James Franco's As I Lay Dying inevitably differs from Faulkner's. In the novel, the Bundren home and farm lie on a hill, hard to reach, where Doc Peabody has to be hauled up by a rope. Cash limps from an earlier fall, but his leg at the end is not amputated. Jewel is a whole head taller than the others.
An important section in the novel, Darl being transported to Jackson by train, is left out of the film. Except for Anse's and perhaps Jewel's, the faces in the movie belong too much to our time and not the `twenties in Mississippi. Some of the clothing is too contemporary as well. In the film, Dewey Dell is too much a girl of our own day, more a woman, and much too beautiful. The landscape is too unvaried; the novel moves from Mississippi hill country toward (without actually entering into) the delta.
Such variations could be expanded. But they do not matter. If you want to read Faulkner, read him. Franco's movie is not a substitute for that nor does it mean to be. It is a work of translation. I think one has to see the film in and for itself, though I do not know how someone who has not read the novel might respond to it. In a sense, it is a work of the grandest plagiarism, since so much of the language is Faulkner's, shifted about, cut hugely, altered, and, at times, even changed, beginning as the novelist's language and then becoming Franco's. Toward the end of the movie, Darl speaks words that are found in the novel in Addie's monologue. But the film requires its own place and dress and faces. What I have just noted, and the differences could proliferate, does not matter because the movie is a different sort of experience, bound to a different sort of watchfulness.
For example, the scene of the crossing of the flooded river, though in detail not Faulkner's scene, is brilliant, moving, astonishing to see. So, too, is the whole sequence when Darl sets fire to Gillespie's barn. Addie was extraordinary, her look, her speech, her placement in the frame. The language of the book is often powerfully visualized. In that translation, too, the novel is turned into film, albeit a different, and distinct, work of art.
If Faulkner's novel has an ontological depth the film lacks, so be it. Faulkner was obsessed with a religious sense of the person in the absence of any belief he could muster in God or anything like a god. Darl's anguish is, to make use of another fancy word, existential. (There is no mention in the movie of his having fought in France, an intriguing omission.) Darl confronts the world in his and its absence. He is words, words, words as Jewel is deeds, doing, action, impulse. I will not go on. Faulkner remains an artist of an historical moment when the fundamental, the oldest questions remained not only worth asking, but demanding to be asked. Perhaps that is still so for some. I'd like to think so, but the film seems to be more bound to a sense of an absurd fatality, the journey itself therefore intensified because of the way it ends, in disaster. The end in the novel is disastrous, too, but only for some, not for all. Cash is changed, after all, and his new complexity is not nothing. The sensibilities of novel and film, therefore, are different. One might say they adhere to different beliefs, to different ways of seeing the world, views that often intersect, as in translation, but which cannot be the same. The two works, book and film, the two artists, Faulkner and Franco, exist, through Franco's intervention, in a dialogue with one another. This is the essence of translation, its necessary, inevitable transpositions.
Franco's use of the split screen cannot give a sense of interiority of Faulkner's monologues, of course, but it can offer instead the doubleness, even better the plurality of perspective that is the film's obsession, even to the moment (wonderful) when the muddy river itself is twice seen. This "doubling" is necessarily more restrictive than Faulkner's use of multiple narrations. Film in some ways is always more limited, imaginatively limited, than literature. That is, it is so if it is seen as a substitute art. Bresson, of course, would have none of that. Theater was one thing; "cinematography," by which he meant a film, is another. The split screen, then, eliminates over and over again the possibility of a single and therefore stable vision.
It is this instability that strikes me as part of Franco's vision. Look at how much time he spends on people's looking, just looking or staring and, occasionally, seeing. No one sees what anyone else sees. That is Faulknerian enough, of course. Narrative in Faulkner is almost always at least doubly bound. But we are often, in his As I Lay Dying, always, within a character. It is a matter of plurality rather than of doubling. In the movie, not even in the voiceovers, are you in them, in the characters. The split screen is distancing. You are always outside, listening in, as the language spoken combines and clashes with what is seen. It is a wholly different way of viewing the world, in short. What is fine about the film for me, then, is how much of Faulkner's "poetry" remains within it even though it is transposed. Faulkner's novel might be in part about the anguish of meaning; Franco's is more about its impossibility. That is much too glibly said. But I hope it might intimate some of what I see.
The movie is undoubtedly the finest translation of a Faulkner novel to film. The few others are worthless or ludicrous. Franco's film on Hart Crance, The Broken Tower, may be the best movie ever made about a poet. His As I Lay Dying, seen for itself, in its subtle greens and browns and yellows, in its recurrently stunning and provocative vision, is one of the best re-imaginings of a novel into film. It is also one of the few genuinely serious movies directed by an American that I have seen during the last few years, as original and accomplished as Kelly Reichardt's work, for example.