By Errol Castens
OXFORD – It was the hardscrabble of 1920s rural Mississippi come to life – or, rather, to death.
James Franco’s film adaptation of William Faulkner’s “As I Lay Dying” – first screened at the Cannes Film Festival in May – made a visit to Oxford Monday night with showing at The Lyric.
The screening of the Millennium Films production was a fundraiser for the Oxford Film Festival, whose 2014 iteration is set for Feb. 6-9. The film was shot on locations in and around Canton.
“This is one of the most difficult books Mr. Faulkner had ever written, and some people said it couldn’t be made into a movie,” said Lee Caplin, executor of the Faulkner Estate and the film’s producer.
Faulkner wrote “As I Lay Dying” while working nights at the University of Mississippi power plant, and its Oxford screening shared the same venue as the premiere of his 1949 film, “Intruder in the Dust.”
“As I Lay Dying,” published in 1930, starts with Addie Bundren’s dying in the home she shares with her husband and children in a far corner of Yoknapatawpha County. Most of the tale involves the family’s nine days of agonizing travel to bury her, as promised, with her ancestors in distant Jefferson.
Among the most memorable elements were a split screen that helped tell the complex story, the noisy sawing of planks for Addie’s coffin within earshot of the dying woman, haunting and amelodic music throughout the movie and one particularly gruesome amputation scene.
It would not surprise even a casual reader of Faulkner to see that natural disaster, arson, insanity, financial ruin, adultery, incest, illegitimacy, grief, distrust, cruelty and just plain bad luck plague them along the way to Jefferson.
Franco co-wrote the script and directed the movie as well as playing a lead role. Other actors include Logan Marshall-Green, Danny McBride, Tim Blake Nelson, Beth Grant, Jim Parrack, Jesse Heiman and Scott Haze.
One stellar line comes as a horse doctor sets a man’s broken leg: “A man ain’t so different from a horse or a mule – except a horse or mule might have more sense.” Another comes when a youngster ponders his brother’s removal to the state insane asylum: “Jackson’s farther away than crazy.”
Some Faulknerphiles will appreciate seeing John Maxwell in the film. Maxwell has brought Faulkner to audiences worldwide with his one-man show, “Oh, Mr. Faulkner, Do You Write?”
“As I Lay Dying” is the first of three Faulkner classics Franco hopes to make into films. The second, “The Sound and the Fury,” is two-thirds complete, Caplin said, and plans are being made for “The Bear.”
In addition to Cannes, “As I Lay Dying” was shown to audiences in New York and Los Angeles. It will be offered online later this month and on disc formats in November.