Over My Dead Body
by Ryder W. Miller
I had hoped to see William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying at the movies before the end of 2013, but was disappointed that it did not show up in the city I live in. I was not disappointed by the book though which one can understand with a bit of preparing if it does not come naturally to one. It also rewards the re-reading. Some would say The Realists (also including Ernest M. Hemingway, John Steinbeck, and F. Scott Fitzgerald) is a literary group or a separate “genre.” They have earned their accolades and have had such an impact that they have been a very difficult act to follow. From them As I Lay Dying is monumental.
It is hard to imagine that writers, with their being so much multimedia competition, will attain their stature ever again. We now have so many awards to recognize writers, but there are also so many restrictions, especially since there are so many writers who have gone to school. One would say that it is easier to be recognized if one fills a “niche.”
The Realists had a lot of range and many ended up working in part for the movies. A movie can tell the same tale as a book, but the makers also want to add to the content of the book sometimes. The movie is not a substitute for a book in all situations. One might want others who do not have the time to read a book to see a movie of the same so they can send a message or have something in common to talk with them about. The movie usually tells the same general story and maybe sometimes better on the big screen. It is usually a simplification.
Usually the viewer does not need to see a movie more than once to understand it though. All the art that goes into a book, ie. the descriptions, does not interfere in the story telling in a movie.
William Faulkner is an interesting challenge for the movies. He is famous for Stream of Consciousness and Symbolism which means one can explore how his characters are dealing with stuff, the stuff being not just theirs. One finds here the battle with the big stuff, even if it is a metaphor described.
By “path” here in the second paragraph of the book, Faulkner and the reader can mean certain things:
“The path runs straight as a plumb-line, worn smooth by feet and baked brick-hard by July, between the green rows of laidby cotton, to the cottonhouse in the center of the field, where it turns and circles the cottonhouse at four soft right angles and goes on across the field again, worn so by feet in fading precision.”
In As I Lay Dying, the story about a family bringing their mother to Jefferson to be buried, we have their encounter with the over flowed river. In mythology the dead needed to pay The Ferry Man. Here the family struggles with the elements and each other.
Quite an assortment of a family here with an illegitimate son, one that is sort of deranged, a few others, and family friends.
This would make for a great movie with plenty of passages for voiced narrative, wondrous woods to see the family through, a plot trajectory with a beginning and end, opportunities for flashbacks, humor, confrontations, and a powerfully emotional story.
Faulkner to read is a challenge and one might not be always up to his stream of consciousness techniques. One might not always want to explore his metaphors and symbolism.
He can though bring the gifts of a poet and a humanist to his tales. He also was cognizant of the movie world.
E.L. Doctorow writes in a 2012 Foreword to As I Lay Dying:
“Of course, Faulkner was not alone in his disdain for exposition. Though he didn’t begin to write screenplays for Hollywood until some years after novel was written, film had been around all his life, and it is film that taught him and others early twentieth-century writers that they no longer needed to explain anything-that it was preferable to incorporate all necessary information in the action, to carry it along in the current of the narrative, as is done in movies. This way of working supposes a compact between writer and reader-that everything will become clear eventually.”
As a movie the story is likely to be somber and sobering. It would also have been fun to hear those voices and accents. Older now we might not have found those accents funny, but in a movie it might have been clearer where the humor was intended. The book being a tale of a jaunt through this land and sometimes the emotional territory. This is a tale of an unusual mother and her family and their renewal.
On the big screen it is an encounter with them, their personal struggles, and the meaning they find there.
Ryder W. Miller is an environmental reporter, independent scholar, critic, and eco-critic who writes about Nature, Astronomy, the Sea, Academic books, Art, American Literature, and Genre Literature. He also writes short stories (usually genre stories) and poems. He is the editor of From Narnia to a Space Odyssey and co-writer of San Francisco: A Natural History. He is currently looking for a publisher for a book of Nature Writing/News Columns called An Ocean Beach Diary (published in The West Portal Monthly and Redwood Coast Review), and a collection of genre stories (many already published in Mythic Circle and The Lost Souls website). He has published on the web what could be a book collection of essays about science fiction and fantasy. He is also working on a anthology of Environmental stories called Green Visions. Following the dictum of C.S. Lewis he has come to believe that it is easier to criticize than understand, but not every book is worthwhile or a contribution.