Classic Corner: Wise Blood

This year marks the 60th anniversary of the death of Flannery O’Connor, the writer most closely associated with the literary genre known as Southern Gothic (or, more specifically, Southern Grotesque) outside of only William Faulkner. O’Connor, who died at 39 after a prolonged battle with lupus, produced dozens of short stories and two novels, almost all of them set in the South (particularly her home state of Georgia) and centering on the darkly ironic and often shockingly  violent reconciliation between Southern protestantism and Catholic spiritual awakening. 

It’s surprising that it’s taken until now—via Ethan Hawke’s new film Wildcat, starring his daughter Maya Hawke as O’Connor–for a biopic to be made about her (a documentary, Flannery: The Storied Life of the Writer from Georgia, was released in 2020). Her story is ripe for dramatic treatment, full as it was with the triumph of her literary brilliance (even if most of her acclaim came after she died), defiant personality, struggles with faith, the contradictions of her progressive politics and racial prejudices, her rumored (unrequited and unconsummated) romantic obsessions with members of both sexes, her self-imposed isolation, and, ultimately, her dedication to her vocation in the face of an incurable illness. 

Even more surprising is that to date, there’s only been one feature-length adaptation of her fiction: John Huston’s 1979 adaptation of Wise Blood.

Although O’Connor’s story was set contemporaneously to when she wrote it (the early ‘50s), Huston’s film takes place in an unspecified timeline made up of anachronistic details—steam-powered locomotives from antebellum days exist alongside ‘70s model taxi cabs. The story, which hues extremely close to the novel, follows Hazel Motes (Brad Douriff), an emotionally disturbed young man freshly returned from war overseas and tortured by his fanatical  protestant upbringing under his revivalist preacher grandfather.

After visiting his recently deceased grandfather’s grave, Hazel decamps for the city—unnamed within the story, although the film was shot on location in and around Macon, Georgia—where he attempts to spread his own gospel: the Church of Christ without Christ, “where the blind don’t see and the lame don’t walk and what’s dead stays that way.” Despite the disgust and disinterest of the general public, Motes does end up amassing something of a ragtag flock, including a imbecilic zoo worker obsessed with gorillas and the shrunken corpse of an Egyptian mummy, a “blind” street preacher and his sexpot daughter, his lovelorn spinster landlady, and a huckster radio evangelist dead set on stealing his act. While the plot is loose and leisurely for the first two-thirds, things take a disturbing turn in the last act, as an act of homicidal violence shifts what has been, for the most part, an eccentric Southern comedy (replete with twangy banjo score) into an appropriately gruesome passion play. 

There was and remains perhaps no director as skilled at literary adaptation as Huston, who made his directorial debut with one of the all-time great book-to-screen translations by way of Dashiell Hammet’s hard-boiled detective mystery The Maltese Falcon. Subsequent films saw Huston adapt everyone from Stephen Crane to Rudyard Kipling to James Joyce to Tenesse Williams to Ian Flemming to Carson MCullers (a fellow Catholic writer of the Southern Gothic whom O’Connor hilariously and somewhat pettily despised) to Leonard Gardner to Malcolm Lowery. Once in a while, Huston’s reach exceeded his grasp, as when he set his sights on no less towering tomes than The Bible and Moby Dick, but his masterpieces outweigh the failures. And amongst those masterpieces, Wise Blood stands out as perhaps the most unexpected.

The project was brought to Huston by Michael Fitzgerald, son of O’Connor’s literary executor. His entire family, fellow Catholics, were extremely close with O’Connor, and he wanted to further spread her work by turning her first novel into a film. Huston agreed to direct if Fitzgerald raised the funds, which he did. Michael and brother Benedict wrote the script and produced (alongside Michael’s wife Kathy), while their mother, Sally Fitzgerald, served as the costume and production designer. 

The Fitzgeralds may have shepherded the project into being, but Huston brought it to life with his casting, particularly the brilliant and surprising choice of Douriff as Hazel Motes. Granted, Douriff had previously been nominated for an Oscar for his debut performance as a tragically doomed inmate in the 1975 classic One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, but he was still relatively green, and he didn’t exactly have the qualities associated with leading men (Tommy Lee Jones was originally sought for the role). But he did have enough balls to demand to read for Hazel after initially being considered for a smaller part, and Huston, realizing he was O’Connor’s troubled hero, had no choice but to give him the part. It’s a truly miraculous performance, such that by the end of the film, Douriff no longer resembles himself so much as he does one of the tortured saints from a Baroque painting come to life.

(Douriff, best known as the voice of Chucky in the Child’s Play franchise, would go on to have a long career as one of America’s most eccentric and recognizable character actors/screen weirdos, but although he’d sporadically land a role that truly allowed him to show off how brilliant of an actor he is—Exorcist III and Deadwood come to mind—he was never given the opportunity to headline a film the quality of Wise Blood again, which is a real shame, especially in light of his recently announced retirement.)

The rest of the cast is just as good, including a handful of the other best character actors of all time (Harry Dean Stanton, Ned Beatty, and William Hickley), as well as lesser known faces who seemed plucked from the real streets of Macon. In fact, the entire movie has such a gritty, lived-in quality that film critic Vincent Canby—not exactly known for his cutting-edge takes during the New Hollywood era—was moved to write of it, “it is difficult to believe it is not the first film of some enfant terrible instead of the thirty-third feature by a man who is now in his seventies and whose career has had more highs and lows than a decade of weather maps.”

Perhaps most interesting about Huston’s relationship to Wise Blood  was his initial rejection of the depiction of divine grace central to the novel (and indeed, all of O’Connor’s work). According to Douriff in an interview on Wise Blood’s Criterion Collection release, Huston, a “devout atheist”, viewed the ending of the film—in which Motes inflicts a variety of gory acts upon his own flesh on his way to redemption—as a cynical one which no one is saved. This caused an emergency meeting between Huston and the Fitzgeralds, from which Huston emerged the next day, somewhat chastened, to declare “Jesus wins.”

That so commanding a personality and famed a director as Huston was willing not only to cede his viewpoint to the people who knew O’Connor best, but also to a system of belief he personally despised, puts the qualities that made him the best director of literary adaptation into sharp relief. At the end of the day, Wise Blood may just be, in the truest sense of the word, the most faithful adaptation ever made.

“Wise Blood” is streaming on Max and the Criterion Channel.

Zach Vasquez lives and writes in Los Angeles. His critical work focuses on film and literature. He writes fiction as well.

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