James Franco’s recent adaptations of William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying and Cormac McCarthy’s Child of God, along with his anticipated adaptation of McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, are more than mere explorations into the darker dimensions of the human condition. Each adaptation, layered on and recreated from fiercely powerful works of fictive literature, reveals an abiding—yet presently heightened—cultural interest in human depravity. For the Christian moviegoer, the perennial theme of sinfulness is an important one, but all the more important when offered within the genre of adaptation. These book-to-screen adaptations invite the Christian to interpretation, and in the case of Franco’s current endeavors, an invitation to reconsider depravity.

The adaptation, itself a project of interpretation, exists at the axis of film and literature. With the adaptation, the viewer watches and analyzes the filmmaker’s interpretive choices, often oscillating between moments of agreement, critique, and thoughtful reconsideration of the original source material.

As culture attempts to explore and understand depravity through these adaptations, the Church has the opportunity to guide that exploration through reflective response.The release of Darren Aronofsky’s Noah earlier this year proved the power of the adaptation in generating critical conversation. Arguably not since Mel Gibson’s 2004 Passion of the Christ (yet another adaptive project, mind you) has the church so emphatically engaged cinematic culture. Aronofksy’s interpretive choices behind Noah (six-armed stone angels, anyone?!) drew inquisitive Christians into culture’s circle. Responses ranged from vitriolic to laudatory, but—significantly—few Christians remained silent.

The gap between the biblical text and the big screen allowed space for critical response, and thousands of opinionated Christians were eager to enter that space. Conversations about the accuracy, inaccuracy, absurdity, and fantasy of Noah sprung up from coffee shop to pulpit to classroom. Aronofsky’s interpretation spawned re- and counter-interpretations. A number of Christians closely read Genesis 6 for the first time in their believing lives. The adaptation invited investigation, and so it goes for all adaptations.

This is the beauty and immeasurable value of Franco’s translations. Viewers are forced to participate with one filmmaker’s subjective translations of human sinfulness. Each novel, particularly McCarthy’s transgressive work, boasts some of the most violent scenes, desperate worldviews, and debased characters in modern American fiction, and each big screen adaptation—true to the genre’s nature—strives for fidelity to its source material. In this series of adaptations—spanning in release date from fall 2013 (As I Lay Dying), summer 2014 (Child of God), and an undetermined future date (Blood Meridian)—the theme most integral to the source material is the manifestation, and right understanding, of human depravity. Of course, venturing into those darkened cellars is common practice for Hollywood. Last year alone films like Prisoners, Out of the Furnace, the outlandishly factual Pain and Gain, Only God Forgives, and The Counselor (also by McCarthy) ventured into those basements of the psyche and garnered varying degrees of critical acclaim for their exploration.

What makes these present treatments of cinematic depravity so interesting is their dependence on dark literary source material. As I Lay Dying, Faulkner’s critically acclaimed 1930 novel, tells the story of southern matriarch Addie Bundren’s death and her family’s complexly twisted motivations to honor her burial wishes. The novel’s notions of impermanence, its exploration of meaninglessness in language, the pall of Addie’s death cast over the entire narrative: these make up an irreligious world in which all have, indeed, fallen short.

The novel is filled with lines like the following that ask the reader (and Franco’s viewer) to engage the sinful realities of Faulkner’s (and Franco’s) world: “She prayed for me because she believed I was blind to sin, wanting me to kneel and pray too, because people to whom sin is just a matter of words, to them salvation is just words too.” Too, “That’s the one trouble with this country: everything, weather, all, hangs on too long. Like our rivers, our land: opaque, slow, violent; shaping and creating the life of man in its implacable and brooding image.” Unquestionably Faulkner provides Franco’s adaptation with fodder enough for recreating the family’s fallen condition.

And what Faulkner provides in degree and kind of depravity, McCarthy exceeds. Franco’s adaptation of Child of God, McCarthy’s 1973 novel about a murderous necrophiliac hermit named Lester Ballard, will hit theaters in August. Its release will mark the fourth major motion picture adaptation of a McCarthy novel (others are All the Pretty Horses, No Country for Old Men, and The Road). The theme that ties each work together? Inexhaustible depravity. McCarthy’s works are unrivaled in their portrayal of sinfulness of biblical proportions. In a McCarthy novel, characters’ moral states are as filthy rags and their hearts prove desperately wicked.

Nowhere are the depths of depravity more deeply explored than in Blood Meridian (1985), heavily rumored to be Franco’s next adaptation and closely circled by several other filmmakers. Given the attention this novel has gained by directors, producers, and screenwriters alike, it is only a matter of time before viewers have the chance to see someone’s interpretation of McCarthy’s boldest and bloodiest novel. Blood Meridian reads like a tour de force of unparalleled violence, but it is a mistake to think that McCarthy, and whatever production company brings the book to screen, merely holds a morbid interest in depravity for depravity’s sake. If these adaptations and their sources reveal anything, it’s that culture is interested not only displaying depravity but also in interpreting it, an interest the Church must share.

Thoughtful Christians who seek to speak truth into culture should embrace the opportunities this current phase of adaptation affords. With each adaptation, reinterpretation occurs, questions emerge, dialogue spawns. Christians are called upon to be critical thinkers. The culturally minded Christian cannot watch Franco’s adaptation of the debauched deeds of Child of God’s Lester Ballard without being forced back to a biblical answer, for what else could address claims such as this: “Whatever voice spoke him was no demon but some old shed self that came yet from time to time in the name of sanity, a hand to gentle him back from the rim of his disastrous wrath.” In the chasm between book and film, the Christian comes alongside the author and filmmaker and tries to make sense of such a sinful human being. How can such a man be, as McCarthy’s title suggests, a “child of God”? Christians, always called to be thinkers, stand entrusted with the task of working out biblical answers to cultural questions, and these adaptations embody those questions.

Franco’s reworking of As I Lay Dying, Child of God, and—eventually—Blood Meridian invites Christian movie watchers to investigate the theological truth of human depravity. And we have answers: scripture pronounces humanity’s fallenness; mankind bears the scars of disobedience. Those who banner the Christian worldview realize that the beauty of the gospel advances in a world marred by sin. As culture attempts to explore and understand depravity through these adaptations, the Church has the opportunity to guide that exploration through reflective response. The portrayal of themes like human depravity in film and literature are culture’s open invitations for Christians to join the table of popular discourse. The Christian need only take a seat.


3 Comments

  1. I love this- I’m curious to see what your opinion of depravity is? You never asserted it here, but I think as we come understand the depth of the human psyche, as Christians we should allow the box of our understanding about “human nature” (often informed by pop psychology) needs to expand. I agree, these are critical conversations. I would pose this question to other commenters, or to you, Corey. How do we as Christians differentiate between “human nature” and “depravity”? Is there a difference, or is it referring to the same thing? If we disallow for factual things, such as neurology, to unravel and repackage our preconceived notions about humanity, however biblically informed they may be, then we become self-refuting and quite nearly hypocritical (given that we believe in a God who is the inventor of reason and sovereign over all things.)

    I think this is has been a primary struggle that transferred from my intellectual to my spiritual life. A thorough understanding of grace and salvation, in my opinion, hinges on a thorough understanding of depravity, and on human nature, which I consider to be separate entities somehow.

    For example, I am of the school of thought that the Lord of the Flies is total B.S. Children are capable of showing compassion without being taught to do so. They develop the same empathy, to a degree, that adults do for others without prompting. i suppose you could argue that this is God’s effect on children…to what extent does God reach those who are not “In Christ”. This opens a can of worms, I know. But we say that the Holy Spirit resides with Christians. Primarily Christians? Furthermore, if we believe that Christians have a corner market on God’s grace, which I believe we often do claim to believe this if we are sharing “salvation” to those around us. How do we explain the married couples in the world able to sustain loving families and extend more compassion, in many instances, than Christians might? In this way, I think human nature includes the extension of empathy, which is obviously a huge selling point for Christianity. Often the fishers of men will use the “Let me bring you in from the cold, give you a means of comfort from this harsh world. Jesus is your ultimate forgiver” message. How does this message connect to those who believe human nature does not equate to depravity, such as the family whose compassion exceeds that of many other Christian families? What does Christianity offer to this family here on Earth? I don’t know, but I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about it. Thoughts?

    1. Yes, the Holy Spirit resides only with Christians. Jude mentions those who do not have the Spirit, for example. God is a package deal, the trinity, one cannot have one without the other two. As to those who are not Christians sometimes having better marriages than Christians, that happens. It occurs because we as Christians can choose to ignore 1 Corinthians 13 and be impatient, unkind… At the same time the unconverted can benefit from common grace, although never enough to merit salvation in Jesus Christ. For friendship with God there must be supernatural drawing, and acceptance of that gracious offer of salvation through Jesus Christ.

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