Is Faulkner unfilmable? 

James Franco’s most recent film adaptation of a William Faulkner classic isn’t getting the best reviews. I went to see the premiere of The Sound and the Fury at TIFF, and when introducing the film James Franco said that he thought the 1959 version of The Sound and the Fury was “fine” but that he was looking to do things a little differently with his version. In an interview for the film’s premiere at the Venice Film Festival, this is how Franco explained the difference between the original film adaptation and his latest attempt:

“… it looks like their aim was to adapt simply the narrative, the story, and they did not make any attempt to take on the style or the structure of the book. In my mind when I think of ‘The Sound and the Fury’ I don’t think, ‘Oh, yeah, it’s a story about a Southern family’s demise, like that is only half of it, and the other half is the way that it’s written, how it’s told, not just what is told. So as a filmmaker who’s adapting that, I think I took it on as my responsibility to find film equivalents for the way that Faulkner was giving his effects in prose.”

Despite the reviews and some negative comments I heard about the movie on my way out of the theatre, I actually liked Franco’s The Sound and the Fury. It was experimental, but he warned us of that before the movie even started. I can understand how some people might feel it was a little too artistic, like something you’d see in film school, but I liked that he tried to tell the story in a completely different way, something a little closer to how Faulkner himself presented it in his book.

All this has got me to thinking that maybe Faulkner is unfilmable. His prose is hard enough to read let alone watch. James Franco also adapted As I Lay Dying in 2013 and was met with much of the same negativity. And as this essay points out, there haven’t really been that many Faulkner films: “For a man of Faulkner’s stature, there have been shockingly few films made of his work, and none since 1969. Compare that to a contemporary like F. Scott Fitzgerald: The Great Gatsby has seen five iterations, with a sixth is on its way in 2013.”

Maybe that’s why I liked Franco’s attempt, because at least he tried something different. At least he made an attempt to bring the works of Faulkner to a new audience, one that might not have ever read the books. And with an author like Faulkner, it can’t be easy. In a 2011 interview with Entertainment Weekly, James Franco said: “You want to capture the tone, but you can’t work in exactly the same way…you can slip into the characters’ heads and give them their inner voice for a while, but it has to be more fluid because movies just work differently than books.”
I think he understands the difference between books and movies very well, but I guess it’s up for debate whether he can handle translating one to the other.

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