Pamela Demory/Lecturer in English, University of California, Davis
Flannery OConnors 1952 novel Wise Blood is the grotesque comic tale of Hazel Motes who, in a twisted spiritual quest, starts his own church: a church without Jesus Christ. The novel is populated by a host of unlikeable characterscon-artist preachers, a shrunken mummy, Gonga the gorilla, and other assorted misfitsand the plot includes scenes of illicit sex, self-flagellation, and murder. But it is also a novel about the miracle and mystery of Gods grace, for after vigorously denying Jesus and seeking out sin for nearly the entire novel, Hazel Motes achieves salvation in the end.
The task of bringing such a novelwith its strange mixture of the mundane and the metaphysical, of down-home country materialism and esoteric Christian
|"All in all, Huston’s use of cinematic techniques effectively suggests the way O’Connor’s fictional world is saturated by Christian allegory. "|
Huston also uses parallel editing effectively to tie various parts of the plot together. In one place, a dissolve from Enoch gazing at his newly procured mummy "jesus" in his room, to Hazel preaching his "new jesus" in the town square, illustrates the tie between these two new jesuses; in another, a cut from Sabbath calling Hazel the "king of the beasts" after theyve had sex for the first time, to Gonga being proclaimed king of the beasts in town, ties Hazel to the counterfeit gorilla. And, in perhaps the most effective sequence of parallel editing in the film, shots of Hazel following and killing Solace are crosscut with shots of Enoch following the Gonga van, stealing the apesuit, and transforming himself into the gorilla. This sequence is heavily ironic as it suggests a similarity between the two crimesmurder and theftthat makes either Hazels less significant or Enochs more so. It suggests the similarity and the difference between their two quests: both are seeking a "new jesus," a new identity, a faith, and something worthy to embody that faith; both are seeking to destroy false idols. The difference is that Hazels quest is a matter of life and death, whereas Enoch can mount only a pathetic imitation. All in all, Hustons use of cinematic techniques effectively suggests the way OConnors fictional world is saturated by Christian allegory.
Yet a film is not a book (as obvious as that may sound), and while the film is "faithful" to the text, it does not (cannot) tell exactly the same story. The film image, like the word, is a sign:3 it is not identical to the thing it signifies but refers, instead, to a reality outside itself. Because the relationship between the word and its referent is arbitrary and the distance between sign and referent relatively great, language is always subject to interpretation, allowing for symbolism and ambiguity. When OConnor describes Hazel as having "a nose like a shrikes bill and a long vertical crease on either side of his mouth," with eyes "the color of pecan shells," and set "so deep that they seemed . . . almost like passages leading somewhere,4 " the verbal imagery has rich symbolic connotations and might convey a variety of specific pictures in individual readers minds.
But with the film image, as James Monaco points out, "the signifier and the signified are almost identical: the sign of cinema is a short-circuit sign.5 "Whereas a word suggests a variety of images, the film image particularizes. So even when an image is "faithful" to the verbal description, it generates fewer connotations or associations. Consider  this image of Hazel Motes from the film. Most people would probably agree that Brad Dourif has just the right sort of face for Hazel Motes and that he faithfully embodies OConnors character, but the image of his face does not carry the symbolic suggestiveness of OConnors descriptionthe shrikes bill, the pecan eyes, the passages leading nowhere. The film image automatically literalizes the verbal text.
The difference between the two "languages" is particularly significant in a novel like Wise Blood, which is dependent for much of its symbolic purpose on linguistic distance. OConnors biting imagery (e.g., "her hair was so thin it looked like ham gravy trickling over her skull" , or "He looked like a friendly hound dog with light mange" ), her heavy-handed symbolism, her grotesque characters, and the black comedy of these characters actions are all distancing techniques. Distance allows for irony, comedy, and symbolism, as readers are forced to recognize the difference between word and referent. Such a technique also reflects OConnors belief in mystery. She insists that Gods will is not explainedor explainableby natural, determinable events or behavior, and so she creates characters who also cannot be explained as a way of shocking her readers into a recognition of truth as mystery.
But the film cannot maintain this distance. Because of its denotative nature, because film seems closer to "reality," it tends to draw its audience more easily into its own reality.6 Partly because of the nature of the medium, then, and partly because the film follows the conventions of cinematic realism, Hustons version of Wise Blood, though extraordinarily faithful to the book, tends to be more concrete than the novel, to be less amenable to symbolic readings, and to invite its audience into a closer identification with its characters than does the book. 7
However, the difference between the two is not just a matter of the medium; it is also a matter of faith. In her preface to the novel, Flannery OConnor describes Wise Blood this way:
It is a comic novel about a Christian malgré lui, and as such, very serious, for all comic novels that are any good must be about matters of life and death. Wise Blood was written by an author congenitally innocent of theory, but one with certain preoccupations. That belief in Christ is to some a matter of life and death has been a stumbling block for readers who would prefer to think it a matter of no great consequence. For them Hazel Motes integrity lies in his trying with such vigor to get rid of the ragged figure who moves from tree to tree in the back of his mind. For the author, Hazels integrity lies in his not being able to.8
So, for OConnor at least, although Hazel Motes dies in pain at the end of the novel, he has achieved salvation, and thus the novel is ultimately a hopeful one. But she acknowledges here that readers who lack her belief in Christ might not share her sense of what the novel means.
The film seems to have been made by just such a disbelieving reader:
|"O’Connor’s Wise Blood may be a novel about salvation, but Huston’s Wise Blood is a story about a man who suffers from a tragic delusion."|
We can see the essential difference in the purpose and effect of the two stories from the way each opens. The novel begins with Hazel on a train, going to Taulkinham "to do some things I never have done before" (5). In this way the journey motif of the novel is firmly established:
Hazel Motes sat at a forward angle on the green plush train seat, looking one minute at the window as if he might want to jump out of it, and the next down the aisle at the other end of the car. The train was racing through tree tops that fell away at intervals and showed the sun standing, very red, on the edge of the farthest woods. Nearer, the plowed fields curved and faded and the few hogs nosing in the furrows looked like large spotted stones. Mrs. Wally Bee Hitchcock, who was facing Motes in the section, said that she thought the early evening like this was the prettiest time of day and she asked him if he didnt think so too. She was a fat woman with pink collars and cuffs and pear-shaped legs that slanted off the train seat and didnt reach the floor (3).
This opening thrusts us immediately into OConnors grotesque comic world. The physical setting is sketched in very briefly; the emphasis is on the peculiarities of character. From the very first pages of the novel, Hazel is rude, nervous, obnoxious, socially inept, and aggressively promoting his nihilist rejection of Jesus with everyone he meets. The reader is likely to be both fascinated and repelled by his behavior. The opening unsettles us, distances us with its bizarre religiosity, unappealing characters, and the black humor of its imagery.
The  film's introduction, however, concentrates on establishing the physical setting. In this title sequence, the use of black and white instead of color, of stills instead of video, creates a documentary-like effect.9 These images, the film seems to proclaim, are fact, not fiction; they present a "real" location for the fictional story that follows. In their representation of a world that is rural, poor, and imbued with signs of fundamentalist Christianity, these images also conform to the familiar ideas about the South that have been generated by popular culture and media representations. As the title sequence fades, the black and white images are replaced by an establishing shot (in color now) of a dusty crossroads, where we see a lone figure standing, waiting silently in the landscape. Whereas the opening of the novel begins with character, the film begins with place, and whereas O’Connor’s grotesque comic reality places the reader at an ironic distance, the films use of the conventional modes of cinematic realisma title sequence that firmly places the film in a particular world, an establishing shot that allows the viewer to become familiar with the look and feel of the placepromotes a more sympathetic response in the viewer even before the characters are introduced.
While the novels plot begins with Hazel already on his way "to do some things," the films plot begins earlier, with Hazel arriving home after his Army service (in the novel, this scene is narrated in flashback, so it is background material, not part of the plot). In the frames that follow, "The Tennessee Waltz" comes up slowly in the background, continuing as Hazel wanders through the empty house, the light so dim we can hardly see him moving through the rooms. We have already heard this tune during the title sequence, where the slow, sweet banjo twang of the rendition helped establish the folksy southern locale. Here, it gains emotional and thematic resonance as well, becoming firmly associated with the idea of home and of loss. Throughout the film, the spectator is returned to the nostalgic mood of the opening each time this tune recurs. 10
This opening the wide-angle shot of a deserted crossroads, the initial silence after the music fades, the first bits of dialogue ("Everybody moved away," states the truck driver who picks up Hazel, " . . . or died"), the dilapidated house standing empty and alone in the midst of an overgrown field, the sad, nostalgic musicintroduces us to a man who has lost everyone and everything close to him, who has no family, no community, no home. Whereas the novels opening suggests moving forward, the films opening suggests overwhelming loss.
Further, Hustons decision to dramatize at the outset Hazels return home establishes a psychological rationale for Hazels behavior. At this point, viewers have yet to see how odd and unlikeable Hazel is, so their initial response is one of sympathy. This compassion may linger even when Hazels less likable self emerges since the viewers know of his loss of family and home. His subsequent behavior can easily be rationalized as that of someone trying to compensate for his losses.
Psychological motivation is also provided for Hazel in Hustons handling of the flashback sequences. He leaves out all references to Hazels motherincluding her spectacles and her Bible, objects that have significant symbolic import in the novel, focusing instead on Hazels grandfathers role in determining Hazels character. A small detail from one of these scenes illustrates Hustons method. During a sermon, the grandfather points at the young Hazel, shouting "even that boy thereJesus will chase him over the waters of sin; he will be redeemed; Jesus will never leave him. Never!" The camera then pans down to a puddle of urine forming under the boys chaira sign of fear and anxiety we can easily read. This small detail is not in the novel, although the language of the sermon is (10). When the shot fades back to the present moment, Hazel blurts out: "I dont have to run away from anything cause I dont believe in anything," but clearly he is runningnot from Jesus, necessarilybut from his grandfather and from his childhood. His need to deny Jesus can be read as his need to distance himself from his abusive past.
While Hustons construction of a psychological motivation for Hazels character does not guarantee that viewers will find him a sympathetic character, the film’s handling of the Enoch Emery character and subplot does make him sympathetic. In the book, the reader remains distanced from Enoch. He harasses the waitress at the cafe, he spies on the women sunbathing at the pool, he becomes obsessed with Hazel and then with Gonga the Gorilla, but never does he evince an emotional response to his situation that might elicit a comparable response in the reader. When he steals the gorilla suit, dons it, and then buries his old clothes, we understand that he has come into his own. The pronouns change; no longer "he," Enoch becomes an "it"at first expressing happiness, and then lacking expression altogether when he scares the people away, as if he has become the animal he so admired.
But in the film, his simplicity is child-like and rather appealing. None of the scenes where he spies on women or harasses them appears in the film. Throughout, Enoch is pathetically eager for Hazels attention and companionship. When Hazel rejects him he is visibly hurt, his eyes fill with tears, and as viewers we are likely to feel sorry for him. This compassion is further emphasized when we see Enoch repeatedly going through the line to shake Gongas hand (in the book he does this only once). Enochs devolution in the novel into a less-than-human state ironically mimics Christian conversion, as he buries his old (human) self and is reborn into his new (bestial) life. This transformation in the film, however, is played out in psychological terms. When he obtains the apesuit, he imagines it will bring him the friends and attention he so craves. But when he approaches people to shake their hands, he succeeds only in frightening them away.
One might suppose, if one thought of Jesuss message as being one of peace, love, and being kind to one another, that the induced compassion of the film would, in fact, make the Christian message of the novel accessible to more people. But OConnor had no use for such "soft" emotionalism. In "The Grotesque in Southern Fiction," she fairly sneers at the use of the word "compassion" to praise a writers work: "Usually," she says, "what is meant by it is that the writer excuses all human weakness because human weakness is human. " 11 OConnor believed that the world was already too lost for a traditional Christian humanism to have any impact on her readers; in fact, as Ralph C. Wood writes, OConnors characters "secular defeat is thus their religious victory; their human loss is their divine gain." 12
That the film works in human terms that actually run counter to OConnors Christian aims becomes even clearer in the last part of the film. The turning point of the story (in both versions) occurs when the police officer pushes Hazels car over the embankment. In the book, Hazel gazes out at the demise of his car:
Haze stood for a few minutes, looking over at the scene. His face seemed to reflect the entire distance across the clearing and on beyond, the entire distance that extended from his eyes to the blank gray sky that went on, depth after depth, into space. His knees bent under him and he sat down on the edge of the embankment with his feet hanging over.
The patrolman. . . . leaned on down with his hands on his knees and said in an anxious voice, "Was you going anywheres?"
"No," Haze said (107-8).
This is the moment Hazel Motes realizes the Truth: he wasn’t “going anywheres”--his gaze out at the view, and the depth of the vista
|" . . . in the film, Mrs. Flood’s metaphysical/spiritual questionings are largely absent."|
From the time Hazel blinds himself to the end, in both novel and film, the point of view switches from that of Hazel to that of Mrs. Flood. The narrators inability to see from Hazels viewpoint is a sign of Hazels retreat into himself. The landlady is our stand-inshe asks the questions were likely to ask: Why on earth would anybody blind himself? walk on rocks? strap barbed wire to his body? Why not just commit suicide? In the novel, we see a clear shift in Mrs. Floods attitude. At first she is concerned only about money and purely practical matters: "She liked the clear light of day. She liked to see things" (113). But after awhile, she begins for the first time to ponder metaphysical notions, such as what happens after death: "Every now and then she would have an intimation of something hidden near her but out of her reach" (115). We see that Hazels actions are responsible for a kind of spiritual awakening in Mrs. Floodin his martyrdom he serves as the vehicle for Mrs. Floods possible reception of grace, and because she serves as our eyes, she allows readers to access that same mystery.
But in the film, Mrs. Floods metaphysical/spiritual questionings are largely absent. Her attitudes do shift, but instead of showing Mrs. Flood pondering metaphysics, the film emphasizes her growing concern for Hazel as a human being. In her ability to find compassion for a man who has committed murder, who has rejected every human gesture, and who has devoted himself to apparently pointless self-mutilation, she draws us into the humanity of the physical world instead of into the mystery of the spiritual world. "If we dont help each other," Mrs. Flood says, "theres nobody to help us. . . . The world is a empty place." In the novel (118), this line reveals Mrs. Floods spiritual limitations, but in the context of the film, shes right. Christianity in this film offers only lies, manipulation, commercial exploitation, and violence; Hazels loss is explicitly pictured as a loss in human, worldly terms: family, home, community, human love and connections. So when Hazel rejects her offer of companionshipthe world does become an empty place.
This emptiness is illustrated in  the last scene of the film. In the book, as Hazel lies dead on the bed, Mrs. Floodimagining he is still alive, and dyingbends over him, staring into his burned-out eye sockets, trying to find some meaning there,
The implication is that Mrs. Flood has achieved at least the possibility of insight, of grace, through Hazels sacrificeshe sees the light in his eyes, and he becomes the light.
but she couldnt see anything. She shut her eyes and saw the pin point of light but so far away that she could not hold it steady in her mind. She felt as if she were blocked at the entrance of something. She sat staring with her eyes shut, into his eyes, and felt as if she had finally got to the beginning of something she couldnt begin, and she saw him moving farther and farther away, farther and farther into the darkness until he was the pin point of light (120).
In the film, the camera tracks back, the subjects become smaller and smaller, and then
|"This film illustrates the difference that faith can make, and it illustrates the limitations of the idea of 'faithfulness' as applied to film adaptations."|
But note how different the films focus of attention is. At the end of the novel, the readers attention is drawn inward, from Mrs. Flood into Hazels ravaged eyes, and then into Mrs. Floods minds eye. Only then do we have the image of Hazel moving farther and farther away until he becomes a pinpoint of light. The film, on the other hand, contains no images of eyes or of seeing that might suggest such enlightenment or understanding. Instead, the viewer sees Mrs. Flood only from the back and cannot see Hazels face at all. The figures get smaller and smaller in the frame, so that the point of viewfar from the introspective ending of the novelbecomes more distant, more detached. All the light is in the paintingin art, a human constructionnot in Hazel, not in God. 15
The use of the Shaker hymn here at the end might also be construed by some as evidence that Hazel has indeed reached his spiritual home. The hymn, the most overtly spiritual element of the ending, is heard only once before in the film, very near the beginning. In that scene, the "Tennessee Waltz" has accompanied Hazels walk through the ruined family home and followed him out to the cemetery, but then segues smoothlywith a continuous banjo accompanimentinto "Tis a Gift to Be Simple," as Hazel contemplates his grandfathers gravestone: "Gone to become an angle [sic]," it says. Perhaps the transition to a hymn here is meant to suggest the shift from secular to spiritual meanings, but it may also be meant to underscore the "simple" character of these people. According to film music scholar Tony Thomas, Huston asked composer Alex North for a score "of American folk music character, including the use of a number of folk themes." 16 Norths use of "A Gift To Be Simple" suggests this American folk character, and perhaps also alludes to Aaron Coplands Appalachian Spring. In Coplands piece, the Shaker hymn suggests not so much spiritual salvation as the value of a country home and family. In Wise Blood, the hymns association at the beginning with spiritual valuesvia Hazels contemplation of his grandfathers gravestonebecomes ironic as the film reveals that the grandfather has served more as instigator of psychological trauma than as provider of spiritual guidance for Hazel. So the return of this tune at the end of the film takes us, not beyond this world to a spiritual home, but back to the beginning of the film, to Hazels earthly home, where he finds the house abandoned and falling into ruins, and all his family dead and buried.
In the novel, human beings are fallen, but redeemed through grace. Human endeavor, compassion are not required, and are even irrelevant. At the end, grace is achieved, and Hazel finds his spiritual home. But Huston shows us a religion that has warped minds, that is used by charlatans and fools to swindle more fools, that is wrapped up with violence, murder, child abuse, and self-mutilation rather than peace, love, and forgiveness. In the film, Enochs and Hazels respective "jesuses" are more alike than different; their ends more similar than contrasting. The "true face" of Christianity is revealed, but it is a horrifying truth. Consider, for example, the murder of Solace Layfield. In the book, we have to see Hazes killing of Solace as a necessary part of the workings of graceSolace is redeemed through confession, and Hazel, by killing the false prophet, is ironically fulfilling the mission he refuses to recognize. But in the film, it is nearly impossible to see this murder in anything but concrete, physical terms. If this is part of Gods plan, the viewer undoubtedly wants to have none of it.
The film assumes its viewers will conceive of true religious feeling as encompassing compassion and human connections, and suggests that redemption could have been achieved through compassion: "if we dont help each other, theres nobody to help us. . . . The world is a empty place." So when Hazel is unable to recognize or value those human connections, when he rejects that offer, the world ends an empty place, and the film has come full circle back to the theme of overwhelming loss. In the context of the film, the loss that Hazel experiences at the beginning of the film, and which he spends the rest of the film trying to overcome, is explicitly pictured as a loss in human, worldly terms: family, home, community, human love and connections. When he fails to make connections, to find the love and community he lacks, it is apparent that he has failed.
But does this significant difference in theme mean that the film fails in its depiction of the novel? I would argue no. Rather, this difference confirms OConnors sense of the significance of belief. The difference between the film and the novel is analogous to the difference between the two kinds of novelists OConnor defines in her essay "The Grotesque in Southern Fiction":
All novelists are fundamentally seekers and describers of the real, but the realism of each novelist will depend on his view of the ultimate reaches of reality. . . . If the novelist . . . believes that actions are predetermined by psychic make-up or the economic situation or some other determinable factor, then he will be concerned above all with an accurate reproduction of the things that most immediately concern man, with the natural forces that he feels control his destiny. Such a writer may produce a great tragic naturalism, for by his responsibility to the things he sees, he may transcend the limitations of his narrow vision.
On the other hand, if the writer believes that our life is and will remain essentially mysterious, if he looks upon us as beings existing in a created order to whose laws we freely respond, then what he sees on the surface will be of interest to him only as he can go through it into an experience of mystery itself. His kind of fiction will always be pushing its own limits outward toward the limits of mystery, because for this kind of writer, the meaning of a story does not begin except at a depth where adequate motivation and adequate psychology and the various determinations have been exhausted. 17
The terms she uses to delineate the differences between these two kinds of writers describe the differences between the two versions of Wise Blood. Both are "describers of the real," but the film remains firmly grounded in the material world, and soin OConnors terms, at leastit is a human rather than a Christian story, and its ending is tragic rather than comic, because it offers no redemption other than that to be found on earth, which neither Hazel nor any of the other characters seems to be able to achieve.
This film illustrates the difference that faith can make, and it illustrates the limitations of the idea of "faithfulness" as applied to film adaptations. A film adaptation is not a duplication of a novel; it is an interpretation. Evaluated in terms of its ability to translate the original text verbatim, a film will always fail. Evaluated as an interpretation, it may be persuasive in its own right, and it may illuminate the original text, allowing us to view it in a new way. John Hustons Wise Blood may not offer its audience the hope of eternal salvation that OConnors novel does, but the reader who also sees Hustons film may come away with a greater appreciation for the significance of faith in OConnors novel.
1. See, for example, Laura J. Menides, "Wise Blood and the Myth of the Sacred Quest," Literature/Film Quarterly 9 (1981): 207-212 and Joy Gould Boyum, Double Exposure: Fiction Into Film (New York: Universe Books, 1985).Return
2. Flannery OConnor, preface to Wise Blood, in Three by Flannery OConnor: Wise Blood, The Violent Bear It Away, Everything That Rises Must Converge (New York: New America Library, 1983), 2.Return
3. For my understanding of the semiotic approach to film analysis, I am indebted to James Monacos overview of the subject in How to Read a Film, rev. ed. (NY: Oxford UP, 1981), chapter 3.Return
4. Flannery OConnor, Wise Blood, in Three by Flannery OConnor: Wise Blood, The Violent Bear It Away, Everything That Rises Must Converge (New York: New America Library, 1983), 3-4. All quotations from Wise Blood come from this edition; subsequent page numbers are cited in the text.Return
5. Monaco, 127-8.Return
6. Siegfried Kracauer argues that part of the psychology of viewing film is losing a sense of ones own identity in the image on the screen, in "The Spectator," in Gerald Mast and Marshall Cohen, eds., Film Theory and Criticism: Introductory Readings (New York: Oxford UP, 1974).Return
7. Joy Gould Boyum writes that OConnors work would seem to be unfilmable because of its symbolic nature, its grotesque black comedy, and its bizarre religiosity: "All of this is certainly enough to defy a medium such as film, with its affinity for the real and its difficulty in distancing us from the dreadful" (175). For Boyum, then, the fact that Hustons film humanizes the characters, lessens the distance between the viewer and the character, makes it a better adaptation.Return
8. Flannery OConnor, preface to Wise Blood, 2. This comment suggests OConnor may have supported a reader-response approach to her work. Such a readingimplying that meaning is produced by the consumer rather than being inherent in the workwould be consistent with much current film theory. See, for example, John Storey, An Introductory Guide To Cultural Theory and Popular Culture (New York: Harvester/Wheatsheaf, 1993), 6. But one of the things I think this paper illustrates is that a film "adaptation" is necessarily an interpretation. By its very nature film tends to be less able to support multiple meanings; meaning may still be produced by the consumer, but the possibilities for interpretation are significantly limited.Return
9. Michael Klein, "Visualization and Signification in John Hustons Wise Blood: The Redemption of Reality. . . ," Literature/Film Quarterly 12 (1984): 230-236.Return
10. Its return when Hazel is murdering Solace Layfield provides an especially clever layering of emotions: horror at Hazels act, tempered by our remembrance of his losses, and suggesting perhaps a final, heavenly "home" for Solace.Return
11. Flannery OConnor, "Some Aspects of the Grotesque in Southern Fiction," in Mystery and Manners (NY: Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1969), 43.Return
12. Ralph C. Wood, The Comedy of Redemption: Christian Faith and Comic Vision in Four American Novelists (Notre Dame IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1988), 80.Return
13. Double Exposure: Fiction Into Film (New York: Universe Books, 1985), 181.Return
14. "Wise Blood and the Myth of the Sacred Quest," Literature/Film Quarterly 9 (1981), 209.Return
15. Michael Klein is more cautious, arguing that the scene is ambiguous. He does note the difference between the pinpoint of light and the painting, and suggests that "redemptionwhether individual or socialis but a possibility" ("Visualization and Signification in John Hustons Wise Blood: The Redemption of Reality. . . ," Literature/Film Quarterly 12 , 235).Return
16. Tony Thomas, Film Score: The Art and Craft of Movie Music (Burbank CA: Riverwood Press, 1991), 192.Return
17. Flannery OConnor, "Some Aspects of the Grotesque in Southern Fiction," 4041.Return