Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage and then is heard no more. It is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury signifying nothing.
Macbeth Act 5 Scene 5
Man is the sum of his misfortunes, opines Jason Compson 3 (Tim Blake Nelson) to his son Quentin (Jacob Loeb) at a relatively early stage of The Sound and the Fury (2014), James Franco’s adaptation of William Faulkner’s notoriously difficult to read novel of the same name. There is good reason for the jaundice. The once proud Compson family, of which the alcoholic Jason is the latest in a long line of patriarchs, have truly fallen from grace since their mid-19th century heyday.
To interrupt a moment, it bodes pointing out what a radical step it is to adapt / condense a novel to the screen. They are distinct mediums and much will inevitably be lost from the get-go in the mere fact of adaptation / compression. Of course that has not stopped, and may never stop, many film-makers from trying. During his prolific career, the German director Rainer Werner Fassbinder used literary works as sources for his films on multiple occasions, sometimes with stunning success. His final film Querelle (1982), from the Genet novel Querelle de Brest (1947), was widely regarded as a failure. And yet for all its flaws the film is true to the spirit of the French novel. The problems associated with rendering in the language of another medium will be compounded when the source is as renowned in literary annals (and, at first glance, unfilmable) as the Faulkner Southern classic.
Back to the 2014 production, throughout a delicate balance is struck between keeping faith with the literary progenitor and serving the unique needs of the audio-visual medium. James Franco and his screenwriter Matt Rayer have made a ‘literary’ adaptation of the novel. The period leading up to and covering the dissolution of the hapless family’s fortune is pithily narrated in voiceover. The dialogue is pictorial. The film’s title in full, as it appears in the opening credits, The Sound and the Fury: A Film in Three Chapters, serves as another pointer to the makers’ intent. Yet the translation to the screen is never too literary or too reliant upon devices commonly wielded by writers. The multi-talented Mr Franco is an assured helmsman, unlikely to fall into that trap.
The director himself plays Benjy, the focus of the film’s first chapter and another of Jason’s three sons. He is profoundly disabled and innocent, but tuned into what is happening in his midst. He adores his sister Caddy (Ahna O’Reilly) and is never quite able to forget the promise she made him when they were both little, ie, that the pair of them would always be together. He suffers on her behalf when she is banished from the wider family for giving birth to a child out of wedlock, a child she is forced to leave in the care of her brother Jason (Scott Haze) and the Compson’s diminishing retinue of black servants.
The pills Quentin must swallow are equally as bitter. They are glaringly depicted in the chapter bearing his name. With his mind already poisoned by his father’s despairing outlook on the lot of men, he must also deal with the added burden of expectation. His Harvard education has been bankrolled by the selling of a pasture that by rights would have gone to Benjy had the latter not been born an ‘idiot’.
In his way, he is as devoted to and / or smitten with Caddy as Benjy. But his attempt to stand up to the one who has left his sister with child results in a humiliating loss of face. The tragic spiral of his life, the sense that the gods have aligned against him whatever he does, is further underscored when his well-meaning efforts to come to the aid of a lost deaf girl are brutally misinterpreted by the girl’s ask no questions brother.
To the third chapter and the figure of Jason. The angry, embittered child sprouts into an angry, embittered man. Not even the unfortunate Benjy is spared his odium. He construes Benjy’s pursuit and ham-fisted embrace of a young girl walking by the Compson mansion guilelessly mistaken for, or associated with, the departed Caddy as a malicious attack that must be dealt with by castration.
Jason gleefully watches over the crude medical procedure and also masterminds the in-house ostracism of Caddy’s bastard daughter, also named, in a fateful echoing, Quentin (Joey King). But the young girl possesses a resilience wanting in her namesake and refuses to take lightly her bitter uncle’s controlling efforts. His particular brand of ill luck at times borders on the comedic. Mr Haze does a great turn flipping his wig in these scenes.
James Franco’s poignant direction is greatly enhanced by Timothy O’Keefe’s score, with its overtones of tribulation and mischance that only varies by degrees among the family members. Perhaps anticipating ambivalence on the part of Faulkner tragics convinced their ‘darling’ should forever and a day be left well enough alone, the film gained no more than a limited release that also incorporated video on demand. Nevertheless, their game, low-budget adaptation does go partway to doing justice to the tone of the novel – arguably the best that can be hoped for when talking chalk and cheese.