vegas story of sleaze and corruption, doesn’t help. 

[1] The name Quentin here refers not to the dead brother Quentin of the novel but to the Joanne Woodward character of the film (whom Caddy in the novel names after her dead brother).
[2] Faulkner and Film (New York: Frederick Ungar, 1977), p. 23.

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