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    Keeping Faith with Faulkner

    Posted by Mike Finnegan on

    “The people of Faulkner…the language of Faulkner…the world of Faulkner,” the original one-sheets boasted. But Jerry Wald’s sweat-drenched, star-packed, Cinemascope production, the first screen collaboration of the terrific team of director Martin Ritt and screenwriters Irving Ravetch and Harriet Frank Jr., based on characters and incidents in the novel The Hamlet and the short story Barn Burning, “The Long, Hot Summer (1958) might be more accurately termed a transformation of [William] Faulkner’s work than an adaptation,” Gabriel Miller writes in his detailed 2000 study The Films of Martin Ritt: Fanfare for the Common Man. “While both versions focus generally on themes of sex and money, their approaches are quite different. The movie builds to a conclusion along the lines of a social comedy, as the hero wins the heart of the girl and all misunderstandings and complications are cleared up, whereas the novel [The Hamlet] is dominated by an antihero who, as the story ends, has successfully conned one of the town’s more intelligent citizens out of a large sum of money.” Ravetch and Frank commented, ‘The Long, Hot Summer was a comedy about appetites, about love and sex, courtship and mating, ebullient young men and brainy young ladies, the yearning of parents for their children. It departs in fact, but not in faith, from Faulkner’s attitudes.’ On its own terms, it is a lively and entertaining film, one that Faulkner himself liked.” Audiences and critics concurred; indeed, who could resist such a rich assemblage of fever-pitched characterizations by Paul Newman, Joanne Woodward, Anthony Franciosa, Lee Remick, Angela Lansbury and the grandiose Orson Welles as the contentious family members – and pot-stirring outsider with his own fiery family secret – who act upon their desires and appetites in the ramshackle burg of Frenchman’s Bend, Mississippi? The story of an outsized Deep South paterfamilias landowner (Welles) whose wayward offspring (Woodward and Remick) confound his aspirations to continue the family bloodline worked recently on Broadway in Tennessee Williams' Pulitzer Prize-winning Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (to arrive later on screen in 1958, starring an Oscar®-nominated Newman), so if the Ritt-Ravetch-Frank reinvention of Faulkner is more than a bit reminiscent, it’s nonetheless also insinuatingly effective. Miller asserts: “The Long, Hot Summer was Ravetch and Frank’s first important screenplay, initiating what was to become their signature method of adapting literary sources to the screen – picking up some characters and scenes from the original and then inventing a new plotline, which in some cases bore no resemblance to the source material. Ravetch and Frank explained their methodology: ‘We have found that as screenwriters, we’ve often needed an outside story to get us started. It sparks us; it sets us in motion. In the end, we may salvage only one or two elements – a character perhaps, or a situation, or a few strong scenes – and on this we build a whole new drama.’” 

    So is The Long, Hot Summer authentic Faulkner? Not precisely. “The title was changed from The Hamlet to avoid confusion with Hamlet, but the change was in any case apt,” Bruce F. Kawin observes in his 1977 study Faulkner on Film. “The film’s emphasis is not on the village…but on heat: the heat of burning barns and of sexual desire. In the best Victorian tradition, the hero gets money and a good name along with the girl. As in The Sound and the Fury (1959, a sold-out Twilight Time title), the Ravetches (and Jerry Wald and Martin Ritt) are praising the status quo, which includes capitalist success, male aggression, female self-respect…, female domesticity, and the unshakeable value of ‘getting things out in the open.’ Most problems are caused by misunderstanding, and the ones that aren’t can usually be resolved by a little head-on conflict. None of this, of course, has much to do with Faulkner – but taken on its own merits, the story is coherent, the acting is glamorous but convincing, and the direction is fairly efficient. In contrast to The Tarnished Angels [the 1957 screen adaptation of Pylon from director Douglas Sirk and adaptor George Zuckerman] (which is, if anything, more faithful to its novel), The Long, Hot Summer manages to defend convention without becoming obnoxious or pretentious. It will never satisfy an admirer of The Hamlet, but at least it provides Barn Burning with a happy and not absolutely impossible conclusion.” Featuring an Isolated Music Track of Alex North’s bluesy score, a Hollywood Backstories documentary and a vintage premiere newsreel, Twilight Time’s hi-def Blu-ray of The Long, Hot Summer (from a 2015 restoration transfer) glows and swelters magnificently on August 15. Preorders open August 2.