Faulkner’s famously fragmented novel is composed of 59 first-person chapters, written in the voices of fifteen different characters. Translating such a polyglossic text to the screen poses some daunting challenges, which may explain why Franco is the first director to make the attempt. In Faulkner’s novel, form and content converge: the disjointed narrative structure, which lacks a presiding narrator, manifests the isolation that defines the characters’ lives, which are marked by hidden secrets and unspoken desires. In an effort to convey the splintered, often opaque quality of the novel’s writing, Franco employs several unconventional techniques, including hand-held camera work, split screen compositions, and rapid cutting between simultaneously occurring events.
On a related note of page to screen, The Washington Post praised the late, great Oscar-winner Robin Williams's "world-class performance" as an honest salesman whose life is shattered in Seize the Day (1986), the only novel by Saul Bellow ever adapted to film.
At times, these devices work effectively, such as when the Bundrens’ wagon and the coffin splash into the river on the first day of their journey. Here, the divided screens convey the watery struggle through the eyes of different characters, enhancing the sense of confusion and chaos. In several of the film’s most compelling moments, Franco offers refreshingly direct access to Faulkner’s monologues, such as Cash’s 13-point explanation of the coffin design or Dewey Dell’s sensuous description of her love affair in the cotton fields, which are delivered in tightly-framed shots of the characters looking unswervingly into the lens…. As I Lay Dying is one of Faulkner’s most formally daring works, but it is also one of his most socially and politically engaged novels. As Faulkner biographer Joseph Blotner explains, Faulkner started writing the book the day after the Wall Street collapse in October 1929, and completed it in a short, two-month burst. As such, it can arguably be considered America’s first novel of the Great Depression. While there’s no indication that Franco intended the film to be a political work of art, it comes five years into the deepest economic recession since the 1930s. Seen in context of the current era’s mortgage foreclosures, declining wages, and financial suffering, Franco’s adaptation of Faulkner’s novel about the plight of an impoverished family isolated and stymied by economic hardship and social obstacles reminds us that high-minded works of art — even a period piece like this one — can also speak to contemporary historical concerns.
The cast of Franco's As I Lay Dying.
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