I finally watched the John Huston film of Wise Blood that's been sitting on my DVR for many months now. I recommend it. I can find some faults with it--one significant one, which I'll get to in a minute--but overall it's excellent. Huston obviously respected the book and intended to be faithful to it, and succeeded very well. I doubt we could hope for a better film adaptation.
Most of the characters are very well cast, especially the all-important Hazel Motes. I had read that Harry Dean Stanton was in it and assumed he would be Motes, as he certainly looks the part, but he's Reverend Hawks, and it was obvious on first sight of him that he was already in 1979 somewhat too old for Haze. Haze is played by an actor whose name I didn't recognize, Brad Dourif, but on reading a bit about him I realized I had seen him in one memorable role: Billy in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (a good movie which I never want to see again). Billy, if you recall, is a pretty messed up young mental patient; apparently Dourif has a gift for such roles. He doesn't really quite fit my physical image of Haze, but I can't hold that against him, and the important thing is that he manages to get Haze's intensity.
Some of the southern accents are a little shaky at times, but not so much as to interfere. The only major character that I felt was not well done was Enoch Emory, and it was perhaps a little miscast: Emery is not a nice person, and Dan Shor makes him seem more ordinary, harmless, and likeable than he really is.
One decision surprised me a little: instead of placing the story circa 1950, when the novel was written and seems to be set, Huston makes it contemporary--that is, in 1979. That could have been an economic decision, I guess. I thought at first that it might be a problem, but it really isn't. Possibly some of the devices that were appropriate in 1950 would not, in real life, have existed in quite the same way and with quite the same effects in the late '70s. I'm thinking of Gonga in particular, the supposed gorilla exhibited at movie theaters. One could assert plausibly that characters like Motes, Hawks, and several others would have been very different in 1979. But those concerns are pretty minor; I at any rate didn't find it difficult to accept them.
Now, about that one significant flaw: it's the very ill-advised music. Considering how well the director and the actors seemed to grasp the book at least in its psychology if not its theology, I don't know how it happened that a banjo-ridden sound track appropriate to one of those Burt Reynolds trucker movies got attached to this movie. "Tennessee Waltz" plays during the opening credits and off and on throughout, and it's not very appropriate. But the upbeat bluegrass stuff that bursts in from time to time is about as fitting as rap. The effect is really pretty jarring. No music at all would have been preferable. But it doesn't by any means ruin the film.
Not surprisingly, watching the film sent me straightaway to the book for comparison. It had probably been thirty years since I last read it, and although I retained powerful images of the big scenes, and a few details that happened to stick with me ("high rat-colored car," for instance), much of it had faded. Now I'm obliged to say that although the film is very good, it doesn't approach the power of the book. It's quite faithful to the narrative, on the whole, but is still much less than the book. It doesn't include everything in the narrative, but it keeps the essential story intact. What's missing is not so much people or incidents, but the narrative voice, which gives the book so much of its depth. No matter how well an actor does at creating on screen someone who looks and behaves like Haze Motes or Enoch Emery, he can't give us those explicit guides and glimpses into their inner lives which the narrator of the book does. He can't, for instance, by words and action alone communicate the weird and disturbing compulsion that drives Enoch Emory.
I put the book down feeling something close to awe. It is surely one of the strangest novels ever written. It's easy for people to get the impression that O'Connor is writing about people whom one might have encountered in real life anywhere in the South. And of course we have had our fanatical country preachers and so forth. But let me tell you: these folks would have been about as bizarre in the eyes of most Southerners of the time as they would be now. I'm really a little surprised that the novel was published, and that it was fairly well-received.
It may be that literary Catholics of our time have come to take O'Connor for granted. "Yeah, yeah, Flannery O'Connor, Walker Percy, we know all about them, what else do you have?" Or maybe that's just me. At any rate, that's a mistake. Wise Blood is as strange and brilliant and shocking as it ever was. What strikes me above all is the way it scorches to ashes the spiritual evasions and pretensions of post-Christian modernity. The scene where Haze Motes and his nemesis Hoover Shoates engage in dueling sermons based on opposing errors does the job all by itself: the Church of Christ Without Christ vs. the "new Jesus" who wants everybody to be happy. But of course post-Christian modernity doesn't get the message, doesn't feel scorched at all, and still wants to follow one or the other, sans the hick trappings.
I remain a little puzzled, as I was when I first read the book, by Enoch Emery. I see him as driven by something much more primitive and dark than the philosophical and theological problems that plague Haze Motes. He seems to represent a third current, something worse than Haze's nihilism but maybe implicit in it: a desire to get rid of the burden of being human altogether, a drive toward death and/or animality. Whatever that force is--we can certainly speculate--it is very much alive among us now, even among very sophisticated and scientifically knowledgeable people.
I also remain a little unsatisfied by one element of the story. I thought, on first and second readings many years ago, that Haze's abrupt repentance is too abrupt, that we don't get sufficient insight into it. He's doing all right in his terms, heading for a new place in his rat-colored car, with no reservations of which we're aware, and then suddenly, deprived of the car, he's completely transformed, though we don't know it until he takes the next step. We can attribute the revelation to the destruction of the car and the consequent sense of helplessness and of being thrown back on his own inadequate resources--which is to say his feet--but we don't get the picture of the workings of his mind that was built up previously by his actions and by the narrator's descriptions of him. I don't know if that's a common reservation about the book or not. Maybe that's just me, too.
Netflix has the film on DVD, by the way. Oh, and I almost forgot to mention: I had recorded it from Turner Classic Movies, before we gave up most of our cable subscription. It was introduced by Ben Mankiewicz as a film "set in the American South, detailing the complexity of one man's return home from war." I think Flannery O'Connor would have enjoyed that.
Speaking of Catholic writers who write strange things: the Catholic Herald had an interesting piece about Alice Thomas Ellis a couple of weeks ago. She's someone who's been on my Read More Of list for a long time, since I read a couple of her books maybe twenty years ago, but I've never gotten back to her. The two I read were a novel, Fairy Tale, which though it has nothing else in common with Wise Blood is at least as weird, and Serpent on the Rock, a collection of essays. There's also a good essay about Ellis by Sally Thomas, published in First Things back in 2008.
And speaking of Sally Thomas, she has a very fine short story called "Not Less Than Everything" (T.S. Eliot, if you think the phrase sounds familiar but can't place it), in the Pentecost issue of Dappled Things. It's one of two stories in that issue which deal with--sorry to use the stock phrase--unplanned pregnancies. But don't let that give you the impression that they are in the least didactic. They aren't. They simply explore the situations, one from a male and one from a female point of view, and neither one simple or conventional. The second is by Abigail Rine Favale and is called "Obedience Lessons." To read them you'll need to buy the magazine, which you can do here. I subscribed a while back and though I don't like everything in the three issues I've received so far, I intend to renew my subscription.
A week or so ago I had occasion to look at a 1958 issue of Life magazine and was more fascinated by the advertisements than by the stories. My first car was a 1959 Chevrolet, similar to the one here but much duller: plain white, no chrome trim, blackwall tires, and I don't remember the rear of the roof having that snazzy overhang. I think of it as mine but it really wasn't. It was a joint investment on the part of my father and his brother for the purpose of their five high-school-age children getting from our home in the country to Athens High, fifteen or so miles away. But I often had the use of it on weekends. I don't think my father and uncle got such a good deal on it. I remember a few times when it barely chugged to the top of a not-very-steep hill. And it apparently had been shipped to Alabama from some dealer up north where they put salt on the roads in winter, because the floorboard in the back seat rusted through. I remember driving around town on Friday or Saturday night once and somebody putting a stick through the hole and dragging it along the pavement. It made a lot of noise, which we enjoyed.