Two Approaches to Filming the Un-Filmable

Warning: spoilers for The Sound and the Fury

It is a rarity for a movie adaptation to be more acclaimed or cherished than the novel from which it was made, but that hasn’t stopped people from making and enjoying (or hating) these movies. Part of the trouble is that, since film is a different medium than a novel, a certain level of translation is required, which opens up the door to multiple modes of interpretation of a work. When a friend of mine bought me an English translation of Les Miserables, she researched various versions and decided to buy the one that was less faithful to the direct translation of the original French and more invested in conveying the poetic and metaphoric intent of Victor Hugo, as perceived by the interpreter. Similarly, with the two movie adaptations of William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury, we receive a movie intent on distilling and displaying the plot points and the message that the director believed should be learned from it (Martin Ritt’s adaptation) and an experimental, film student style piece that above all else tries to replicate the emotion that is felt while reading the novel (James Franco’s adaptation). It is impossible to translate The Sound and the Fury perfectly into movie format, but both attempts that have been made have captured parts of what make the book so compelling.

Martin Ritt’s 1959 adaptation of the novel is, aesthetically and structurally, very much a 50s movie. It abandoned Faulkner’s shifting narrative style and instead employed the more traditional chronological strategy, relying on the consolidation of character’s roles and synoptic or quote-worthy monologues to establish the same themes. In fact, the only actual narration that is included in the movie is a short voice-over near the beginning of the film and at the end; When we first see miss Quentin, she tells the audience all that they need to know about her current standing in the world. We know that she is dealing with some type of conflict because she says “it oughta be wonderful to be alive on a day like this. It oughta be.” Without providing time for speculation, she explains that she’s never felt loved in her own house, and that her step-uncle Jason has been her enemy “as long as I can remember”. This is bookended by narration at the very end where she muses over her evolving relationship with her step-uncle and smiles. This limited usage implies that narration for this film is simply to introduce the main characters (miss Quentin and Jason in this version) and to serve as a marker for the progression of the film: At the beginning, miss Quentin and Jason were mortal enemies, but by the end, Quentin realizes that she has learned a valuable lesson from him (not to trust random carnival men, apparently, because all they’re after is your money) and, perhaps, he’s learning from her as well. It’s a nice sentiment in that two people who originally hated each other are discovering that they aren’t so evil after all, but this destroys the tension that the book builds and refuses to resolve. Faulkner’s writing style becomes the most erratic and stream-of-consciousness when the narrator is at his most vulnerable and emotionally tumultuous, so Ritt’s decision to change the narrative style breaks down this chaos and turns the story instead into a digestible narrative that places all of its emotional punch into specific scenes instead of one fluid journey.

When Ritt’s film hits these moments, it hits them hard. Unlike many of the other scenes, the moment where Caddy almost gets her wish of seeing her daughter only to have Jason take it away remains true to the book. Jason has Quentin in his car and pulls over to where Caddy stands at the side of the road, only to speed up again and leave his (step)-sister behind. The movie adds a moment where Quentin frantically asks Jason who the lady was, and when he doesn’t answer she exclaims, “my God! Jason, that’s my mother!”. Despite pleading with him, Jason continues driving, and Quentin doesn’t get to meet her mother that night. The movie relies on the buffering of these heavy moments with more mundane and plot-filled scenes so that the moments are more impactful; watching Jason drive away with Quentin while Caddy watches helplessly evokes a stronger emotional response than reading it in the novel because the narrative style in the novel is constantly creating tension and manipulating the reader’s emotions in a way that leaves them exhausted by the end, whereas the movie gives the viewer time to relax between moments so that they can experience their full range of emotions each time there is a scene like this. Both techniques work, but they create two different stories. The movie has to cut the tension it has built somehow, and so the next scene shows Jason and Caddy coming to an agreement where Caddy can return to the house for a short period of time and see her daughter. The book, on the other hand, does not allow Caddy to return to see Quentin, and so this narrative thread like so many others is left hanging. Nowhere in Faulkner’s story does he promise an ending or an answer. Each section builds tension and refuses to resolve it. It takes a risk by pulling the reader to the edge of their tolerance and their subconscious; the movie plays it safe and lets the viewer down easy.

The part of the book that is the most emotionally-driven and unforgiving in its relentlessness isn’t even in the movie. When miss Quentin is first speaking with the carnival man, who in this version is named Charlie, she briefly mentions the man she was named after, explains that he “killed himself for love”, and then never speaks of him again. None of the other characters even reference the elder Quentin. Instead of getting his own space to explore what it means to grow up and to let go, Quentin gets shoehorned in as a quick tragic backstory for miss Quentin and as a part of the motif of making poor decisions for love. In the context of the movie, where miss Quentin is giving this information to Charlie, it seems as if Quentin’s death had something to do with romantic love, instead of the familial love in the book and his inability to disengage himself from the past, a much more complex and interesting motivation. In keeping with traditional storytelling, the film seems to want to keep the focus on one protagonist (miss Quentin) and one antagonist (Jason, though his role changes throughout the film), and so the 1910 Quentin section of the book had to be cut for the movie. This section of the book is my favorite because of Faulkner’s ability to enter his character’s subconscious so completely that reading this passage is like injecting Quentin’s raw emotion straight into my own subconscious. Even though it can be difficult to follow at times, and even though this section doesn’t give the reader as much information as Benjy’s section or as much plot development as Jason’s, Quentin’s story conveys the heart of the novel and the meaning towards which Faulkner is striving.

Since Ritt’s movie cuts all of this out, he has to make his characters tell us what this meaning is instead of showing us. This is most evident through Caddy’s relationship with Jason and with miss Quentin. In the novel, Caddy is a lingering presence because she is missing from the main character’s lives, and because their relationships with her are cut short. In the movie, Caddy’s presence is felt because she is physically there, and is able to directly affect the plot. One of Ritt’s uses for the character of Caddy is to advance miss Quentin’s growth. Through their initial conversation, Quentin transitions from anxious girl meeting her mother for the first time to loving daughter happy to finally have her mother in her life to a girl disappointed in the flawed woman whom she had placed on a pedestal. This all takes place during one scene, and is conveyed through their dialogue. After Caddy refuses to save Quentin from Jason, whom she considers “the devil”, Quentin tells her, “all these years I never hated you. I just held on and held on, waiting for the day when you were gonna come back and you were gonna make it all up to me”. Quentin wishes that, above all else, her mother would stand up for her and fix her situation with Jason. Caddy tries to be motherly and explains that she has already make her choices (albeit poor ones) and it is too late for her—“my chances are all used up, there ain’t gonna be any more”—, but Quentin can still make the right choices in her life.

This sentiment is echoed in the closing remarks of the movie, where Jason recognizes for the first time that miss Quentin is now a woman, and tells her “you’re the first Compson in fifty years who has gotten up off her knees, and now you can stand up to anybody. Even me”. Quentin acknowledges that Jason was the one who raised her, and while she still harbors some feelings of rivalry towards him, it’s in a playful and mischievous way, as displayed by her smirk as he turns away from her at the end of the film. Essentially, the movie claims that because Quentin was able to escape getting stuck with the money-grubbing Charlie (thanks to Jason uncovering this truth about the man), she has become the woman that her mother was never able to, and this somewhat reconciles the relationship between Quentin and her step-uncle Jason. If a person ignores the canon of the novel, this is a quaint and hopeful ending to a somewhat melodramatic movie about one woman’s mistakes and her daughter’s subsequent struggle in life. Not only does this ignore main points of the book, but it also negates much of what is learned about the Compson family and what they strive towards. Instead of an ending that neatly wraps up the story and leaves the protagonist in a better place to continue her path through life, the novel ends on the image of Benjy with a broken flower becoming calm again because everything returns to the way it was, with “window and doorway and signboard each in its ordered place” (Faulkner 321). Jason doesn’t save Quentin from making the same mistakes her mother did; he fails to keep her trapped in the family, and while she runs off to begin a new adventure the rest of the Compsons return to their broken way of life, an existence that traps them in its refusal to adapt to the changing times.

This sentiment is much better portrayed in Franco’s adaptation of the book. Like the rest of the movie, the ending stays faithful to the book with only minor changes, the last shot being that of the broken flower in Benjy’s hand. Many of the scenes that were cut or changed in the Ritt version are present in Franco’s. While Quentin’s entire existence is condensed into one piece of throw-away dialogue in the older film, Franco includes the majority of Quentin’s section from the novel. This means that the elder Jason is also present in this movie, while he is barely mentioned in Ritt’s. While the addition of these two characters would be superfluous in Ritt’s rather straight-forward narrative of a girl growing into a woman in spite of Jason’s protestations, the emotional drive of Quentin’s narrative is integral to any adaptation seeking to stay true to the novel.

Franco’s film is sectioned into three sections, labeled “Benjy”, “Quentin”, and “Jason”, after the three characters from whom we get narratives in the novel. Benjy’s section ends with him remembering when he shared a bed with Caddy and staring at the space where she used to be, his “she smelled like the trees” line whispered in the background. There is soft music that is carried over as a title card appears, announcing the start of Quentin’s storyline, and then the camera pans up to find Quentin lying in his bed staring into the middle distance. Immediately this association makes the viewer aware that Quentin also has strong feelings about his sister. This, in turn, is followed by a flash of Quentin committing suicide via jumping off of a bridge, and then the ticking of a clock, then back to Quentin lying in the bed. No words have been spoken, yet the viewer feels the effect that time has on Quentin. This is important to establish because, like in the novel, the first section of the movie treats time like a fixed line on which one can move back and forth, switching between past and present with little to no warning. In fact, there is no sense of a future, no sense of where this is going, only a sense of where the characters have been and where the characters are no longer. Caddy was there, now she isn’t, but Benjy still remembers her and plays through his memories of her all the way back to when they were children, with little distinction between what is a memory and what is occurring in the present. So, when we reach Quentin’s section and see this opening sequence, with him lying in bed, the jump off the bridge that ends his narrative, the ticking of the clock, and then back to him lying in bed, we get a sense of the inevitable, of a future that is painful and final and which draws nearer with every ticking of the clock, with no hope of evading it. On the one hand, Quentin is contemplating his own death and how he feels that it is the only logical progression for him. On the other, he is thinking about Caddy and how he was unable to prevent her from growing up and losing her innocence. Those unfamiliar with the book don’t know this explicitly yet, but the juxtaposition of Benjy’s memories with this seemingly unrelated shot of Quentin conveys this Caddy connection, which is reinforced when we see flashbacks of Quentin agonizing over Caddy’s relationship with Dalton Ames and her subsequent marriage to Herbert. Ironically, the watch from which we hear the ticking is given to Quentin by his father, who tells him “I give it to you not that you may remember time, but that you might forget it now and then and not waste all your breath trying to conquer it.” This quote, like many others in the movie, is taken almost verbatim from the book, and we see a pained and tired expression on Quentin’s face as we hear his father tell him that “victory is just an illusion of philosophers and fools. Christ was not crucified. He was worn down by the minute ticking of little wheels.” Despite his father’s warning, we see that this is exactly what Quentin has fallen prey to. Franco ends this section masterfully with more direct quotes from the book, the elder Jason telling Quentin that “It’s not even time until ‘is’ is ‘was’”, Quentin repeating “Caddy Caddy Caddy” to himself (a sign of his inability to let go), and finally Quentin stepping onto the ledge of the bridge. We don’t see him jump, but we know from the beginning of the section that it doesn’t matter that we don’t see it here, as his suicide is as inevitable as everything else that we see from Quentin’s point of view.

When comparing and contrasting both film adaptations, it is most useful to consider the third and final section of Franco’s movie as this is the story and these are the characters that make up the vast majority of Ritt’s narrative. Especially telling are the scenes that are almost identical in terms of dialogue or plot point but vastly different in tone. In both movies, Jason (the younger), miss Quentin, and Mrs. Compson sit down to eat together. Jason asks Quentin if she would like more food. In the Ritt version, he asks her in an overbearing but fatherly tone, and when she declines he also asks his mother if she would like some more rice. He is antagonistic, but not cruel. In Franco’s version and in the novel, Jason insists on giving her more food even though she tells him she doesn’t want any, and by his tone and mannerisms in the movie it is clear that Jason is feigning a sense of caring as a prelude to his later passive-aggressive jab at Quentin for her earlier antics and to rile her up so that she explodes at the table in front of the others present. All versions of the scene have Quentin leave after exclaiming a version of “I wish I was dead” (Faulkner 260). In the Ritt movie, Jason acts as that same strict but caring father figure, lecturing her by saying “don’t ever let me hear you say that again”. In stark contrast, the novel and the Franco movie show a satisfied Jason telling his mother “that’s the first sensible thing she’s ever said” (Faulkner 260). Where Ritt’s narrative requires an antagonistic force that is still likeable and capable of reconciliation with the protagonist, the novel uses Jason as just one part of its development of the theme of the disintegrating family stuck in its old ways, a theme that Franco’s movie is faithful to.

Neither of these movies were received particularly well, especially James Franco’s version. The first attempt at translating The Sound and the Fury to film was recognized as a less-than-stellar adaptation, missing parts of the book and instead containing a “formless, spongy script” that “lacks texture” (Crowther); even the director himself acknowledged that it failed to convey everything that was in the novel, saying of this and another attempt at a Faulkner film, “I shouldn’t do Faulkner again. There’s something in the language that’s too rich” (Ritt 116). Where this movie does somewhat succeed is in a classic 1950s movie, as it has the moving monologues, the dramatic staring off into the middle distance, and the exploration of the relationship between a girl coming of age and her parental figures. Part of the reason Franco’s film was received even more negatively is because it doesn’t sacrifice integrity of its translation for the modern formula for “good” movies. Reviews of the movie fault it for not being “inventive” enough or being too much of an “amateur-hour” “film-student” type project (Barker, Kiang). This assumes, of course, that a movie has to be a certain type of “inventive” or “professional” to be good. Unlike Ritt’s film, Franco’s version portrays the emotions that are felt while reading the book and manages to convey the same motif of the relentlessness of time and how it affects each character differently, as well as the inescapable nature of the Compson’s decline. In an interview, Franco says that in The Sound and the Fury, “the story’s not much, but the way it’s told is the thing”, and so he tries to “not only adapt the story but adapt the style” (Lincoln). In this, he succeeds, and in so doing makes an enjoyable and moving film that captures the essence of what Faulkner’s novel is about and what it is striving towards. As an adaptation, Franco’s film cannot be faulted for not reaching some satisfactory climax or message because that is what happens with the novel as well. That is what makes the novel so fascinating; Faulkner makes a novel in four parts that seemingly signifies nothing, at least concretely, and yet its presentation and its manipulation of themes like the treatment of time and the haunting presence of the absent Caddy manages to tug on the reader’s emotions and leave them with questions to contemplate, a state of unrest that causes the reader to want to make an attempt at translating these thoughts to film, and putting us in this position in the first place.

Works Cited

Barker, Andrew. “‘The Sound and the Fury’ Review: Franco Wrestles Faulkner Again.” N.p., 22 Oct. 2015. Web. 24 Apr. 2017.

Crowther, Bosley. “Screen: Down South; Sound and the Fury’ Opens at Paramount.” The New York Times 28 Mar. 1959: n. pag. Print.

Faulkner, William. The Sound and the Fury: The Corrected Text. New York: Vintage, 1990. Print.

Kiang, Jessica. “Review: James Franco’s Self-Indulgent ‘The Sound And The Fury’.” IndieWire. Penske Business Media, 22 Oct. 2015. Web. 24 Apr. 2017.

Lincoln, Kevin. “Adapting The Sound and the Fury As a Film Is an Insane Undertaking, So of Course James Franco Did It.” Vulture. New York Media LLC, 29 Oct. 2015. Web.

Ritt, Martin, and Gabriel Miller. Martin Ritt: Interviews. Jackson: U of Mississippi, 2003. Print.

The Sound and the Fury. Dir. James Franco. New Films International, 2014.

The Sound and the Fury. Dir. Martin Ritt. 20th Century Fox, 1959.




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