Film4.com editor Catherine Bray experiments with James Franco’s ambitious split screen adaptation of William Faulkner’s Nobel Prize winning impressionistic stream of consciousness novel, As I Lay Dying…
I’m generally a fan of people trying to do something a bit different, even when they don’t totally succeed. James Franco’s adaptation of As I Lay Dying is better than some critics seemed to want it to be. It certainly ticks many of the boxes that tend to ensure a film attracts a certain level of gimlet-eyed scrutiny from pundits (1. it stars the director, 2. it’s formally ambitious, 3. it has something to do with James Franco). Not that scrutiny is a bad thing, but it does need to be applied equally to all comers.
As I Lay Dying is by no means an easy watch, but it’s certainly easier to watch than the book is to read, with Faulkner’s at times Joycean, occasionally manic, style of interior monologue and shifting perspectives shared by 15 characters over 59 chapters hardly constituting a holiday page-turner. You probably won’t hear anyone complaining that the book is willfully difficult to comprehend. I do wonder whether the film is fully intelligible independently of the novel. It’s not necessarily a problem if it isn’t – it’s not a commercially-minded film, but one made as a serious artistic response to a piece of Nobel prize winning literature.
The film locates the death of Addie Bundren (Beth Grant), mother of impoverished Southerners the Bundren clan, at around the 20 minute mark. They’re then on the road 25 minutes in, transporting Addie in the coffin made by big lunk Cash Bundren (Jim Parrack) to Jefferson, where it is her dying wish to be buried. The sense of bad luck and ill-omen attending their quest is almost as tangible as the smell of Addie rotting in her coffin as the Bundrens fail to make good time, due to a combination of misfortunes. The original narrative is pared back slightly, with various digressions and minor characters making way for multi-perspective coverage of the main Bundrens: rotten-toothed Anse, sensitive Darl (Franco), illegitimate Jewel (Logan Marshall-Green), secretly pregnant Dewey Dell (Ahna O’Reilly), self-sacrificing Cash and young Vardaman (Brady Permenter). Characters like the minister Whitfield who is Jewel’s real father are barely glimpsed, but it would take a four or five hour film to get everything in.
I was dreading the split screen technique in advance, having heard about it and presumed it would be a gimmick. Actually, I think it works rather well. At its best, it’s used to illuminate different perspectives within the same scene, which feels very true to the multiple first person narration of the book, though this doesn’t happen as often as it could, and the technique sometimes lapses into a simple way of combining long shot and close-up which offers less than some of the more rigorous composition employed elsewhere.
The most questionable note for me was James Franco’s casting as Darl, not because it’s a bad performance, and not because he’s too good looking for the part or anything like that, but because of his persona and our awareness of his status as the director. I couldn’t watch a lingering close up of his face without being conscious that I was looking at James Franco, the actor, presented in close up by James Franco, the director. And then I would think about James Franco, the Oscar host. If it were possible to watch this film with no knowledge that the director was the chap playing Darl, I suspect it would be easier to relax and engage with the performance on a more straightforward level.
Anyway, hats off to Franco for a handling a bold choice of source material in an innovative fashion.