Modernists on Screen


From time to time we hear about the so-called ‘unfilmable’ novels that are made into films; these novels usually present intricate plots – often involving self-reflection, characters’ inner thoughts –  and span across space/time in a way that conventional film narrative rarely treats stories. Recent examples could be film such as  “Cloud Atlas” and “The Life of Pi” but when talking about adaptations the Modernist novel often comes to mind when considering narrative complexity. This year’s London Film Festival includes “As I Lay Dying”, directed by James Franco and based on William Faulkner’s 1930 novel by the same title. Faulkner encompassed many types of written works, including novels, short stories, plays, screenplays and poems. In 1949 he received the Nobel Prize for Literature. His style could be identified with that of the American Modernism. When I heard about the making of this film I was just delving into the subject matter  – with my undergrad dissertation being a study of Mordernist fiction transposed to the screen. The obscurity of some of these works has become somewhat legendary and for this reason they are often regarded as unlikely choices for a film adaptation. It could be argued though that Modernist fiction has more in common with cinema than the more canonical adaptations of other literary traditions.

First of all, ‘Modernity’ is a word which can mean many things. At the turn of the 20th century there was a general sense of change, not only in the Arts but also in the way human consciousness was perceived and represented, as attested by Freud’s psychoanalytical studies. Scientific discoveries like Einstein’s Theory of Relativity posed a new level of reality in which things suddenly started having multiple readings. In philosophy, thinkers like Bergson gave new perspectives to the way we perceived time, which then became a subjective experience. In literature, the impulse to modernise the novel dates back at least to the 1850s with Flaubert’s “Madame Bovary”. Modernism reached its peak in the 1920s; the pillars of modern literature are normally identified with the works of Joyce, Woolf and Proust. Of course Modernism included many more authors and works of literature across the 20th century but they all shared some characteristics. Time and its recollection is usually one of the core elements of Modernist novels; characters tend to shape their personalities based on their past experiences. We also enter their minds with literary techniques such as the stream of consciousness and the interior monologue. A quintessential element of the Modernist literature is the wanderer, probably depicting the feeling of strand-ness of the modern men and women.

The unique characteristic of Modernist writers (unlike their predecessors) is that they witnessed the birth of cinema and the first examples of literature to film adaptations. Some writers like Lev Tolstoy, James Joyce and Virginia Woolf had neutral or mixed opinions, other authors like George Orwell and D. H. Lawrence were entirely against cinema – which they regarded as an empty tool subduing the masses. Allegedly, Joyce met with Eisenstein in 1929 and, although he was irremediably blind at that point, it seems Eisenstein was one of the few directors he might have entrusted to adapt “Ulysses” for the screen. Joyce did go to the cinema but there are no specific records of films he saw or which particularly impressed him. Woolf, on the other hand, wrote an essay on cinema, her general opinion being that film audiences were like savages and cinema a predator that feasted on literature, its prey. Nonetheless she concluded her essay saying that cinema should avoid what is accessible to the words (like literal adaptations of more realist fictions); according to her cinema possessed the power to render feeling and emotions –through abstract images and music – in a possibly better way than literature. She ended by saying that cinema as an art was yet to be fully formed despite possessing a technical proficiency which was exclusive among all other arts. It does not sound unlikely than that some later authors, like Faulkner himself, went on to write screenplays too.


In his “As I Lay Dying” we follow a family through a troubled journey to bring their mother to her gravesite. The book is narrated by fifteen different characters, each overlapping each other in the recollection of their family stories. We shift back and forth in time, with a chapter also by Addie Bundren, the dead mother. Like Joyce and Woolf, Faulkner employed the stream of consciousness and the interior monologue. For some aspects, modernist novels might look like un-adaptable novels to be transposed to the screen, but it has also been argued that films are quintessentially modernist. Some directors indeed based their films on novels of the Modernist tradition although the majority of commercial films nowadays tend to come from literary adaptations of other sorts (how many ‘Austens’ and ‘Dickens’ have we watched?). The theory of adaptation is a vast field of study and I will not delve into it but everyone who has read “As I Lay Dying” will certainly wonder how Mr Franco will adapt such a book for the screen.

This is not the only Faulkner adaptation he will direct though: “The Sound and the Fury” based on the same novel by Faulkner published one year before “As I Lay Dying” is supposedly in pre-production and is rumoured to star Dave Franco, Danny McBride, Joey King, Jon Hamm, Scott Haze (the only that seems to be confirmed for the role of Jason Compson IV) and Franco himself. Often called a ‘renaissance man’, he is now not only an established actor and director, but also writer, columnist, teacher and visual artist. Among his countless projects lots of film come from poems and novels of the literary tradition and, given his more experimental works, it is perhaps no wonder that he chose to bring this novel to the screen. One user reviewing one of his latest books, “A California Childhood” called it ‘Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man’ recalling Joyce’s literary alter ego, Stephen Dedalus. In the 20th century the field for innovation was in the written medium, cinema on the other hand always had the impulse for experimentation. Nowadays it seems that film adaptations are shifting towards new literary sources, bringing more daring stories to the screen and the general public.

“As I Lay Dying” will premiere at the BFI London Film Festival on the 10th of October and will be accompanied by a free talk “William Faulkner: Film Noir and Nobel Prizes” on the 12th of October.

Elisa was born in the small town of Udine, Italy, where she made her first short films. Aged 18 she moved to London where she achieved a degree in Film & Broadcast Production with her film "A Tragedy", based on William Shakespeare's "Macbeth". She recently pursued a Master degree in Screenwriting for TV and Film thus joining the group of struggling writers. Ssst! She's brainstorming.