As I Lay Dying,
directed by James Franco
(Millennium, 2013)

As one of his more than half a dozen films of 2013, actor James Franco wrote the screenplay (with Matt Rager) and directed and starred in an adaptation of William Faulkner's 1930 post-modernist novel As I Lay Dying. Long considered one of the most unfilmable of novels with its 15 narrators (some of them dead) and long stream-of-consciousness passages, Faulkner's book has been one tough nut to crack. Indeed, if you read the critics, many are convinced that despite this movie, it still remains a tough nut, uncracked.

The fact is, though, while it isn't completely successful -- no film version could be -- Franco's work is fascinating; it's a visual and intellectual experience that comes close to capturing the soul of the book on film.

As I Lay Dying tells the story of the Bundren family, who seek to fulfill mother Addie Bundren's last wish by taking her body back to her hometown of Jefferson, Mississippi, for burial. The Bundrens, a poor farming family, are broke, so they have to do the long hauling themselves, including making the coffin, which they then try to transport the 60 miles to Jefferson through some of the most horrible forces they can face: torrential rains that wash out the bridge so they have to traverse a flooding river, a barn fire and so. As they travel, each character has to face his or her own inner demons. The plot is simple but the characters are not.

Rather than simplify a complicated book for the screen, Franco relies on some reasonably avant-garde techniques, primarily the use of split-screen shots and voiceovers. Some reviewers complained about these techniques, saying they were empty tricks that just served to distance the characters from each other and us. However, the split-screen shots serve the novel by suggesting Faulkner's multiple narrators and by emphasizing the fact that these characters, even though they are a family, are largely distant from one another. Franco tries to preserve Faulkner's use of stream-of-consciousness by having characters reveal their inner thoughts by speaking directly into the camera, like asides and soliloquies in Elizabethan theater.

It helps to know the novel when you're watching the movie, which is as understated, complex and intellectually stimulating as the original novel is. What comes through loud and clear, though, is Franco's love and respect for the source material. With As I Lay Dying, Franco is not trying to do a film version of a book; what he's aiming at is capturing the beauty, the soul, the essence and the darkness -- as well as the difficulty -- of a great American work without either destroying it as previous filmmakers have done with Faulkner's material or trivializing it.

Has he been totally successful? Probably not, although like the book, his might be a movie that continues to open up with repeated viewings. He has, however, made a strong and honest film that remains true to its source material.

review by
Michael Scott Cain

1 February 2014

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