I put it off as long as I could but finally broke down and watched James Franco’s film adaptation of As I Lay Dying, and although the film has many fine moments, on the whole I was not enthralled.
The first thing that one notices is the split-screen effect, or rather affectation, used from the opening scene and throughout the film. There were a few scenes where the split screen actually works, but they were few and far between. Mostly it is simply distracting. Does one really need to see the same character from two different angles in the same scene? Does that pull one into the story or add additional layers of meaning?
Filming a novel told from several, in this case many, viewpoints is undeniably daunting. The one thing that did work for me were the voice-overs where Faulkner’s rich prose was on display, even though often hard to understand. I did half of my growing up in the Mississippi Delta and the other half in the Mississippi Hills, so I am reasonably conversant in those two argots. Nevertheless I struggled to understand what practically every character was saying.
On the other hand, the casting however was a strong point, particularly Beth Grant as Addie, Ahna O’Reilly as Dewey Dell, and Brady Permenter as Vardaman.
Now for the crux of the matter. Am I the only reader who thinks As I Lay Dying is a comedy, albeit a decidedly dark comedy? How many times does Anse say “I’ll be beholdin’ to no man” as he borrows and begs his way to Jefferson? Dewey Dell was raised on a farm and falls for the “You’ll need the rest of the cure” line. And really, a ten-cent concrete cast on Cash’s broken leg. Farmers treat their livestock better. I could go on and on, all the way up to “My mother is a fish.” But the penultimate moment is when Anse shows off his new teeth as he introduces his children to his new wife. i actually laughed out loud the first time I read that scene.
These are not tragic characters unless one considers ignorance and a lack of self-awareness as tragic. Having just written that, I realize that, yes, that is tragic in our modern sense of the word, but not in the classic, literary sense of one who makes a serious error of judgement leading to their downfall. These people are a bumbling mass of incompetence stumbling their way through their lives. They are extreme, over the top characters, intentionally drawn that way by Faulkner, and they are sadly, morbidly hilarious.
All of this does nothing to take away from the novel. It is brilliantly written with its multiple viewpoints and deep, accurate revelations of character. But if As I Lay Dying is a comedy, then as a film maker, James Franco didn’t get it.