James Franco's As I Lay Dying Adaptation Feels Like a Lit-Class Project 

Thursday, Oct 17 2013

Nobody ever accused James Franco of a lack of ambition, and adapting a book as unfilmable as William Faulkner's masterpiece, As I Lay Dying, is a decidedly ambitious gesture. Faulkner wrote the novel like a man on fire, working days at a power plant and writing late into the night over four months. Franco directed his adaptation like a man on Adderall, writing the screenplay and playing Darl Bundren, and meanwhile studying for his Ph.D. in English, building a boat and, like, translating Ulysses into Mandarin or whatever.

Addie (the great Beth Grant, whose commitment to Sparkle Motion cannot be questioned), matriarch of the Bundren family, expresses her deathbed wish to be buried in the nearby town of Jefferson. This final request leads to a series of catastrophes: injury, destitution, betrayal, internal monologues.

Franco, a fine actor himself, assembles an excellent cast including Danny McBride as Tull, the Bundrens' neighbor; Tim Blake Nelson as Anse, the family patriarch; and Ahna O'Reilly as Dewey Dell Bundren.

Related Stories

The soundtrack is all creepy, shuddering violins in minor keys and David Lynchian tonal subharmonics. Franco's visual approach includes handheld cameras and the artless use of split screens, often with two asynchronous shots of the same actor. This detaches the characters from any sense of narrative time, and the effect is particularly alienating when used in lieu of over-the-shoulder shots during conversations — especially given Franco's fondness for pairing the actors' vocal tracks with still shots of their nonspeaking faces.

Isolated from one another in their own separate rectangles, they're also cut off from connecting with the audience. There's a lot of self-indulgent experimentation, but when it works, the film produces an undeniable sense of anxiety, as if being seen from the viewpoint of someone with major depressive disorder. To be fair, that describes a lot of Faulkner characters.

Where the split-screen works is in quick, fragmentary moments, such as during the family's disastrous attempt to cross a flooded river with their horses, wagon and Addie's coffin. It's the first of the calamities precipitated by the family's bullheaded determination to see Addie's request through, in among their various other agendas, overt and hidden.

The book is told from 15 different viewpoints, as Faulkner experiments with interior monologues and stream-of-consciousness techniques. Naturalistic translation from page to film isn't really possible, and Franco doesn't try, having the characters instead recite their interior monologues directly into the camera. We get Addie's monologue, as in the book, from both inside her coffin and from her deathbed.

The novel resists easy understanding, yielding only to close examination over an extended period, rewarding the reader who slows down, backs up, rereads passages — a particular engagement with the text that's impossible in a theater. As a result, the book's complexities fly by, often incomprehensibly, onscreen.

One feature that translates almost perfectly: a determined lack of fun. Modernist fiction writers, as critic Laura Frost observes, were sharply averse to the sensual or aesthetic, redefining pleasure as strictly cerebral, or as the satisfaction derived from hard work. Franco adapted a book that often reads like joyless homework into a film that feels the same way.

AS I LAY DYING | Written and directed by James Franco | Millennium Entertainment | Sundance Sunset and video-on-demand

Reach the writer at chrispackham@me.com

Related Content

As I Lay Dying
Rated R · 109 minutes · 2013
Official Site: www.facebook.com/AsILayDyingMovie
Director: James Franco
Writer: James Franco and Matt Rager
Cast: James Franco, Tim Blake Nelson, Danny McBride, Logan Marshall-Green, Ahna O'Reilly, Jim Parrack, Beth Grant, Jesse Heiman and Scott Haze


Now Playing

Sorry there are no upcoming showtimes for As I Lay Dying

Now Showing

  1. Tue 22
  2. Wed 23
  3. Thu 24
  4. Fri 25
  5. Sat 26
  6. Sun 27
  7. Mon 28

    Find capsule reviews, showtimes & tickets for all films in town.

    Sponsored by Fandor

Box Office

Scores provided by Rotten Tomatoes

Join My Voice Nation for free stuff, concert and dining info & more!


  • Cowabunga! 30 Years of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles
    The COWABUNGA! - 30 Years of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles tribute show opened Friday night at Iam8bit. Guests donned their beloved turtle graphic tees, onesies and a couple April O'Neils were there to report on all the mean, green, fighting machine action. Artist included Jude Buffum, Tony Mora, Nan Lawson, leesasaur, Jim Rucc, Mitch Ansara, Guin Thompson, Stratman, Gabe Swarr, Joseph Harmon, Alex Solis, Allison Hoffman, Jose Emroca Flores, Jack Teagle and more. All photos by Shannon Cottrell.
  • Are Westerns For The Weak? Not According to "Sensei" Martin Kove
    Decades ago, the western film was king, with nearly 100 produced every year at their peak in the 1940s, and their popularity extending years beyond. But today, other than rare successes like Django Unchained or True Grit, the genre is not in great shape. Films such as Cowboys and Aliens and The Lone Ranger failed to spark new interests in the western. It's a tough nut to crack, but veteran movie bad guy Martin Kove -- most well known for his role as Sensei John Kreese in The Karate Kid -- is passionate about the classic American film genre and is trying to revive it. We spent an afternoon at his home talking about westerns and how to make the genre interesting again. All photos by Jared Cowan.
  • Scenes from The Gallery of Film Poster Art at CSUN
    The Gallery of Film Poster Art at Cal State Northridge is the country's only permanent university exhibit dedicated to the art of the movie poster. The gallery houses rare and international film posters from the collection of Steve Olson, whose business card reads "Buyer of Investment Properties -- Collector of Rare Movie & Art Posters." John Schultheiss, Professor of Cinema and Television Arts at CSUN as well as the curator of the poster gallery, says he's heard from visitors that it's the best-kept secret in L.A. CSUN doesn't advertise the gallery so people have to stumble across it or hear of it somehow. Schultheiss hopes that people will begin to associate CSUN with something particularly important and special after visiting the gallery. All original photos by Jared Cowan.

Movie Trailers

View all movie trailers >>

Now Trending