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David Milch will tackle William Faulkner's works for HBO

The creator of 'Deadwood' and 'NYPD Blue' figures to have a formidable challenge adapting the author's often-confounding stories for TV.

December 25, 2011|By Scott Timberg, Special to the Los Angeles Times
  • WILLIAM FAULKNER'S novels have been adapted before but with little success. David Milch, right, likes to tackle serious themes and literature. He has been lauded for "Deadwood."
WILLIAM FAULKNER'S novels have been adapted before but with little… (Carl Van Vechten / Doug Hyun…)

At first hearing, it sounds like an instant entry in the history of bad ideas: Take one of literature's most confounding, Baroque and at times abstract novelists and turn his books into TV, a medium that honors the literal and straightforward.

And do it — probably at great expense — over and over again.

On closer inspection, the pairing of David Milch — whose "Deadwood" and "NYPD Blue" took television about as close to art film as it's likely to get — with William Faulkner, author of some of the most profound and important American novels — may be so crazy it could actually work.

HBO has released few details about the agreement, announced this month, between Milch and the William Faulkner literary estate to steer the adaptation of what may be numerous novels and stories. (Milch's daughter Olivia will be coordinating producer.) Scholars seem to be both wary and excited.

"Faulkner's work is so cinematic," says Thomas Hines, a cultural historian at UCLA who knew the author slightly while growing up in Mississippi. "Faulkner people have said, 'What's going on? Is the work just too difficult? Is Hollywood just not able to do this? Are they just interested in the sex?'"

But he sees enormous potential to the writer's work on the big or small screen, thanks to "the flash forwards, the flashbacks, the layering, in the many things happening at the same time. We keep asking ourselves, 'Which European filmmaker is going to do this?'"

Hines, author of "William Faulkner and the Tangible Past: The Architecture of Yoknapatawpha," describes himself as split between "excitement and trepidation. Faulkner," he says, "is just too good to mess up. And he has been messed up."

Fred Hobson, who teaches Southern literature at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, is similarly intrigued. The more accessible, plot-driven novels — perhaps "Light in August," about the mysterious and racially ambiguous Joe Christmas — would be the most natural for television, he believes. But he'd like to see Milch and company tackle the difficult, ambiguous "Absalom, Absalom!" — arguably the 20th century's great American novel. The book is a nonlinear story within a story in which a Southerner away at Harvard recounts a Mississippi murder of many years ago.

"I'd like to see it focus in the story of Quentin Compson, a young man struggling with the burden of Southern history, who can't take what he finds when he digs into the past."

Hard to adapt

Sex, violence, racial tension, guilt and shame — Faulkner's work appears to have something for everyone. Directors in both television and film, unsurprisingly, have tried their hands at the writer, who spent most of his life in Oxford, Miss., along with some time in Hollywood. (Despite his work's supposed timelessness, his stock sank badly during his lifetime: By the time of his 1949 Nobel Prize, nearly all of his books were out of print.)

But for all the adaptations, there's nothing resembling a masterpiece.

Hines lists a number he's seen — two "Sanctuary" adaptations, the meager 1959 film of "The Sound and the Fury" — without much enthusiasm, though he likes Douglas Sirk's version of "Pylon," from '57, "The Tarnished Angels."

"It's generally agreed that the most successful adaptation of Faulkner was Clarence Brown's 'Intruder in the Dust,'" in 1949, a mystery novel of sorts about a black farmer accused of murder. But Hines' favorite is "Tomorrow," the 1972 film based on the story of that name starring Southerner Robert Duvall.

Hobson also describes himself as disappointed by what he's seen, such as the 1969 film of "The Reivers" and the 1980 Tommy Lee Jones-starring TV movie of "Barn Burning." It's the inability of these projects to really get the essence of Faulkner that makes people drool at the idea of the books being done right. (Could an adaptation vivify the work, Hobson wonders, the way "The Hours" — filtered through a Michael Cunningham novel — did a Virginia Woolf novel?)

Some writers have wish lists: Salman Rushdie told Slate he was hoping for a new "Sanctuary" and "The Sound and the Fury"; Francine Prose mentioned "Light in August" and the story "Barn Burning," adding that she looked forward to "lots of voice-over, those gorgeous Faulknerian sentences."

The writer's time in Hollywood — he came out on the invitation of Howard Hawks and worked for MGM, Warner Bros. and Twentieth Century Fox — was like these adaptations: not a complete disaster but not entirely fruitful either. He ran with Bogart and Bacall and had an affair with Hawks' secretary. A character in the Coen brothers' "Barton Fink," a comic-pretentious Southern aristocrat who's often drunk, is a kind of exaggerated Faulkner.

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