William Faulkner in Hollywood
Screenwriting for the Studios
The South on Screen Series
Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2017
Hardcover. xvi+301p. ISBN 978-0820351131. $64.95
Reviewed by Sarah Gleeson-White
University of Sydney
Perhaps the greatest payoff (and there are many) in Stefan Solomon’s wide-ranging William Faulkner in Hollywood : Screenwriting for the Studios arises from its compelling account of Faulkner’s not insignificant role in, as his aesthetic practices directly engaged with, so many of the transformations that occurred mid century across a range of expressive technologies: sound film, broadcast radio, television and Cinemascope. Faulkner was notoriously disdainful of his experiences in Hollywood to which he “hated like hell to come back.”(1) Solomon leaves aside Faulkner’s objections, which “represent only one side of the story,” to consider carefully the ways and extent to which Faulkner’s parallel writing career just might matter . And as we discover, it matters plenty.
Solomon’s approach throughout is characterized by a series of capacious and imaginative readings that ably move back and forth across the various media in which Faulkner was interested or worked. He begins with Faulkner’s experiences at MGM in the early 1930s to consider his thinking about the New Woman—both on and off the screen, and in the context of film sound (still a relatively new technology) and the star system. In a characteristically dexterous move, Solomon argues that Faulkner created his own star system of sorts, that is, that stable of characters, such as Gavin Stevens, Temple Drake and Flem Snopes, who reappear throughout so many of the Yoknapatawpha stories and novels.
Solomon next considers the ways Faulkner’s fiction of the mid-1930s might speak to those film properties on which he collaborated while under contract to Twentieth Century-Fox and during short stints at Universal and RKO. For example, he reads Pylon alongside Faulkner’s (unpublished) 1936 treatment of Blaise Cendrars’ novel "Sutter’s Gold" (L’or, 1926). In his analysis of both texts’ experiments, or at least interests, in sound—including its ideographic representation in the case of “Sutter’s Gold”—Solomon ponders Faulkner’s concerns, and arguably anxieties about, the period’s increasing mechanization of sound(s): “Although Faulkner had paid close attention to the spoken word in this earlier fiction, with Pylon we see the first serious intrusion of artificial and mechanized sounds” . And it is by recourse to "Sutter’s Gold,” Solomon argues, that we might more fully make sense of this development.
The subject of Chapter Three is “Revolt in the Earth,” Faulkner’s own—and much derided—adaptation of the Thomas Sutpen narrative of “Evangeline,” “Wash” and of course Absalom, Absalom! Faulkner co-wrote this screenplay, which was never produced, with independent director Dudley Murphy who had just completed filming his adaptation of Eugene O’Neill’s The Emperor Jones. Solomon, to my knowledge, is the only scholar to give this rather eccentric screenplay such sustained attention, and his reading of it here made me wonder why it has more or less stayed under the radar until now. (It does not help, of course, that it remains unpublished). Solomon makes a compelling case for the importance of “Revolt in the Earth” with its own experiments in sound, its engagements with photography, its representations of African Americans, and in terms of what it might reveal about collaborative authorship outside the studio system.
Chapters Four and Five focus on the Warner Bros years, during which Faulkner collaborated on those film properties, among others, for which he is best known today: The Big Sleep (which Solomon ingeniously reads alongside The Compson Appendix to examine both texts’ interest in photographs), To Have and Have Not, Mildred Pierce and The Southerner. Readers particularly interested in Intruder in the Dust (the novel), Go Down, Moses, film noir and/or the war film would surely gain much from these chapters. Importantly, Solomon includes discussion here of many of the short stories, both “collected” and “uncollected,” that Faulkner wrote at this time as his novel-writing seemed to falter until the publication of Intruder in the Dust in 1948—that is, subsequent to his Warner Bros contract and to the War. The larger argument Solomon makes across these two chapters is that Faulkner’s fiction became increasingly engagé, a shift not simply or exclusively referable to the War but too, as Solomon sees it, to his involvement in such Warner Bros properties as “The De Gaulle Story,” “Battle Cry,” and To Have and Have Not.
As the typescripts of Requiem for a Nun reveal, Faulkner typed on the back of eleven of these pages fragments of The Left Hand of God, his 1951 screenplay for Howard Hawks.(2) In Chapter Six, Solomon deploys this textual encounter to make a larger argument about the relationship of the modes of cinema and theatre; Faulkner after all, Solomon reminds us, first imagined Requiem for a Nun—with his collaborator Joan Williams—as a dramatic text. With Chapter Seven we move from the stage to the small screen. Here Solomon examines at some length Faulkner’s quite significant contributions to television’s beginnings. As with his discussion of “Revolt in the Earth,” one of the strengths of this chapter lies in its opening up, or at least its partial sharing, of the archive, beyond which these important teleplays, which Faulkner largely adapted from several of his own stories such as “Brooch,” are not accessible. And yet they are of enormous significance. For example, Faulkner’s teleplay, “Two Soldiers,” adapted from his 1942 short story, was one of the earliest dramas on CBS, as Solomon notes.
Solomon’s last chapter turns to Faulkner’s final film project, Land of the Pharaohs, “a simple story about the construction of the pyramids” on which Faulkner once more collaborated with Hawks although, as Solomon duly notes, he almost certainly did not contribute much to its screenplay . Solomon is particularly interested in the film’s use of the new wide-screen format of Cinemascope, and the ways that this technology might have affected the craft of screenwriting. For a film shot in Cinemascope would undoubtedly show “more interest in picturesque landscapes than intricate storylines” . As a fitting ending to his study, Solomon finds occasion here to reflect more broadly “on filmmaking itself as an art form that buries words within images and that at the same time grants them immortality” .
William Faulkner in Hollywood (and beyond) is, finally, suggestive of so many possibilities for Faulkner scholarship, particularly in terms of voice and dialogue, of the (still) many critically neglected Faulkner texts, of the exigencies of diverse writing practices, and of the relations among race, gender and genre. Solomon has here identified so many striking continuities between the different modes and scenes in which Faulkner wrote, and across such a vast range of materials, that we would do well to continue to think anew of and beyond Faulkner’s “one matchless time.”
(1) William Faulkner, Selected Letters 167, 1943. Quoted in Solomon : 2.
(2) William Faulkner Manuscripts vol 3: Requiem for a Nun: Typescript Setting Copy, ed. Noel Polk, Garland, 1987 : 258, 260, 264, 266, 268, 270, 274, 276, 278, 280, 282.
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