AS I LAY DYING: Strictly Faulkner

As I Lay Dying hits DVD from Millenium Entertainment on November 5th.

Based on the 1930 classic by Faulkner, it is the story of the death of Addie Bundren and her family’s quest to honor her wish to be buried in the nearby town of Jefferson.

I admit it, I’m a stickler for strict movie adaptations. Sure, I completely understand that staying true to the source material is usually impossible, unless you want an 11-hour movie. Things have to be cut, and at the end of the day I don’t think Lord of the Rings suffered unduly from a lack of Tom Bombadil, nor Harry Potter from cutting Peeves the Poltergiest. But just the same, major changes irk me, which is why the end of Watchmen pissed me off, and I can’t even bring myself to watch True Blood or Anne of Green Gables, since as far as I can tell plot points differ wildly from the books. So I can absolutely appreciate James Franco’s (127 Hours, Spider-Man) desire to remain true to the William Faulkner novel As I Lay Dying in his 2013 adaptation, in which he starred, co-wrote, and directed. The problem in this case, though, is that unless you are a diehard Faulkner- or Franco-phile, I’m not sure this movie is going to fully work for you.

As a disclaimer, I’ve never actually read As I Lay Dying, or anything by Faulker, so the story and characters were new to me. I only know about Franco’s devotion to the novel from the DVD special features, where several cast members noted how it served as an on-set Bible throughout filming. Apparently the book is very dense, and doesn’t lend itself to an easy adaptation. This came through in the movie; it took me a while to sort out who was who and what the relationships were, and I didn’t feel the characters’ motivations were always apparent. Franco’s use of the split screen technique and strange voiceovers was baffling to me as well. This is where the special features on the DVD were invaluable, in explaining the reasoning behind these devices and how they relate to the structure of the novel, which provides a “multi-valent view of the same story” through different first person perspectives.

Nothing “bad” was happening here, with the possible exception of accents so broadly “backwoods Mississippi” as to be unintelligible at times. The film provides a fairly stark, realistic look at an early 20th century rural farm existence, which I think we tend to romanticize. The trials of the Bundren family as depicted here made me keenly aware of how glad I am to live in the city in the 21st century. The actors did a good job overall, and generally seemed to convey the desired emotions — but the “why” wasn’t necessarily apparent. (For example, I could tell Jewel (Logan Marshall-Green; Prometheus, Across the Universe) was mad at Darl (Franco) in the beginning, but not specifically why.) Tim Blake Nelson’s (O Brother, Where Art Thou?, The Good Girl) patriarch Anse is as selfishly dislikable as I expect he is intended to be, and you feel sorry for his kids to be stuck with him. As Nelson puts it, Anse is unable to see things from others’ perspectives, seeing his children’s troubles as his own bad luck while ignoring the consequences for them. The needs and circumstances of others take a backseat to his own desires, and Nelson portrays this very effectively.

But when it comes down to it, As I Lay Dying is a niche movie with a limited appeal. Originally screened at Cannes and intended as a theatrical release, it was instead released to Early EST (including iTunes) on October 22, VOD/iVOD on November 1, and DVD on November 5. Assuming that the film is as true to the book as advertised, this may be a case where a strict adaptation limited the commercial appeal of a film. It’s a labor of love for Franco and the cast, but a harder sell for those of us who don’t have the Faulknerian history to appreciate it.

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