A Good Eye Is Hard to Find
The literature-to-film pipeline has always been a lucrative field for Hollywood, now and in the past, but how a film is adapted has always been an engaging topic for me. I’m about to make an argument about the Wise Blood film adaptation (1979) that will be rather spoiler-heavy, but first, I need to lay down my related points so we have something to stand on later. Here we go.
- THE LITERAL AND THE INTERPRETIVE
My main conceit here is that when transferring the plot (or themes or IP or whatever) of a novel the filmmaker has several choices before them- how strictly to follow the chronology of the work, whether additional dialogue or voiceovers are necessary, how liberal or conservative they will be with character voices and development, et cetera. I think we can place these decisions on a kind of scale with two poles: the LITERAL and the INTERPRETIVE.
So if we were to start categorizing films based on this dichotomy, we would stick ones that included all or most of the event of the novel and matched setting, visual description, and development very closely would go somewhere near the LITERAL pole and ones that played “fast & loose” with the source material closer to the INTERPRETIVE pole.
Now let’s actually do that. Remember that where films fall on this compass has no impact on overall quality- not good or bad, how it was made.
Done. Some patterns we can notice-
Literal adaptations work really well for pulp (forgot Jurassic Park) or teen fiction, or when the author or author’s estate has a lot of direct control over the source material; this explains how the LOTR series were at once so faithful and successful at the box-office. I think this is also more effective when the source material is heavier on plot and action than symbolism but don’t consider that a hard rule either.
Filmmakers often have to resort to a more interpretive adaptation when a) the source material is risqué or unpopular with general audiences b) the plot is too complex, long, or doesn’t adapt well to the screen or c) you are Stanley Kubrick and you do whatever you want.
I know I’m missing a few one here, like Silence of the Lambs or Gone With The Wind, and I’m not even getting into either Great Gatsby, but one more graph and I promise we’re done.
2. TONE & MODES OF COMMUNICATION
I’ll only use one comparison between the text of Wise Blood and the film, and I think it’s best if you do it in the order I did- here’s an excerpt from the novel, not too lengthy, I hope, and then a link to the corresponding scene in the film at the end.
At the filling station a sleepy-looking white boy came out to wait on him and he said he wanted the tank filled up, the oil and water checked, and the tires tested for air, that he was going on a long trip. The boy asked him where he was going and he told him to another city. The boy asked him if he was going that far in this car here and he said yes he was. He tapped the boy on the front of his shirt. He said nobody with a good car needed to worry about anything, and he asked the boy if he understood that. The boy said yes he did, that that was his opinion too. Haze introduced himself and said that he was a preacher for the Church Without Christ and that he preached every night on the nose of this very car here. He explained that he was going to another city to preach. The boy filled up the gas tank and checked the water and oil and tested the tires, and while he was working, Haze followed him around, telling him what it was right to believe. He said it was not right to believe anything you couldn’t see or hold in your hands or test with your teeth. He said he had only a few days ago believed in blasphemy as the way to salvation, but that you couldn’t even believe in that because then you were believing in something to blaspheme. As for the Jesus who was reported to have been born at Bethlehem and crucified on Calvary for man’s sins, Haze said, He was too foul a notion for a sane person to carry in his head, and he picked up the boy’s water bucket and bammed it on the concrete pavement to emphasize what he was saying. He began to curse and blaspheme Jesus in a quiet intense way but with such conviction that the boy paused from his work to listen. When he had finished checking the Essex, he said that there was a leak in the gas tank and two in the radiator and that the rear tire would probably last twenty miles if he went slow.
“Listen,” Haze said, “this car is just beginning its life. A lightening bolt couldn’t stop it!”
“It ain’t any use to put water in it,” the boy said, “because it won’t hold it.”
“You put it in just the same,” Haze said, and he stood there and watched while the boy put it in. Then he got a road map from him and drove off, leaving little beadchains of water and oil and gas on the road.
He drove very fast out onto the highway, but once he had gone a few miles, he had the sense that he was not gaining ground. Shacks and filling stations and road camps and 666 signs passed him, and deserted barns with CCC snuff ads peeling across them, even a sign that said, “Jesus Died for YOU,” which he saw and deliberately did not read. He had the sense that the road was really slipping back under him. He had known all along that there was no more country but he didn’t know that there was not another city.
He had not gone five miles on the highway before he heard a siren behind him. He looked around and saw a black patrol car coming up. It drove alongside him and the patrolman in it motioned for him to pull over to the edge of the road. The patrolman had a red pleasant face and eyes the color of clear fresh ice.
“I wasn’t speeding,” Haze said.
“No,” the patrolman agreed, “you wasn’t.”
“I was on the right side of the road.”
“Yes you was, that’s right,” the cop said.
“What you want with me?”
“I just don’t like your face,” the patrolman said. “Where’s your license?”
“I don’t like your face either,” Haze said, “and I don’t have a license.”
“Well,” the patrolman said in a kindly voice, “I don’t reckon you need one.”
“Well I ain’t got one if I do,” Haze said.
“Listen,” the patrolman said, taking another tone, “would you mind driving your car up to the top of the next hill? I want you to see the view from up there, puttiest view you ever did see.”
Haze shrugged but he started the car up. He didn’t mind fighting the patrolman if that was what he wanted. He drove to the top of the hill, with the patrol car following close behind him. “Now you turn it facing the embankment,” the patrolman called. “You’ll be able to see better thataway.” Haze turned it facing the embankment. “Now maybe you better had get out,” the cop said. “I think you could see better if you was out.”
Haze got out and glanced at the view. The embankment dropped down for about thirty feet, sheer washed-out red clay, into a partly burnt pasture where there was one scrub cow lying near a puddle. Over in the middle distance there was a one-room shack with a buzzard standing hunch-shouldered on the roof.
The patrolman got behind the Essex and pushed it over the embankment and the cow stumbled up and galloped across the field and into the woods; the buzzard flapped off to a tree at the edge of the clearing. The car landed on its top, with the three wheels that stayed on, spinning. The motor bounced out and rolled some distance away and various odd pieces scattered this way and that.
“Them that don’t have a car, don’t need a license,” the patrolman said, dusting his hands on his pants.
Haze stood for a few minutes, looking over at the scene. His face seemed to reflect the entire distance across the clearing and on beyond, the entire distance that extended from his eyes to the blank gray sky that went on, depth after depth, into space. His knees bent under him and he sat down on the edge of the embankment with his feet hanging over.
The patrolman stood staring at him. “Could I give you a lift to where you was going?” he asked.
After a minute he came a little closer and said, “Where was you going?”
He leaned on down with his hands on his knees and said in an anxious voice, “Was you going anywheres?”
“No,” Haze said.
The patrolman squatted down and put his hand on Haze’s shoulder. “You hadn’t planned to go anywheres?” he asked anxiously.
Haze shook his head. His face didn’t change and he didn’t turn it toward the patrolman. It seemed to be concentrated on space.
The patrolman got up and went back to his car and stood at the door of it, staring at the back of Haze’s hat and shoulder. Then he said, “Well, I’ll be seeing you,” and got in and drove off.
And this is the scene in the film that is described in the text above.
Ignoring the little details, what is different between these two scenes?
The text is a reflection of the capriciousness of the landscape around Haze, the forces that he and his anti-religion still have no control over or ability to cope with such a sudden loss- his “home”, what Haze calls his vehicle in a rare moment of straightforward speech earlier in the novel, wantonly destroyed by powers he is trying to escape.
The film takes this same scene and renders it as… a light slapstick segment.
Unfortunately, this is the theme for much of the movie. Harry Dean Staunton is a pleasant surprise as Asa Hawks, and it would be criminal not to give huge credit to the talented Brad Dourif, who really manages to capture the body language and mannerisms we associate with Hazel Motes. Beyond that? Sabbath’s and Enoch’s performances feel trite, the doggedness of the conflict between Haze and Hoover Shoats & the false Prophet is downplayed for reasons I can’t fathom, and the movie simply peters out instead of trying to reconcile the point-of-view change to Mrs. Flood the landlady.
I argue that the movie is constructed this way because the adaptation is too literal. That is, everything that happens in the novel happens in the film, all the same events, mostly in the correct order, with most of the details, but in an effort to perfectly translate the events and characters of the novel, all the tonality and rich meaning in O’Connor’s text has been lost. There is no attempt to create original film symbolism- essentially, art- to replace what is lost from the text.
Even in ’79, the film suffers from Something-Must-Be-Happening-All-The-Time Syndrome. We are never allowed to see characters have casual dialog, interact very meaningfully with the world around them, or do something that does not specifically move the plot forward. There is no atmosphere or feeling of something greater than multi-angle dialogue shots. The movie is one hour and forty minutes long. We are never revolted by the transformation of Onnie Jay Holy into Hoover Oats. All the mystic apologetic elements, all the hot, (un)wise blood of Enoch’s quest for meaning, all the sights unseen, the visions gone, replaced with a bluegrass / synthesizer soundtrack.
3. PERSONAL DISCLOSURE AND CONCLUSION
I finished both Wise Blood the book and the film less than twenty-four hours ago in that order, after reading the novel and finding myself conjuring up these beautiful, moving, grotesque scenes O’Connor describes in a sort of silent visual accompaniment to what I was reading. Then I discovered there was a film adaptation, and then this screed was generated, so there’s your short timeline.
“How would you do it differently” is probably the main criticism of this piece and it’s not a bad one. There are obvious elements to throw out, like the soundtrack, but beyond that you are presented with a sheer cliff wall of O’Connor’s correspondences and interviews about the text and the responsibility of carrying this load up the vertical slope and onto the screen.
I also feel that the ultimate goal of a excellent remake of Wise Blood is preeminently unachievable, which may explain why I am so attracted to it. There are so many things you would have to explain away onscreen or communicate purely via pantomime or setting or blocking, and I can’t even imagine trying to get this idea past my blood / brain barrier and into someone’s pocketbook. The text is also what modernity might now deem problematic, with some, ah, underage relations, the n-word exactly fifteen too many times, and a whole host of other problems that I think would turn the Real World off on the project. Probably for the best.
I hope some of this narrative has encouraged you to read the original text, but I warn you now, I found reading Wise Blood akin to holding a mirror up to your Christian soul- but not a true mirror, a funhouse mirror, with all your mixed-up Protestant beliefs thrown into sharp relief, with your notions of heaven and hell and faith twisted and stretched into un-recognition, with a shadow of another man behind you that may be Jesus and maybe be jesus and may very well be a con artist but is probably just yourself, again, reflected in a different way, a different way to lie to yourself, with a little lye in your eyes.