Wise Blood: A Matter of Life and Death

Novelists learn not to expect too much when their books are made into movies. Obviously, great fiction has been turned into great cinema, but the dents and scrapes that so many classics have sustained on the rocky road from the page to the screen have convinced most writers that the odds of being purely thrilled by the movies made from their books are only slightly better than the odds of winning big in Las Vegas.

That is, unless the director happened to have been John Huston. No other filmmaker had such an impressive and consistent history of making extraordinary movies from books that would have seemed difficult—perhaps impossible—to translate into film. His first feature, The Maltese Falcon, was based on a Dashiell Hammett novel. Huston not only sorted out Hammett’s convoluted plot and corralled his cast of peculiar characters but put at the center Humphrey Bogart, as the detective Sam Spade, an inspired choice that made the film and Bogart’s career. Huston’s last film, The Dead, was also an adaptation, this time of the novella-length story that ends James Joyce’s Dubliners—another challenge, since in this case the “action” is limited almost completely to a holiday party given by two elderly Irish sisters and the subsequent breaking of their adult nephew’s heart. In between, Huston directed the filming of such a wide variety of books that it might appear as if the only thing they have in common is how nearly unimaginable they must have seemed to adapt for the screen.

Huston captured the humid erotic tensions of Carson McCullers’s Reflections in a Golden Eye, the innocence and terror of Stephen Crane’s Civil War classic The Red Badge of Courage. And just in case the epic sweep and the sea-yarn metaphysics of Melville’s Moby-Dick weren’t ambitious enough, Huston agreed to film the Bible. Among the least likely of his projects was the cinematic version of Malcolm Lowry’s Under the Volcano, a work that depended on Lowry’s ability to evoke, on the page, the consciousness of a hero who is seriously, indeed dangerously, drunk for most of the book.

In the late 1970s, Huston was approached by a young producer named Michael Fitzgerald. He was one of the six children of Sally and Robert Fitzgerald. His father, a celebrated translator from the Greek, was Flannery O’Connor’s literary executor; his mother edited the letters and the occasional pieces of the Georgia-born writer, who had spent long periods of time at the Fitzgeralds’ Connecticut home before her early death from an autoimmune disease. Like O’Connor, the Fitzgeralds were devoutly Catholic; it was among the most solid of the firm foundations on which their friendship was built.

It was Michael Fitzgerald’s idea to make a film from Wise Blood, which had been published in 1952. O’Connor’s dazzling first novel tells the hilarious and disturbing tale of Hazel Motes, a young Georgia man whose obsession with God leads him to run from God as fast as he can, only to crash head-on into the wall of Jesus and religion. On the way to smashup, or redemption—depending on how you read the book—Hazel’s path crosses that of a phony blind preacher and his daughter, Sabbath Lily; of a kid fixated on a mummy in the local museum; of a guy in a gorilla suit; and of a scheming huckster by the name of Hoover Shoates. It may already be obvious that probably no one but Huston would have agreed to make this picture.

Huston told Fitzgerald that he would do it if Fitzgerald raised the money, which, by 1979, Fitzgerald did. The budget was low; the shoot, nonunion. Everyone, including Huston, worked for minimal fees. Michael’s wife coproduced, he and his brother Benedict wrote the screenplay; it was filmed on location in Macon, Georgia, with gifted actors—and no movie stars. Brad Dourif’s performance as Hazel Motes is such an astonishing high-wire act that—as rarely happens with adaptations—his fevered, nearly bloodless little face and his fanatic, head-down speed walk permanently layer themselves, in our minds, onto the fictional character. Harry Dean Stanton makes us believe that he is the bullying, scamming false preacher, Asa Hawks. Amy Wright, as Sabbath Lily, strikes the perfect note of lascivious nymphet weirdness. Ned Beatty finds a way to express, in every gesture and word, the porkiness of Hoover Shoates. The art director and the production team seem to have looked at a lot of Walker Evans photos—perfect for O’Connor.

But the complication of putting her novel on the screen went beyond the basic strangeness (and in most cases, unattractiveness) of its main characters and the semiexotic situation in which they find themselves (a sort of territorial showdown over street-preaching rights). There was also the fact that O’Connor was writing a novel about religion, a comic and deeply serious novel about a Christian in spite of himself, for whom—like the author—belief in Christ is, as she wrote, a “matter of life and death.” Though Hazel Motes’s inner struggles are acted out more publicly and violently than most, still religion is, by and large, a private and interior matter for which it is difficult to find a visual equivalent, unless you plan to have God appear in a role.

Like Under the Volcano, Wise Blood is in some sense a movie about a state of consciousness, another tough thing to film. Also there is the semi-allegorical nature of the book—that is, the way it functions as a religious parable. When Dourif wanted to put more nuance into his portrayal of Hazel Motes, Huston informed him, correctly, that Hazel was a one-note guy. What O’Connor knew, and Huston found out, was that the one note was God. And in case all this weren’t complicated enough, there is the fact that so much of the power of O’Connor’s work derives from her language—its precision, its humor and down-home eloquence. Here, to quote just one of the many examples that can be found simply by opening the book at random, is her description of Hazel Motes’s vision of Jesus: “He saw Jesus moving from tree to tree in the back of his mind, a wild ragged figure motioning him to turn around and come off into the dark where he was not sure of his footing, where he might be walking on the water and not know it and then suddenly know it and drown.”

In the preface to a second edition of Wise Blood, O’Connor made her novel’s stance toward the life-and-death nature of Christianity unmistakably clear, even for those readers who saw the story’s grotesqueness without quite catching its gravity. Huston himself seems to have been one such reader, persuaded throughout the filming of the unmediated comedy of Hazel’s obsession, until Dourif questioned him about the meaning of the last scenes. Without giving anything away, it seems safe to say that the dark plot turns considerably darker as Hazel, the prophet of the Church Without Christ—“where the blind don’t see and the lame don’t walk and what’s dead stays that way”—takes an exceedingly sharp turn toward Jesus. The Fitzgeralds had believed all along that they were making a film about redemption and salvation, but Huston had been under the impression that he was shooting a picture about the semi-ridiculous religious manias prevalent throughout the South. According to Huston biographer Lawrence Grobel, a hasty script conference about Hazel’s fate persuaded Huston that at “the end of the film, Jesus wins.”

How Flannery O’Connor would have loved that. And though she was the most unsentimental Christian, you can’t help thinking that she would have seen it as a sign—a sign of the truth (or, in her view, the Truth) asserting itself and making itself known. Perhaps she would have thought that the progress of the production had, in some mysterious way, paralleled the plot of her novel. In spite of himself, the director had made a film about a Christian in spite of himself, groping his way toward redemption. Huston captured not only the humor but (in the most literal as well as the metaphorical sense) the spirit of O’Connor’s work—the high comedy and the pathos, the wildly strange and the recognizably human, the earthy and the celestial. Like so few writers, but like the grateful audience for John Huston’s remarkable Wise Blood, Flannery O’Connor would, I believe, have been purely thrilled by the film that was made from her novel.

Copyright © 2009 by Francine Prose. All rights reserved.

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