Because my film adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s book, Child of God, will be released this August, I thought I would publish a discussion I had on my previous attempts at transforming literature into film. When I was at NYU, I made three short films based on the following poems: “The Feast of Stephen” (Anthony Hecht), “Herbert White” (Frank Bidart), and “The Clerk’s Tale” (Spencer Reece). What you will read below is a talk I had about those films, chiefly The Feast of Stephen, with Matt Rager. Matt co-wrote the screenplays for my movies The Sound and the Fury and As I Lay Dying—both of which are also adaptations. During my talk with Matt, we touched on everything from what it means to adapt a film to the impact constraints can have on the creative process.
Matt Rager: Anytime people view a film adaptation of a piece of literature, they talk in terms of how “true” it was to the original. But all film adaptations are interpretations. They’re translations from text to sound and moving images. Adapting poems into film seems to require even more overt interpretation, because they often lack a narrative structure and rely on metaphor and ambiguity. So what does it mean to be “true” to those poems? And how important was this (if at all) to you in the making of your films?
James Franco: Poems are denser than prose writing. And they depend on language, syntax, diction, lineation, and metaphor in ways that films do not. I chose three narrative poems, but they are still much more diffuse and allusive than most short stories. “Herbert White” and “The Clerk’s Tale” are told in the first person, so we get a sense of the characters just from the way they tell their stories. Those characters were something that I could center the narratives on.
To adapt the poems directly to the screen might involve those characters talking right to the audience, reading the text, since these poems are poems of characters relating their experience. But that was not what I wanted. Narration is a device that puts an additional mediating layer of interpretation between the audience and the characters/action. I wanted to deliver visceral films and connect the audience with the experience of the narratives, rather than telling them what the experience was. The poems themselves were already giving the telling experience. As poems, they were being told in a very sculpted and precise way. The structures of the poems commented on the material and shaped the material as much as the actual stories did. The how had as much influence as the what. My goal was to keep as much of the what intact while changing the how.
The poems “Herbert White” and “The Clerk’s Tale” have more of a narrative structure than “The Feast of Stephen.” “The Feast of Stephen” does not focus on distinct characters, and as a result it has an abstract quality. In film version of The Feast of Stephen, you focalize the scenes through the perspective of an individual character. Could you talk a little more about the decision of making this shift?
Of the three poems, this was the one that had the least character development. It has characters in it, and there is a progression, but until the last stanza, the characters are described as a group, rather than as distinct individuals. The first two stanzas, set in a locker room and a basketball gymnasium, describe boys coming into their new bodies. The boys are not differentiated. Sometimes there is subtle distancing from these boys, like the last two lines of the second stanza that seems to be describing the gym from a distance. Let’s associate this subtle distant perspective with the authorial perspective. Even when the boys are described as inspecting each other, it doesn’t sound as if the voice of the poem is their voice. It is too sophisticated, the metaphors are too advanced, the diction too high. So there is another kind of consciousness present, even if it isn’t described within the actual substance of the poem. In the third stanza, there is a sharp change in the development of the poem’s subject: The pubescent and exploring boys are now described as violent. They are compared to an SS officer and are at an ominous hangout where there are cracked mirrors and weapons like gasoline and knives. The members of the group are not individuated, but the group’s identification has changed: The inchoate boys have become evil and potentially destructive. The last stanza finally differentiates some of the characters: There is a violent group of boys and two new characters, one described as a “young Saul,” which is an allusion to the apostle Paul before he was converted to Christianity on the road to Damascus. Before he was Paul, he was Saul—a man who would hold the clothes of the Roman soldiers as they destroyed the Christian martyrs. The metaphor of a “young Saul” recasts the teenage beating scene with a much deeper significance. The boy who is being beaten is another new character freshly differentiated from the group. He is compared to a martyr. It is not clear why he is being beaten, although the first two stanzas lean heavily on homoerotic descriptions, suggesting that violence is homophobic in nature. If the first stanzas show the boys in a state of discovery and uncertainty, the later stanzas could be read as moments after the boys have decided that the innocent observations that took place in the early stanzas were wrong, that that kind of behavior should be punished.
So, when adapting this material into a film, how does one depict these scenes? Who are the characters? Do you just depict a group of boys without any of them standing out? If they are observing each other, then you need to focus on some of the characters. This deals with questions of perspective: Is it a first-person POV or a third-person POV? The voice of the poem seems to be a third-person POV that moves in and out of various proximities with the boys. If I were to adapt the poem as literally as possible, meaning using the text of the poem as a kind of voice-over (as I had originally planned), then one could say that the voice-over speaker would be the primary perspective. If that were the approach then the boys could be presented as a group, one could focus on individual faces without necessarily needing to give any one of the group priority over the others. The action could easily be spread amongst them, or one could have more activity than the others and he would start to become the focalizer. I originally planned to use the text of the poem as voice-over because I was required to make the short film without sync sound, meaning I could not have dialogue. This was an exercise to teach me how to tell a story with images. I thought that I would shoot the images and then read the poem over the top. The movie was going to be about four minutes, the perfect length for the reading of the poem. But I still thought I would develop a few characters so that I could create drama. I wanted distinct characters in order to play them off of each other.
Your discussion of the presence of a narrative consciousness embedded within the diction and syntax of the poem, and the distance that this language creates, highlights an interesting example of the fundamental differences between film and text. The linguistic presence of the author, narrator, or other presumed speaker exists in poetry without the reader feeling as if this presence is somehow an imposition on the scene itself. But in film, the camera transforms the neutral presence of the poetic consciousness into a voyeuristic presence. Feast of Stephen is a great example of this difference. The way I see it, you had to focalize the watching of the boys through a character’s eyes—more specifically, through the perspective of another boy. If the perspective had been left omniscient, it would have been hard to convey the sense of self-exploration, curiosity, and discovery inherent in the poem. How does this change impact our interpretation of the ending?
In Stephen, I decided to personify the gaze that seems present in the opening stanzas of the poem. As I said before, it seems like someone is watching the boys as they are looking at each other. A big influence on the style of this film was Scorpio Rising by Kenneth Anger. Anger made it in the 60s. He filmed a group of real New York bikers in their garages, homes, and churches. The bikers were probably tough and heterosexual, but the way that Anger captures them makes them seem extremely homoerotic. He pans slowly up their bodies, he gets them shirtless, he films one in bed with pictures of James Dean on the wall while Marlon Brando in The Wild Ones plays on the TV. Anger’s gaze transforms them. The most transformative scene is one of a Halloween party. The gang gets together, and there are no women. They start cavorting, and some of them pull their clothes off. Anger’s depiction makes it seem like they are a gay biker gang. But on the commentary track for the new DVD set of Anger’s work, he says that the bikers’ girlfriends were present, but the bikers wouldn’t let the women on camera. In other words, it is their decision that contributes to the homosexual overtones. They shove one man’s face into their crotches, one man rides off naked on the back of another man’s motorcycle, and one man is held down while his pants are removed and spicy mustard is poured on his genitals. These activities signify as either drunken initiation rituals or as rough foreplay, depending on how the camera captures them and the film presents them. With this idea in mind, I decided to use a character to transform the activities of the young boys into homoerotic fantasy. I took the Saul/Stephen figure from the end of the poem and introduced him at the beginning of the film and used his perspective as a kind of Kenneth Anger transformative gaze.
The film version of The Feast of Stephen could be read as an adaptation of Scorpio Rising as much as it is an adaptation of the poem “The Feast of Stephen.” Thinking about it from this perspective raises all sorts of interesting questions about what other “intertexts” have been incorporated into a piece of work. Was it your intent all along to incorporate an Anger-esque style to the film?
The Kenneth Anger influence arose as we developed the film. When I begin to think about a film, the overall look starts to appear in my head. There is the scene in the poem where the boys are at their hangout and it feels like a 50s-type of gang. They have chains, and they are compared to SS officers. It feels postwar, like Brando from The Wild Ones. But there was something more authentic that I wanted to capture. I didn’t want them to feel like characters. There is something about how we tell stories that make characters seem less real. We feel the manipulation shaping them, and thus as scary as they are, they are always characters. The fact that Anger’s bikers were real bikers who were being transformed by his gaze was really attractive to me. The whole aesthetic of Stephen was informed by this transformative gaze in Anger’s film. I liked the low-tech, 16mm feel, and the fact that everything was overlaid with all the pop hits of the time. I liked how the music contrasted with the imagery but also changed the significance of the imagery. I have no music in my film, but I used Vincent Price’s laughter from the Michael Jackson “Thriller” video because it was so over-the-top. I felt like the laughter contrasted with the images. But after a while, it also commented on the images. That point in the film is interesting to me, because the laughter is introduced over the images of the imagined gang rape, and thus the laughter seems to emanate from the rapists’ side of the experience. As the laugh continues, the boys smear dog shit on Stephen’s face. But then it continues—they leave, and Stephen looks back at the camera with a smile on his face. At that moment it is as if it has been Stephen’s laugh all along, just as in some way Stephen has been in control of this whole situation. In the very least, the other boys have been implicated into a situation that they were not in complete control of, despite their use of force.
This film started out as a class project, with certain parameters. The Oulipo writers (Calvino, Perec, et al.) believed that radical constraints are a catalyst to creative thinking. Did the assignment requirements have a similarly catalyzing, effect or were they just a pain in the butt?
The restraints definitely helped me shape this movie. Since I couldn’t use dialogue, and elected not to read the poem in voice-over, I was compelled to only use images to interpret it. This forced me to embrace the fact that I was making something different from the poem and that the film would never be an exact translation of the poem. For example, in Herbert White there is the tree-cutting machine. This machine is not in the poem, but it acts as a metaphor for Herbert in the film. Once we found that tree machine, we hardly had to do anything to characterize Herbert; the machine did all the work. It’s the same in poetry—you look for metaphors and ways of telling that characterize the subject matter.