Prior to James Franco’s first adaptation in 2013, no one had taken on the daunting task of adapting a William Faulkner novel for film since 1983’s A Rose For Emily. Successfully adapting Faulkner is nearly impossible, and Franco learned this the hard way as scathing reviews for As I Lay Dying surfaced after its premiere. One would hope that Franco would have learned from that disaster, but less than a year later, the filmmaker is back with his adaptation of Faulkner’s most esteemed novel, The Sound and the Fury.
There are many reasons why the revered American author’s novels are often called “unfilmable.” While they are certainly experimental and cerebral, the most difficult part about adapting a Faulkner novel is capturing the stream-of-consciousness style of writing he often used. To elaborate, many of Faulkner’s novels are written in first person perspectives, with their narrator’s thoughts written down exactly as they are conceived. The author makes no note when their narrator’s mind jumps to something else, and we as readers are left to decipher their thoughts.
The Sound and they Fury follows the downfall of the once aristocratic Compson family over the span of thirty years. The film is split into three chapters (four in the novel), with each chapter following one character. It opens on Benjy Compson (Franco), the youngest of the Compson boys who is shunned due to his unidentified mental disability. With false teeth, constant drooling and a seemingly never-ending moan, it’s hard to take Franco’s performance of the tragic character seriously.
The second chapter concerns Quentin Compson (Jacob Loeb) on the day he plans to end his life. This chapter is perhaps the most abridged of the three, cutting out the novel’s only heartwarming moment and leaving the audience to feel no sympathy for Quentin.
Finally, the third chapter sees the tirades of Jason Compson (Scott Haze), a despicable man who wants nothing more than to bring misery upon his family.
There are really only two compliments that can be made to James Franco when it comes to The Sound and Fury. Firstly, the film is surprising quite faithful to the novel’s plot and tone. The second is that it is a definite improvement over Franco’s last attempt at Faulkner. Aside from that though, I can’t find much to say that’s positive about the film.
Faulkner’s classic is a difficult read to say the least, so I guess that Franco at least matched him there, as The Sound and the Fury is often a nearly unwatchable film. Between the claustrophobic close-ups and the ridiculously over-the-top performances, it’s hard to imagine how Franco ever thought this adaptation was a good idea.
Admittedly, he tries hard to capture the poeticism of Faulkner’s prose, and while it was a valiant effort, we are left with a final product that feels unpolished and self-indulgent. In his novel, Faulkner was able to seamlessly move between thought and action, whilst always capturing a sense of realism. Franco’s attempt to imitate this falls flat, and the closest thing we have to poetic writing is the obnoxiously repeated voiceover that “Caddy smells like the trees.”
During the second act, it almost seems as if The Sound and the Fury will find its footing. It initially appears that there may actually be some subtlety in the performance of Jacob Loeb as Quentin. But rest assured, this is just absent-minded acting.
One can say that Faulkner is unfilmable, but any work will be unfilmable when it is being adapted by a talentless director. In this case, the fault of the film’s issues stem completely from Franco and not at all with the difficulty in Faulkner’s writing. Hopefully, after two failed outings, the actor will learn to leave Faulkner’s masterful work alone. Although knowing him, I wouldn’t be surprised to see him try his hand at adapting one of the author’s works again.