You have to be highly ambitious or a little mad even to contemplate adapting William Faulkner’s complicated classic, The Sound and the Fury, to the screen. In which bracket you place actor-director James Franco depends upon your view of his low-budget film, encompassed in around three weeks of intense work.
You could call the film Faulkner lite. But that would be unfair to the melodrama it has become. It leaves out a great deal of the author’s work as it shows the decline and fall of the Compsons, a once slave-owning aristocratic Southern family, through the eyes of four main protagonists, without the arching stream of consciousness provided on the page.
Franco, who has filmed Faulkner twice before, plays Benjy, the mentally troubled son who figures in the first section of the book. He speaks no words and grunts and groans, slobbering at the mouth as if determined to bypass his star image. It is a brave performance, even if slightly like a parody of Brando.
As to his direction of the film, it has to be said that it is much less tricksy than that of As I Lay Dying, his previous Faulkner foray. But in necessarily gutting the book the general effect, even from this good cast, is often over-dramatic.
There are few quiet moments as the family implodes one by one and what humour there is seems almost entirely shrouded.
The novel covers 30 years in the early 20th century and constantly switches in time. So does the film, and one of its main virtues is that it does so clearly.
Franco apart, other actors play with skill and power. Jacob Loeb as Benjy’s cynical younger brother, Quentin, and Loretta Divine, in the important role of the family’s black maid, Dilsey, are outstanding.
There may have been other ways to traverse the book but at least this one does it some honour.