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


Year: 1959
Director: Martin Ritt
Cast: Yul Brenner, Joanna Woodward, Margaret Leighton, Stuart Whitman, Ethel Waters, Jack Warden, Francoise Rosay, John Beal

William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury is my all time favorite book. Many say it is unfilmable. I don’t think that’s true, but I do have a very specific vision in my head of how it should be done. But, I realize that said vision would probably be unfilmable in the 1950s, and I’d accepted the fact that any adaptation from that decade would probably deviate from the book quite a bit. But…. oh my….

Quentin Compson (Woodward) is a fatherless young woman, abandoned by her mother, left with her biological uncle Howard (Beal), her retarded uncle Ben (Warden), and her seemingly cruel adopted uncle Jason (Brenner). She feels stifled in the house under Jason’s strict care. Things become complicated when she meets a circus performer (Whitman), and when her mother, Caddy (Leighton) returns to town.

We’ll cover the film without considering it’s an adaptation of my favorite book first. Yul Brenner was Hollywood’s exotic star of the time, and Joanne Woodward was the favorite ingenue, so much of the film felt like it was simply being tailor made to highlight these two stars, who are given two particularly irritating characters to work with. In fact, all the characters in this movie are either irritating or downright unlikable, lacking anything resembling depth or humanity.

The pacing is terrible, moving along at a snail’s pace. That could also be the fault of the “nothing really happens” story. It seems like it thinks it has something profound to say about family and where we come from. But it really doesn’t.

Now, as if that wasn’t bad enough, we’ll cover it as an adaptation of the book that is closest to my heart. Talking about it as that, this movie is an abomination. The first two sections, arguably the most interesting and emotional, are completely done away with. And it’s not even that they just didn’t portray them, because that would be understandable. They would be VERY difficult to adapt well, especially in the 1950s. But with the exception of perhaps one or two nods, these layered, brilliant pieces, which are extremely important to the history of the Compson family, simply don’t exist. There is no Quentin Compson, son of Jason and Caroline, except in a vague reference that Miss Quentin was named after him and he killed himself. Who this Quentin actually was… who knows?

With those sections ignored, there is nothing leading up to this pathetic spectre that the Compson family has become. So they’re not a tragic family. Just a pathetic one. They’re just whiny, selfish people. Not the deeply troubled and intricately layered people of Faulkner’s novel.

And Caddy… what they did to Caddy was appalling. First of all, bringing her onto the “present day” canvas is a huge mistake. The whole idea of Caddy in the book is that she exists only in the memory, as some kind of spirit, a different woman in the mind of each brother. Caddy Compson might just be the most beautiful, complex, and tragic character in literature. The film rapes that idea completely. They bring her onto the canvas, and gone is the gentle yet flawed Caddy of Benjy’s memort. Gone is the fallen angel of Quentin’s memory. Gone is the bitch of Jason’s memory. In the film, she’s just a shallow, slutty drunk. This film completely trashes the beautiful image of Caddy Compson.

And because of these things, Miss Quentin Compson is an empty character. In the book, she’s a pretty horrible person, but still sympathetic, based on being abandoned by her parents, never knowing who her father was, and being hated and resented by the man who raised her. She would never be a heroine, and almost exists solely as a symbol of the fallen family. But for some reason the filmmakers felt that she’d make an awesome fiery heroine. She doesn’t. You might feel a little sympathy for her when she first meets her mother, only to discover what kind of person she is. But other than that, she’s just a flat character, a tease, and a selfish child.

Next to Caddy, Jason’s characterization in the film might be the most grievous. I adore the Jason Compson of the book. Yes, he was a son of a bitch, a completely detestable character. But it was still hard to not feel sorry for him. He was a complicated person to feel for, but he was without a doubt selfish and hatful. In the film he is, of course, turned into some kind of strong, silent hero. Raising Quentin with tough love not because he resents her, but because he loves her and wants her to be able to stand on her own two feet, unlike the rest of the family.

So there you have it. The characters, which make The Sound and the Fury such a brilliant novel, are stripped of everything that make them interesting and complex, and makes them simple,  boring cliches of film heroes and heroines.

If you’ve never read The Sound and the Fury, be prepared for a sloppily made film. If you have read The Sound and the Fury, be prepared for a piece of garbage that completely rapes the greatest American novel ever written.