Friday, May 15, 2009

Wise Blood goes digital

Last Sunday our pastor opened his sermon by telling the story of his conversion. One of the signposts on the spiritual journey that culminated in his becoming a Christian in college was reading -- and writing an essay on -- Flannery O'Connor's novel Wise Blood for a high school English class. This week John Huston's 1979 movie adaptation of Wise Blood was released on DVD for the first time ever in a pristine digital transfer from the folks at Criterion. To go along with the release posted a terrific essay by Francine Prose (great name for a writer btw) on the strange marriage between two great American artists of the 20th century.

John Huston (1906 - 1987) had a knack for successfully adapting supposedly unadaptable novels -- Dashiell Hammett's The Maltese Falcon and James Joyce's The Dead being two prominent examples that bookend his long and varied list of credits. Huston was thus a natural choice when producer/screenwriter Michael Fitzgerald went looking for a director to translate O'Connor's unique Roman Catholic meets Southern Gothic sensibility to the big screen. Though Huston didn't share O'Connor's Christian worldview, to say the least, he managed to make a film that conveyed her clear-eyed unsentimental brand of faith in spite of himself. Prose surmises that this brilliant lady of American letters, who died all too soon at age 39, would have been pleased.

The Fitzgeralds [the film's producers] 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.

Read the whole thing

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