By Don Simpson | October 11, 2013
Director: James Franco
Writers: James Franco (screenplay), William Faulkner (novel)
Starring: James Franco, Tim Blake Nelson, Logan Marshall-Green, Jim Parrack, Ahna O’Reilly, Danny McBride, Beth Grant, Jesse Heiman, Scott Haze, Brady Permenter
As most fans of William Faulkner will tell you, As I Lay Dying is an unfilmable book. That is probably why, in the 82 years since its release in 1930, no one released a film adaptation. That, however, did not seem to intimidate James Franco.
Often heralded as Faulkner’s masterpiece and a seminal 20th century novel, As I Lay Dying is an audacious literary exercise in stream of consciousness writing that enlists 15 different characters to serve as narrators over the course of 59 chapters. Adopting its title from Book XI of Homer’s The Odyssey, Faulkner’s eloquently verbose narrative takes the Bundren family on an epic odyssey from their modest farm to the town of Jefferson to bury their family matriarch, Addie (Beth Grant). The journey is riddled with trials and tribulations, both natural and self-made. It is as if nothing or no one — including themselves — want the Bundren family to reach Jefferson; and as their situation grows increasingly hopeless, alternating amounts of naiveté, ignorance, stubbornness and selfishness propel the Bundren family towards their destiny.
James Franco’s attempt to do the impossible is admirable to say the least. His choice in narrative form is not nearly as complex as the source material, but it does make for a challenging cinematic experience nonetheless. Employing split-screen visuals, often of the same character, Franco creates an ever so slight rift in the space-time continuum. By utilizing these multiple camera angles concurrently, Franco visually echoes Faulker’s literary propensity for juggling narrative perspectives and truths. Franco occasionally breaks away from the narrative to allow his characters to directly address the audience, just as Faulkner permits his characters ample opportunities for interior monologues. During these monologues, Franco plays with Faulker’s idea that the characters speak more clearly and intelligently in their own minds than they do in reality.
Speaking of — ahem — speaking… Armed with no teeth, Tim Blake Nelson’s gummy portrayal of the Bundren family patriarch, Anse, offers a sort of dark comic relief to an otherwise gloomy tale of woe. Nelson truly embodies the uneducated nincompoop with utterly incomprehensible diction, which also allows him to function as the only actor who does not seem like they are reading their lines directly from a teleprompter. I give Franco a lot of credit for trying to stay true to the original words, but it is one thing to hear the words echo around your head as your read them from the pages of Faulker’s book, it is totally different to watch someone attempt to recite the very same densely written prose.
That said, Franco’s film is a totally worthwhile attempt at conquering the impossible. I am still in awe that he pulls off this feat as well as he does. I am just curious whether or not there is an audience out there for a borderline experimental adaptation of an unfilmable piece of literature.