William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying is one of the most acclaimed novels of all time and is lauded for its complex stylistic structure. So of course, it’s ideal material for James Franco to adapt for the big screen. The result is a beautifully shot and mostly faithful adaptation that captures the originality and dark humour of the original text. I wouldn’t necessarily recommend this to everyone – I reckon
you’ve got to be at least a little hard-core in your love of film or literature (or James Franco) to engage in this. If that sounds like you then definitely try and catch this at LFF this year – it’s a talking point if nothing else.
The screenplay (penned by Franco and fellow-Yale student Matt Rager) is as faithful to the original text as a film adaptation could possibly be. Following the shockingly arduous journey of the Bundren family to bury their mother’s body, As I Lay Dying is both innovative and classical. The film begins with a series of split-screens, showing us multiple angles of a character’s reaction, or two events happening at once. The split-screens and a few direct-to-camera monologues from key characters are really the only non-Hollywood standard narrative elements in As I Lay Dying – a bit of a departure from Franco’s usual experimental art pieces.
Franco being Franco of course, he doesn’t just write this film. He doesn’t even just write and direct this film. His role as Darl is arguably the key role in the film, and Franco pulls it off with sometimes alarming emotion. A film this driven by narrative has to have a talented cast to keep the non-Faulkner-lovers (there must be some…) interested. A key cast bolstered by stand-out performances from Logan Marshall-Green (Prometheus), Tim Blake Nelson (O Brother, Where Art
Thou?) and Ahna O’Reilly (The Help) carries this movie and produces moments of humour as well as some truly harrowing scenes.
Faulkner’s novel is voiced by 15 different narrators and is pretty tough going; the film’s split-screens are presumably an attempt to convey different narrators. It is a very literal filmic interpretation of ‘multiple narrators’, and a few reels into the film – just as my eyes and brain were getting used to watching two things at once – the split screens were gone.
This is a film that critics of James Franco’s interest in the arts will want to ignore; it is surely an announcement that his foray into academia and experimental art wasn’t just a whim, and has actually paved the way for Franco to mature into a talented and serious filmmaker. I think you have to be a devotee of literature/experimental film/James Franco to truly get this film, though if you fit into any of the above categories I would recommend you seek it out. *Spoiler alert* – do watch out for the amputation scene though. Come on, you didn’t really think you’d get through a Franco film without at least a moment of squirmy-uncomfortableness, did you?