Using a well-loved book as the basis for a movie is always full of bear traps. The audience has high expectations that can be almost impossible to meet, while the maker is often so immersed in the original text that it becomes a labour of love, which doesn’t necessarily make for a good film. On that basis, I ought to have some sympathy for James Franco as the writer, director and star of As I Lay Dying.
He’s adapted James Faulkner’s 1930’s classic of the same name about the Bundrens, a dirt-poor family in rural Mississippi and their near epic journey to take their mother’s body for burial in the town of Jefferson, thereby fulfilling her dying wish.
It’s probably the longest forty miles in literary and cinema history, and seems to go on forever as the family are beset by floods, injury and fire, with each of the adult children suffering personal loss. As if losing their mother wasn’t bad enough, Darl (James Franco) loses his freedom, Cash (Jim Parrack) a leg, Jewel (Logan Marshall-Green) his beloved horse and Dewey (Ahna O’Reilly) her self-respect.
Their father, Anse (an almost unrecognisable Tim Blake Nelson) is to blame for some of their misfortunes. Immune to his children’s feelings and trotting out the right platitudes when the occasion demands, he is also a dreadful old miser. His reluctance to pay for a doctor puts Cash through unnecessary pain after his accident, with the result that his leg is amputated in a particularly gruesome scene. But Anse makes sure he looks after himself: by the end of the film he has a new wife and an all-important new set of teeth.
With misery heaped on misery, there’s an opportunity for some sensitive direction. Instead, Franco has decided to use the film as something akin to a directing workshop, experimenting with different techniques along the way. He launches into split screen at the very start of the film which, as well as not being particularly new, has fallen out of favour in recent years. There are times when it’s pitch perfect, giving the audience another perspective on a character and/or scene. There are others when you wonder why on earth he’s used it, other than to show off the fact that he can. In the later stages of the film, he abandons it altogether, giving the impression that he’s become bored with it.
His experiments with silence are more successful. Again, this isn’t anything new – think Kurosawa’s battle sequences in Ran – but he saves it for the big dramatic set-pieces, such as the accident in the swollen river. The lack of sound intensifies the action, allowing him to produce some effective camerawork.
As well as co-writing and directing the film, Franco has cast himself in one of the main roles and this would seem to be a step too far. His is the least convincing performance on screen and visually he’s out of step with the rest of the cast: while they all look like they belong there, he is simply too well-groomed. Staying totally behind the camera would have given him a better chance of producing something more cohesive.
While this is a personal project for Franco – his love of the original is obvious – he’s fallen into the trap of assuming that everybody loves it and understands it like he does. Which makes his adaptation less of a tribute, and more of a vanity project.