Talking about how much I hate the adaptation of The Sound and the Fury the other day made me think about other Faulkner works that have made it to the screen. He’s definitely not an easy author to adapt to the screen. While there have been a number of films based on his works, he’s not a, let’s say, Jane Austen type whose writing works well on film and who has a million film adaptations of each book.
Perhaps that’s because his best ad most revered works haven’t really been adapted. At least not well. There is a terrible adaptation of The Sound and the Fury, but other than that, his most loved and recognized titles haven’t been adapted. There’s no films adaptation of Light in Augest, or Absalom, Absalom!, or The Unvanquished, or As I Lay Dying. Because so much of his work would be so difficult to adapt into an accesible film.
But there have actually been quite a few Faulkner adaptations. Let’s start with what is probably considered the best one, The Long Hot Summer, which is based on The Hamlet. It starred Hollywood supercouple Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward, and is one of the best depictions of the south ever put out by Hollywood. It isn’t a very “faithful” adaptation in terms of storyline, but it definitely captures the Faulkner feeling spot on, and it has a stellar cast, all of whom give excellent performances. Newman, Woodward, and Lee Remick are the best of the cast, and Orson Welles is superb.
I think The Story of Temple Drake is definitely one of the best Faulkner adaptations. His novel Sanctuary was one of the most shocking things printed in the 1930s, and it remains a pretty unsettling piece of work. Even during the pre-code era it was near impossible to get all the grit and unsavoriness of the novel onto the screen, but The Story of Temple Drake does a great job, mostly focusing on constructing a brilliant character in Temple Drake. It’s definitely an essential pre-code film, with one of Miriam Hopkins’ best performances.
Perhaps lesser revered by film fans, but still an amazing movie, is Intruder in the Dust. I’ve always thought that the book had a bit of a different “feel” to it than most of Faulkner’s other work, and it is considered one of his lesser novels, but it’s still an excellent book, and it adapts into a fantastic movie. It’s up there with The Defiant Ones and No Way Out as one of the best films of the time about racism and race relations.
I’ve never read the story Turnabout, but it was adapted into one of my favorite Joan Crawford movies, Today We Live. Since I haven’t read it, I don’t know how faithful it is as an adaptation, but looking at it just as a film, it’s a really excellent WWI film about love and family and the toll that war takes.
The Tarnished Angels, based on Pylon, is directed by Douglas Sirk, and while I don’t love it, I think it’s a much better film than his more appreciated melodramas like Written on the Wind. I definitely prefer the less soapy side of Sirk (like the thriller Lured). Overall, though, I don’t think this movie captures the Faulkner feel very well, despite it being a pretty downtrodden film for the time.
Faulkner also spent a fair amount of time simply working in Hollywood, writing scripts. He had a hand in three noir classics, To Have and Have Not, The Big Sleep, and Mildred Pierce.
So yes, while there aren’t really any definitive Faulkner adaptations, the major ones that exist are all very good. Here’s hoping that one day we’ll get truly brilliant and faithful adaptations to some of his major works. Think of how epic an Absalom, Absalom! movie would be. And how amazing could The Sound and the Fury be if Paul Thomas Anderson directed it?
By Katie Richardson