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“Wise blood”: from Flannery O’Connor to John Huston

Flannery O'Connor, Wise bloodI have often wondered about Flannery O’Connor’s puzzling assessment of her own brilliant debut novel in her 1962 preface to Wise blood, originally published – at great pains – in 1952. That such a harsh parable of human misery and metaphysical despair could be termed a “comic novel” had never struck me before, and the author’s explanation, «all comic novels that are any good must be about matters of life and death», although basically true, never helped me come to terms with that particular attribution. The Marx Brothers are “comic”. Saki and P. G. Wodehouse are “comic”. Beckett can be occasionally funny in a hair-rising way, but he is certainly not “comic”. The craziest antics take on a disquieting, grotesque dimension when put in a radical perspective, and that is why I always thought that the appropriate reaction to O’Connor’s Wise blood – a sort of Waiting for Godot rewritten by William Faulkner – would be a grimace, not a laugh.

Is there anything inherently hilarious about the downward spiral of a twenty-something army invalid on the run from a God-obsessed family heritage, wandering in a depleted American South haunted by the specter of a savage Jesus, desperately preaching the gospel of his one-man “Church without Christ”, a theology of non-redemption, a paradoxical faith in which «the deaf don’t hear, the blind don’t see, the lame don’t walk, the dumb don’t talk, and the dead stay that way»? Is the outlandish subplot involving his sidekick, young Enoch Emery, a teenage misfit living by a mysterious instinct in his blood, who longs for company in an unfriendly city, steals a shrunken mummy from the museum to serve as the “New Jesus” and finally disappears into the wild in a gorilla costume any more side-splitting? What about Asa Hawks, the sleazy preacher who allegedly blinded himself for Jesus but never really made it, living in a world of cynical fakery behind his black glasses? Not funny, right?

The way I read it, Wise blood is a pantomime of hollow men, a travesty of human existence in a world without God, graced by a distinguished style that vibrates at a characteristically “southern” epic pitch, projecting insignificant and frequently undecipherable individual experiences against a timeless, monumental, almost biblical background (an intonation that runs through the novels of Steinbeck, Faulkner, McCullers and more recently Cormac McCarthy). Any way you look at it, it’s a serious, dead serious novel. Its wackiness and occasional absurdity are not there to “entertain”. They are, in fact, blood-chilling. O’Connor repeatedly maintained that only a catholic such as herself could have written it. Indeed, to find a comparable plotline – an increasingly desperate character devoured by religion who dies in misery among self-inflicted torments – you have to get all the way back to the brother Goncourt’s Madame Gervaisais (1868) and Huysmans’s repulsive Sainte Lydwine de Schiedam (1901). As many reasons not to take O’Connor’s understatement about her debut work at face value (unless you think that “comic” is a suitable description for a young man who blinds himself with lime, walks with rocks in his shoes to punish himself and dies in a ditch with a barbed-wire cilice under his shirt).

When I chanced upon a cinematic trailer for John Huston’s 1979 movie adaptation, I was shocked. The seriousness of the work seemed to have been tuned down another notch, from “comic” to “slapstick”, to a newsreel voice advertising a collage of the movie’s “funniest” moments to the sound of a southernized ragtime. The only thing missing were Tex Avery’s sound effects. Could such a renowned director, for all his extensive experience in bringing novels to the screen (Hammett, Joyce, Melville, Lowry) and the supervision of O’Connor’s literary executors, really have missed the whole point, the primordial fact that in Wise blood the “comic” is a moment of the “tragic”?

To my great relief, when I obtained a complete DVD copy – now available in the “Criterion Collection” – I was confronted with a sound and ambitious movie, a rendition that sustains an attentive scrutiny and tolerates comparison with the book. I shall mention in passing that I don’t much care for adaptations in general, as they often show even the best directors at a disadvantage, frantically aping details and forms that are intrinsically literary. The only kind of faithfulness there can be is complete originality, but not all moviemakers are good enough to reinvent a book from scratch, re-imagine it, recast it in their own terms (think Shining or Elephant man). Fortunately, John Huston’s take on Wise blood turned out to have a coherence and personality of its own, the legitimacy of a consistent albeit limited interpretation. Some visual intuitions are downright brilliant (the opening credits, the prostitute’s room, the close up on Hakws’s undamaged eyes at the light of a match). Caeteris paribus, it’s something more and something less than a paraphrase of the novel, but it stands on its own feet, which is more than can be said for most adaptations.

The best surprise were the outstanding casting choices. Enoch the simpleton, the shady Hawks and his sickly skank of a daughter are all wonderfully portrayed (especially the latter). The characterization of con-man preacher Hoover Shoates and his pathetic ersatz-prophet are amazing. A whole gang of non-professional extras, including a one-handed mechanic and a hawk-faced car dealer, provide for some of the most authentic southern drawl heard in movies. What initially disappointed me, in spite of brilliant Brad Dourif’s tour de force performance as Hazel Motes, was the protagonist himself, a rather domesticated view of O’Connor’s ragged, scarred and dogged hero. With his tidy looks and spirited blue eyes, he’s nowhere like the laconic, death-bound young preacher whose face looked like a skull. Still, it is a rare pleasure to hear him deliver bits of Hazel Motes’s anti-theology from the hood of his car: «If Jesus had redeemed you, what difference would it make to you? […] If there was three crosses there and Him hung on the middle one, that wouldn’t mean no more to you and me than the other two», or «Where you came from is gone, where you thought you were going to never was there, and where you are is no good unless you can get away from it». All in all, for all his neurotic clerk’s appearance, Durif was a winning choice for the pastel-colored and comparatively humane world that John Huston chose to superimpose on O’Connor’s dark and dreary city of doom. Even the car itself – a protagonist in its own right – was chosen with loving care, and the intimate relationship between Motes and his frightful jalopy («no man with a good car needs to be justified!») is given all the attention it deserves.

John Huston, Flannery O'Connor, Wise bloodFrom a formal point of view the movie holds water: not a mean feat in view of the rambling, episodic structure of the novel. I seriously doubt that one could make much sense of it without reading the book first, but the work the scriptwriters have done to pinpoint (and sometimes clarify) the motivation of the characters is satisfactory. The Enoch subplot is pruned out severely (no more voyeurism for him), but comes across as more coherent and provides a good contrast.

What is missing is possibly the subdued epic grandeur, the hieroglyphic strangeness of many scenes, the feeling that characters stand for something bigger than themselves, like men in a parable whose sense was lost. Something that the author left unsaid (a significant percentage of good novels is made up of the blanks between the lines) was lost in the transition from a great book to a minor movie, accomplished as it is. The soundtrack is no great help, either, especially when the appropriately languid country moods and the atmospheric bits for clarinet, flute and piano are superseded by upbeat Buster Keatonish moments in a 70s instrumentation.

Would it have been possible to do better? All things considered, I am afraid not, not unless a bona fide cinematic masterpiece had been the result, and such movies are few and far between, and what is more they tend to “burn” the original (has anybody read Strangers on a train, the novel?). The way it is, we are left with a parallel version that enhances and enriches the purely literary enjoyment of the first and only novel of one of America’s greatest storytellers. In the way of exegesis, critics have been known to do much worse.

Like an upside-down Tom Joad on a pathetic quest for the absolute, Hazel Motes deserves a place in the pantheon of iconic American characters, both in paper and celluloid.

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