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David Milch gets his !@#$%^&* hands on Faulkner. Will literature survive?

December 1, 2011

Deadwood's Al Swearingin. McShane would have to change neither costume nor facial expression for Flem Snopes.

I can see it now: Ian McShane as Flem Snopes, scheming his way to prosperity and ruin, plus bare butts, copious poetic cussing, graphic violence, and the other niceties Milch bestowed upon a grateful nation in Deadwood and NYPD Blue.

Wow. When I think of it that way, maybe Milich isn’t such a bad fit for the Faulkner franchise after all. Which is not the same thing as saying that it’s a good idea to turn Faulkner’s dense, forbidding novels into movies and miniseries.

“I’m not, probably, the first person they would have thought of approaching them,” Milch told The New York Times yesterday, referring to the William Faulkner Literary Estate. “But a number of conversations were fruitful and here we are.”

Milch received a sweeping deal — the rights to 19 novels and 125 short stories, according to the Washington Post – but he doesn’t get everything. Books already under contracted aren’t included. Among them: As I Lay Dying, which belongs to Renaissance man James Franco.

Not everything Milch cobbles together out of Faulkner’s corpus is sure to land on HBO, which has only first-look rights. Some adaptations may result in feature films, according to the Huffington Post.

Known for his success with NYPD Blue, Deadwood (and a spectacular failure with the mystic surfer drama John From Cincinnati), Milch does own literary chops.

Before Hollywood, he studied at the Iowa Writers Workshop, the oldest and most distinguished fine arts writing program in the nation. What’s more, his professors included Southern lit-luminaries Robert Penn Warren and Cleanth Brooks, so he might have an inkling or two into Faulkner’s antiquarian Southern gothic sensibility.

A Q&A with the L.A. Times reveals Milch to be discursive, verbally flamboyant, and pompous — none of which disqualifies him from tackling Old Bill, who, especially in the novels, not only displays these same qualities but as if by magic somehow turns them into art.

Faulkner, in case you were nodding in college, won the 1949 Nobel Prize for a body of work that mixed modernistic, frequently stream-of-consciousness narrative with a lushly morbid sensibility in stories and novels set mostly in the Reconstruction South around his hometown of Oxford, Mississippi, famously recast as Yoknapatawpha County.

Novels like the gloriously impenetrable The Sound and the Fury have been the bane of college students for three generations now, but Faulkner really has only one rival — Mark Twain — for the title of greatest American novelist. One of my English professors told me back in the 1970s that only Shakespeare had more scholarly papers and books written about his works than Faulkner.

Faulkner is also famous for the profound influence his work exerts on world literature, especially Latin America, where Gabriel Garcia Marquez and other imminent novelists credit him in part for inspiring the invention of Magical Realism.

But Faulkner has resisted film adaptation — even though, ironically, he toiled as a Hollywood hack himself, writing scripts for classic films such as The Big Sleep, based on Raymond Chandler’s novel, and To Have and Have Not — the only movie written by one Nobel Prize winner, based on a novel about another Nobel Prize winner, Ernest Hemingway.

Many have tried to adapt Faulkner  – director Mark Rydell and star Steve McQueen made hash of The Reivers (1969), and it mostly goes downhill from there. I can think of only one film worth watching, The Long, Hot Summer, pieced together from bits of the stories Barn Burning and Spotted Horses and the novel the Hamlet.

Uh, the Paul Newman/Joanne Woodward 1958 version, not the 1985 TV movie with Don Johnson and Cybil Shepherd. Did I even need to say that?

The question is whether what makes Faulkner great — the writing, more than the plots — can be translated successfully to the screen. How, for example, does a filmmaker convey the long stream-of-consciousness section from the novella The Bear? (Please, God, not a montage — anything but a montage!)

Milch is confident, telling the L.A. Times: “To me he seems enormously cinematic.”

No word yet on what Faulkner work will go before the cameras first. As a reader who favors the short stories over the novels (okay, I’m a philistine), and also one who was delighted to discover the hard-edged humor in some of Faulkner’s work, I’d like to suggest the story Spotted Horses.

My guess, though, is that Milich and HBO will go straight for the lurid melodrama of Sanctuary, in which a pretty but neurotic judge’s daughter, Temple Drake, (may I suggest Evan Rachel Wood?) is raped with a corn cob by an impotent gunsel. That is, after all, a story line that would have been right at home in Deadwood.

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