William Faulkner is known to most as a great American novelist, whose works high schoolers have to read and college students write dissertations on. Faulkner was also a screenwriter for the Hollywood studio system, working extensively with Howard Hawks.
Faulkner married and his wife began having children in 1929, after only one of his novels, The Sound and the Fury, had been published. As a way to make money, he signed a six-week contract with MGM in 1932. He worked off and on as a screenwriter until 1955. Some of his most memorable work includes an adaptation of Ernest Hemingway’s To Have and Have Not, which was directed by Hawks, starred Humphrey Bogart, and debuted Lauren Bacall. His first screenwriting credit was for Today We Live, starring Joan Crawford in 1933. The only screenplay he ever wrote that was not directed by Hawks was Slave Ship, although he did uncredited dialogue work on several other projects, including The Southerner.
Faulkner’s own work was adapted for the screen as well, sometimes by him and sometimes not. Today We Live was an adaptation that Faulkner wrote of his own short story, “Turn About.” His most recognizable novel, The Sound and the Fury was adapted to the screen in 1959, not by Faulkner, but by Irving Ravetch and Harriet Frank, Jr., directed by Martin Ritt, and starring Yul Brynner and Joanne Woodward. For the most part, it is obvious that the film is not faithful to the book, but some reviewers, including Variety, but excluding the studio that released it, praised the film.
The Sound and the Fury is especially known for its stream-of-consciousness and non-linear storytelling, which was a pioneering mark of modernism that Faulkner would perfect in his later works. What is challenging about The Sound and the Fury, even in reading the novel, is the voice of the mentally challenged Benji, but Faulkner’s deftness and skill sculpt a story out of Benji’s narrative. It does take time and effort, and there are places that are difficult to get through. But in the end, the story makes sense. The relationships between family members are tangled, and often hints are dropped that are not revealed until they have been forgotten in the end, but Faulkner knew where he was going. The decline of the South and of Southern aristocracy was the primary focus of Faulkner’s writing. His salacious tales of loose women came later, but hints can be seen in The Sound and the Fury. On the whole, the narrative structure and multiple voices all point to the destruction and decline of the Compson family, once prestigious in the South.
Before Jerry Wald produced The Sound and the Fury for Fox, he produced The Long, Hot Summer, an adaptation of Faulkner’s The Hamlet, starring Orson Welles, Paul Newman, and Joanne Woodward. This film took a lot of liberties with Faulkner’s work, and looks more like a Tennessee Williams/spaghetti Western mash-up than anything. Newman’s and Welles’ performances attract attention, and won Newman a Best Actor award at Cannes, but otherwise, the film falls flat. Wald recovered by calling it a prelude to the main event, the adaptation of The Sound and the Fury, released the next year.
Yul Brynner was cast as Jason, a man struggling for his family’s honor. Brynner had already done The King and I and was a box office draw, but he was most definitely not Southern. Wald defended the choice by stating that “temperamentally” Brynner was perfect for the part of Jason. Woodward was 29 and pregnant during the shoot, playing a 16-year-old girl, rebelling against her family’s expectations. Benji, as a character, takes a backseat (he isn’t even mentioned in the initial credits, and in the character list, appears as “Ben”) and Quentin’s (Woodward) long-lost mother, Caddy, played by Margaret Leighton, appears as a major storyline. Quentin’s namesake, her uncle Quentin, whose story forms the center section of the book, is dropped entirely. Caddy is mentioned in the book, particularly in connection to Benji, but never makes an appearance. But, having a promiscuous mother return, just as her daughter is contemplating running off with a carney or her uncle, is much more salacious. The characters and casting may seem screwy, but it gets worse.
The plot is flattened out and moved forward in time for the film. Understandably, it was difficult to recreate Faulkner’s modernism on screen, especially since Wald wanting a sweeping, CinemaScope picture (think Elizabeth Taylor in Giant). But, the most beautiful pieces of writing are cut from the story. Quentin is sexed up, and the relationship between Quentin and Jason twisted, making the two of them the focus of the film. I would argue that Benji or Quentin (male) are the focus of the novel, both narrating significant storylines. But, Benji and Quentin’s viewpoints belong to the decline theme, and the theme of Wald’s picture is more of girl Quentin’s coming-of-age and struggling to do as she pleases. Casting Joanne Woodward and Yul Brynner in that type of film, rather than a sensitive study of the decline of a Southern legacy, would guarantee more box office sales.
Faulkner’s work, besides its modernist style and focus on the fall of the Southern aristocracy, has also been classes as “Southern Gothic.” “Gothic tales contain grotesque, tempestuous characters, bizarre and spooky sexuality, overheated emotions, and melodramatic violence,” film historin Jeffrey Meyers writes. They are marked by narcissism and voyeurism. While the film adaptation of The Sound and the Fury was disturbing, mostly in terms of casting and character realizations, it was not “Gothic.” With the addition of older Caddy to the film, the opportunity to create a truly “grotesque” character emerged, but was flubbed. Caddy’s sexual promiscuity, it can be argued, drives ll of her brothers to madness. Benji, in the novel, is castrated, after he rapes a girl. Jason is sexually jealous of his niece. Quentin loses a “duel” for Caddy’s honor, after he discovers she is pregnant. He tries to take the blame, but ultimately kills himself. The three boys see Caddy’s dirtied underwear (at age 7 for Caddy), noting the beginning of Caddy’s sexual activities and the boys’ obsession with her virginity. This character of Caddy, as an adult, coming back to town to see how her estranged daughter has turned out could be rich, twisted, grotesque, broken, and cruel. Played by Margaret Leighton in the film, Caddy isn’t even a lurking, sinister character. She is bland. She appears in the park in the beginning, frightened and not wishing to be seen. The mood is bright and cheerful; just another day in town. Caddy’s personality is not even defined enough to clash with the bright and sunny day. She is just there. Her relationship with Jason also falls flat. It is almost impossible to discover who she is at first, because she does not relate to the others. The actress is almost more concerned with her false accent and ludicrous colloquialisms. The Gothic atmosphere is lost to the new story being told. Added scenes with girl Quentin and Jason, emphasizing and sensationalizing their relationship detract from the uneasy feeling created in Gothic tales.
Quentin and Jason’s relationship does make one uneasy in that the much older uncle is sexually possessive of not only his sister, but his niece. He accuses her of being promiscuous in her relationship with the carney, Charlie (in the novel, the name of Caddy’s first boyfriend) Bush. Quentin defends herself by saying he “made her feel like a woman.” Jason says that any man can do that and passionately kisses his niece. Disturbing, yes. Uncomfortable, very. But, Gothic tales relied on suspense and implied discomfort, rather than overt disgusting displays. Overheated and tempestuous characters (actually, it is helpful to think of Prospero in The Tempest when looking for a tempestuous character) are very often more subtle, or at least, dramatized in more stylized and underplayed manner. The scene on the bridge between Quentin and Jason is mere sensationalism.
The New York Times, in a review by Bosley Crowther, dated March 28, 1959, absolutely skewers the film, the writing, directing, acting, the entire concept. Applying the famous Macbeth quote, “a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing,” from which the title derives its name, is the nicest thing the Times had to say about the entire film. “Incongruous,” they say of both Brynner and Woodward’s casting and acting and “formless and spongy,” of the script. They allow for the “sweeping” nature of the direction and photography, but for a studio known for Westerns, this one didn’t exactly break the mold. It really is half-pipped between Fox’s Westerns of the early 1950’s and the American epics (re: Giant) of the latter half of the decade.
Variety, however, gave the film, and Woodward, especially, a warm reception. Dated December 31, 1958, Variety calls The Sound and the Fury a “work of cinematic stature.” A far cry from “a tale told by an idiot.” Woodward “gives firm conviction,” and Brynner is “every inch the household tyrant.” Variety also praises the Mississippi settings, which are “unusually effective in communicating atmosphere.” …Probably because it was filmed on a Fox backlot. Really, Variety? Not exactly the intellectual giant and international tastemaker that the Times was, Variety was still widely read and trusted, especially by the film community. But praising the casting of a pregnant 29-year-old as a “youthful” girl? Come on.
Modern reviewers tend to be a bit more diplomatic, although trending towards the Times view of the film. Rob Nixon, a reviewer for TCM, generally agrees with the miscasting of Woodward and Brynner, but allows that some still enjoy the film and count it as among their favorites. But, we classic film lovers are noted for our strange tastes. Films usually gain sentimental value, rather than cinematic value, over time, and Nixon allows for the “fond memories” some viewers (and bloggers) have of the film. I watched it at my family’s beach house one night while on a family vacation. TCM was featuring films starring Joanne Woodward, and The Sound and the Fury was given the midnight slot. I found myself more confused trying to place the events and characters in the context of the book I had read and loved than I was when reading the notoriously difficult book. About halfway through, I realized that my favorite character, male Quentin, and his heart-wrenching storyline were not going to appear, and I was just fed up. Woodward convinces no one. Wald’s career started its downward fizzle. It pleased some, at the time and now, but not because of its quality or faithfulness to a brilliant and versatile (hey, he wrote screenplays too, remember?) writer’s work.