William Faulkner famously claimed to have written his 1930 novel “As I Lay Dying” between the hours of midnight and 4 a.m. while working as a watchman at a Mississippi power plant. Fair enough. But how on Earth did the compulsively creative James Franco find time in his outrageous schedule to write, direct and star in an adaptation of Faulkner’s classic and then promote it for a week in Cannes?
As an example of what the most peculiarly ambitious and wildly overbooked celebrity artist since God can do instead of sleeping, Franco’s “As I Lay Dying” — newly available for rent and purchase on demand — is an extraordinary achievement and not at all unworthy of its slot six months ago in the world’s splashiest film festival.
As a movie version of one of the key works of 20th-century American literature, on the other hand, it’s merely competent — which is maybe the best that one could reasonably expect from the cinematic distillation of a novel written expressly to forbid such a venture. (In his time, Faulkner hated Hollywood, even as he occasionally toyed with it; more on that in a minute.)
In other words, there’s a reason this celebrated book remained unfilmed for more than 80 years — or, rather, a bunch of reasons, including its 15 narrators and stream-of-consciousness style, give or take the author’s Southern gothic brand of comedy, so black it can scarcely be seen.
But Franco is nothing if not on an epic quest to prove himself, so his “As I Lay Dying” simply defies being defied, employing split-screen images to approximate the writer’s varying points of view, the characters periodically addressing the camera in ode to Faulkner’s use of subjectivity.
In the role of Darl Bundren, one of numerous siblings carting their mother’s body from Faulkner’s fictional Yoknapatawpha County to the town of Jefferson, Franco looks, well, tired, as would anyone under the circumstances (Darl’s or the filmmaker’s, take your pick).
Ultimately, the movie works best when one forgets what has come before it — which is somewhat ironic given Faulkner’s timeless observation that the past is never dead.
One imagines a classic-lit purist might feel grateful that at least Franco didn’t try to film an even trickier Faulkner novel. Alas, the Internet Movie Database reports that he’s shooting “The Sound and the Fury” as we speak.
Also notable on VOD
When Faulkner deigned to work in movies, the results were often uncredited and generally phenomenal. The most fruitful of his collaborations were with directors John Ford and, particularly, Howard Hawks, for whom he co-wrote the stellar Bogie and Bacall vehicles “To Have and Have Not” (1944) and “The Big Sleep” (1946), the latter earning this critic’s vote for zestiest Hollywood screenplay of all time.
Both films are available on Amazon and Vudu, as is “The Long, Hot Summer” (1958), fairly well adapted from Faulkner short stories and starring another scorching on- and off-screen couple, Joanne Woodward and Paul Newman.
Not yet filmed, for better or worse, are the author’s “Absalom, Absalom!” and “Light in August”; maybe Franco can shoot those next week.
Rob Nelson is a National Society of Film Critics member whose reviews appear regularly in the trade magazine Variety.