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(Click for Details)Faithfulness vs. Faith:
John Huston’s Version of Flannery O’Connor’s Wise Blood

Pamela Demory/Lecturer in English, University of California, Davis

Flannery O’Connor’s 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 characters—con-artist preachers, a shrunken mummy, Gonga the gorilla, and other assorted misfits—and the plot includes scenes of illicit sex, self-flagellation, and murder. But it is also a novel about the miracle and mystery of God’s 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 novel—with 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. "

symbolism—to film is daunting. Yet critics have praised John Huston’s 1979 film adaptation of Wise Blood for its faithfulness to the novel. Cast, setting, plot, even dialogue, seem lifted right off the page.1   What is more, Huston presents Hazel’s quest for salvation seriously, as a sincere search for faith in a crass and commercial world. Even when he alters the text, he often does so in a way that is consistent with O’Connor’s themes. Late in the film, for example, he has Hazel’s decrepit car roll into a lake (in the novel, it merely comes to rest in a field), in a comic parody of baptism. And in several places he uses mise-en-scène to provide brilliant visual analogues to O’Connor’s text. In one scene, for example, he creates a shot of Sabbath holding the shrunken mummy, a blanket draped around her head and arms, that clearly alludes to the Madonna and Child. And when Hazel and Solace Layfield (the "false prophet" and inverted twin of Hazel) are both preaching from the tops of their cars, Huston alternates graphically matched, low-angle shots of the two—behind Solace Layfield, we see an enormous "Pepsi-Cola" sign, and behind Hazel an equally large "Jesus Cares" sign. These shots emphasize the commercialization of religion that is a major theme of the story, and support O’Connor’s assertion (in her preface to the novel) that Hazel Motes cannot escape Christ, no matter how hard he tries.2  

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 they’ve 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 crimes—murder and theft—that makes either Hazel’s less significant or Enoch’s 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 Hazel’s quest is a matter of life and death, whereas Enoch can mount only a pathetic imitation. All in all, Huston’s use of cinematic techniques effectively suggests the way O’Connor’s 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 O’Connor describes Hazel as having "a nose like a shrike’s 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 [film clip] 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 O’Connor’s character, but the image of his face does not carry the symbolic suggestiveness of O’Connor’s description—the shrike’s 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. O’Connor’s biting imagery (e.g., "her hair was so thin it looked like ham gravy trickling over her skull" [23], or "He looked like a friendly hound dog with light mange" [21]), 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 O’Connor’s belief in mystery. She insists that God’s will is not explained—or explainable—by 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, Huston’s 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 O’Connor 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, Hazel’s integrity lies in his not being able to.8  

So, for O’Connor 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."

subtle changes in narrative order, characterization, and imagery make Huston’s version a more human story than is O’Connor’s. But to humanize O’Connor’s story is to take it out of the realm of spiritual mystery and to place it into the realm of mundane reality; to close the ironic distance between the story of Hazel Motes and the consumer (whether that be reader or spectator) is to change comedy to tragedy. 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. In the film, when Hazel Motes ultimately reverts to his childhood faith, he is defeated, not saved.

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 didn’t think so too. She was a fat woman with pink collars and cuffs and pear-shaped legs that slanted off the train seat and didn’t reach the floor (3).

This opening thrusts us immediately into O’Connor’s 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 clip] 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 film’s use of the conventional modes of cinematic realism—a 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 place—promotes a more sympathetic response in the viewer even before the characters are introduced.

While the novel’s plot begins with Hazel already on his way "to do some things," the film’s 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—[film clip] 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 music—introduces us to a man who has lost everyone and everything close to him, who has no family, no community, no home. Whereas the novel’s opening suggests moving forward, the film’s opening suggests overwhelming loss.

Further, Huston’s decision to dramatize at the outset Hazel’s return home establishes a psychological rationale for Hazel’s 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 Hazel’s 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 Huston’s handling of the flashback sequences. He leaves out all references to Hazel’s mother—including her spectacles and her Bible, objects that have significant symbolic import in the novel, focusing instead on Hazel’s grandfather’s role in determining Hazel’s character. A small detail from one of these scenes illustrates Huston’s method. During a sermon, the grandfather points at the young Hazel, shouting "even that boy there—Jesus 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 boy’s chair—a 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 don’t have to run away from anything ‘cause I don’t believe in anything," but clearly he is running—not from Jesus, necessarily—but 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 Huston’s construction of a psychological motivation for Hazel’s 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 Hazel’s 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 Gonga’s hand (in the book he does this only once). Enoch’s 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 Jesus’s 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 O’Connor 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 writer’s work: "Usually," she says, "what is meant by it is that the writer excuses all human weakness because human weakness is human. " 11 O’Connor 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, O’Connor’s 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 O’Connor’s 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 Hazel’s 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."

before him suggests the profound revelation he is experiencing. He sees here what he has not seen before (and such "seeing" is an important metaphor for O’Connor). But in the film, there is no view, no shot of Hazel’s face, no dawning revelation. Instead, the shot of the car in the lake cuts directly to a shot of the lime in Hazel’s hand with which he will blind himself. The result is similar—we understand that the loss of the car is the last straw, that Hazel realizes he can’t escape his fate. But without the view, viewers have no reason to suspect that fate is divinely arranged, only that his past has caught up with him.

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 narrator’s inability to see from Hazel’s viewpoint is a sign of Hazel’s retreat into himself. The landlady is our stand-in—she asks the questions we’re 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. Flood’s 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 Hazel’s actions are responsible for a kind of spiritual awakening in Mrs. Flood—in his martyrdom he serves as the vehicle for Mrs. Flood’s possible reception of grace, and because she serves as our eyes, she allows readers to access that same mystery.

But in the film, Mrs. Flood’s 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 don’t help each other," Mrs. Flood says, "there’s nobody to help us. . . . The world is a empty place." In the novel (118), this line reveals Mrs. Flood’s spiritual limitations, but in the context of the film, she’s right. Christianity in this film offers only lies, manipulation, commercial exploitation, and violence; Hazel’s 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 companionship—the world does become an empty place.

This emptiness is illustrated in [film clip] the last scene of the film. In the book, as Hazel lies dead on the bed, Mrs. Flood—imagining he is still alive, and dying—bends over him, staring into his burned-out eye sockets, trying to find some meaning there,

but she couldn’t 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 couldn’t 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).

The implication is that Mrs. Flood has achieved at least the possibility of insight, of grace, through Hazel’s sacrifice—she sees the light in his eyes, and he becomes the light.

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."

the camera pans up to focus on the painting on the wall. At the very end,  a solo trumpet performs  the Shaker hymn, "Tis a Gift to Be Simple."   Some viewers have found the camera movement from Mrs. Flood and Hazel up to the painting, with its brilliant shaft of light, a clear analogue for the end of the novel. Joy Gould Boyum, for example, finds the final shot "a fairly effective equivalent of the novel’s closing image, in which Haze becomes a ‘pinpoint of light’ in Mrs. Flood’s inner eye." 13   Laura J. Menides argues that the end of the film shows Hazel achieving his sacred goal. 14  

But note how different the film’s focus of attention is. At the end of the novel, the reader’s attention is drawn inward, from Mrs. Flood into Hazel’s ravaged eyes, and then into Mrs. Flood’s mind’s 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 Hazel’s face at all. The figures get smaller and smaller in the frame, so that the point of view—far from the introspective ending of the novel—becomes more distant, more detached. All the light is in the painting—in art, a human construction—not 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 Hazel’s walk through the ruined family home and followed him out to the cemetery, but then segues smoothly—with a continuous banjo accompaniment—into "‘Tis a Gift to Be Simple," as Hazel contemplates his grandfather’s 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   North’s use of "A Gift To Be Simple" suggests this American folk character, and perhaps also alludes to Aaron Copland’s Appalachian Spring. In Copland’s piece, the Shaker hymn suggests not so much spiritual salvation as the value of a country home and family. In Wise Blood, the hymn’s association at the beginning with spiritual values—via Hazel’s contemplation of his grandfather’s gravestone—becomes 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 Hazel’s 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, Enoch’s and Hazel’s 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 Haze’s killing of Solace as a necessary part of the workings of grace—Solace 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 God’s 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 don’t help each other, there’s 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 O’Connor’s 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 O’Connor 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 so—in O’Connor’s terms, at least—it 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 Huston’s Wise Blood may not offer its audience the hope of eternal salvation that O’Connor’s novel does, but the reader who also sees Huston’s film may come away with a greater appreciation for the significance of faith in O’Connor’s novel.

Wise Blood was directed by John Huston and produced by Michael and Kathy Fitzgerald (© Ithaca Productions, 1979). Wise Blood is available for purchase through Universal Studios Home Video. Video clips displayed at this site are for educational purposes only.

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 O’Connor, preface to Wise Blood, in Three by Flannery O’Connor: 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 Monaco’s overview of the subject in How to Read a Film, rev. ed. (NY: Oxford UP, 1981), chapter 3. Return

4.  Flannery O’Connor, Wise Blood, in Three by Flannery O’Connor: 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 one’s 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 O’Connor’s 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 Huston’s film humanizes the characters, lessens the distance between the viewer and the character, makes it a better adaptation. Return

8.  Flannery O’Connor, preface to Wise Blood, 2. This comment suggests O’Connor may have supported a reader-response approach to her work. Such a reading—implying that meaning is produced by the consumer rather than being inherent in the work—would 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 Huston’s 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 Hazel’s act, tempered by our remembrance of his losses, and suggesting perhaps a final, heavenly "home" for Solace. Return

11.  Flannery O’Connor, "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

13Double 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 "redemption—whether individual or social—is but a possibility" ("Visualization and Signification in John Huston’s Wise Blood: The Redemption of Reality. . . ," Literature/Film Quarterly 12 [1984], 235). Return

16.  Tony Thomas, Film Score: The Art and Craft of Movie Music (Burbank CA: Riverwood Press, 1991), 192. Return

17.  Flannery O’Connor, "Some Aspects of the Grotesque in Southern Fiction," 40–41. Return

© 1998-99 by The Journal of Southern Religion. All rights reserved. ISSN 1094-5234

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