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Southern Movies, Actual and Fanciful:
A Personal Survey

Given all the pungent and reliable depictions of the South in American prose fiction, from William Faulkner to Flannery O’Connor to Harper Lee, it’s a pity that so few of the movies adapting these authors have been up to the job. The most outstanding exception is John Huston and screenwriter Benedict Fitzgerald’s impeccable rendition of O’Connor’s hilarious first novel, Wise Blood (1979), which captures the novel’s savage wit and its rural Deep South milieu with uncanny precision. In fact, if it betrays its source in any particular fashion, it’s in the highly subtle way in which an atheist director honors the brutal ironies of a devout Catholic writer. An absurdist, black-comedy parody of the French existentialism of Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus, Wise Blood focuses on a disillusioned homeless cracker (Brad Dourif) named Hazel Motes who preaches a church without Christ, predicated on the non-existence of God, and winds up becoming a self-tortured martyr to his own cause as if he were some version of Christ himself. Textually, it’s difficult to fault Huston for betraying O’Connor’s story or tone in any detail, but one has to acknowledge that philosophically, at least, the film is coming from a different place.

It’s also hard to fault the Southern stylings in Terence Davies’s exquisite CinemaScope adaptation of the relatively minor, posthumously published novel The Neon Bible, reportedly written when its author, John Kennedy Toole, was a mere 16 years old. This is all the more remarkable when one acknowledges that, like Huston, Davies, who hails from Liverpool, has no Southern roots of any kind, just a fanatical desire to do justice to a specific place and period (Georgia in the late Thirties and early Forties).

By contrast, all the movie versions of William Faulkner I’m familiar with aside from Intruder in the Dust (which comes from a minor Faulkner novel) — and not counting 1972’s Tomorrow, a Robert Duvall vehicle directed by Joseph Anthony from a Horton Foote script — are distinct disappointments. Douglas Sirk’s The Tarnished Angels (1958), derived from the atypical novel Pylon, is most likely the best Faulkner movie, but this is in spite of rather than because of its Southern details (putting aside its flavorsome, expressionist, studio-shot rendering of some New Orleans revelry). Rock Hudson’s version of a drunken reporter becomes acceptable only in the same way that Gregory Peck is as a kindly small-town lawyer in To Kill a Mockingbird (1962) — namely, after one agrees to ignore his phony and synthetic Southern accent. And as noted by one of its co-stars, Orson Welles, Martin Ritt’s The Long, Hot Summer — vaguely derived from portions of The Hamlet by the screenwriting team of Harriet Frank Jr. and Irving Ravetch, who’d already mangled The Sound and the Fury for Ritt, and released the same year as the Sirk movie — comes closer to Tennessee Williams (arguably in its homogenized Richard Brooks form) than to any semblance of William Faulkner.

After their two stabs at Faulkner’s work, Ritt, Frank and Ravetch would come a bit closer to Southern authenticity with their much-acclaimed Hud in 1963 and Norma Rae in 1979. In between, the screenwriting couple had one last go at Faulkner — adapting his last novel, The Reivers, in 1969 for director Mark Rydell, which I’ve deliberately avoided. Along with Horton Foote (who also scripted both To Kill a Mockingbird and Hurry Sundown), it would appear that this couple cornered the Southern movie market for far too long.

To be fair, Hollywood movies have never had any sort of monopoly on ersatz depictions of the Deep South; in the realm of theater, Jean-Paul Sartre’s The Respectful Prostitute and, to a lesser extent, James Baldwin’s Blues for Mister Charlie are both sterling negative examples that arguably surpass those of Richard Brooks and Alan Parker in sheer obtuseness. Yet given the apparent remoteness of a former Harlem preacher like Baldwin from the feel and texture of Mississippi, it’s all the more remarkable that Brooklynite Spike Lee, in his documentaries set respectively in Alabama and Louisiana, 4 Little Girls (1997) and the recent mini-series When the Levees Broke (2006), should display such extraordinary sensitivity and insight into the lives and people of those regions. So there are no hard and fast rules about what produces a genuine grasp of and feeling for that part of the country. Even so, first-hand experience — whenever and however it comes — clearly makes a difference.




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