John Huston, beyond being the center of a cinematic dynasty and a magnificent actor, was possibly the king of literary adaptation in 20th century cinema. Even his debut film came from a book: Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon. From there he adapted B. Traven (The Treasure of Sierra Madre), Stephen Crane (The Red Badge of Courage), Herman Melville (Mody Dick), Charles Shaw (Heaven Knows Mr. Allison), Carson McCullers (Reflections in Golden Eye), Rudyard Kipling (The Man who Would be King), and the Bible among others. It is an exception in Huston’s body of work to find a picture not adapted from a novel, story, or play.
John Huston with his father Walter Huston
Some of these, like Moby Dick and The Man who Would be King were feats of cinematic endeavor. He tackled the epics of literature, always challenging his skills as a director. For me, his most interesting adaptations and perhaps his most daring were the three he did near the end of his career. These were taken from two novels and one short story, all considered by many to be un-film-able.
John Huston had already tested his craft against Southern Gothic literature with his Carson McCullers adaptation. In 1979 he made Wise Blood and dove head-on into the tortured religious narrative by Flannery O’Connor. He cast Brad Dourif as Hazel Motes, the man who starts the “church of truth without Jesus Christ Crucified”. Huston chronicles his scattered attempt at rebellion, the highlight a shrunken human body from Africa picked as the replacement for Jesus.
What amazes me about this adaptation is that it doesn’t feel like the early Huston. Like Kubrick, he seemed unwilling to surrender to the dull direction so many directors take in the winter of their careers. He and his cinematographer created a dreary South, muddy, drab, without the usual lush green to liven it up. Still, he didn’t exaggerate: it feels like a real place and regardless of how ridiculous the story becomes, the people too are real.
And that is the success of this adaptation, that beyond its faults, its inability to come together as a whole picture, it does convey the human tragedy, the story of a man bound to a religion and unable to escape it. The ending is beyond painful.
Under the Volcano
Five years later, with a couple failures in between, Huston directed an adaptation of the Malcolm Lowry novel Under the Volcano. It’s the story of an English expatriate, an alcoholic, a once honorable man with a loving wife and an adventurous brother. The lead is played by Albert Finney, maybe better than he ever played anything, and his performance is the ultimate cinematic representation of the alcoholic with no other rival but Nicolas Cage in Leaving Las Vegas.
Like Wise Blood, Under the Volcano doesn’t work as a complete picture. Huston worked hard to incorporate Day of the Dead imagery as a prominent symbol in the narrative but it never quite jives with the rest of what’s going on. His ending too, though it feels bold as hell for an old man, also comes off as clumsy and not a good finish for this tragedy. Beyond his careful direction of Finney’s performance, what is marvelous about this daring attempt is Huston’s ability to capture the expatriate experience: the troubled lost white man in the third world, his hypocrisy, his dependencies, and ultimately his failure to escape.
A couple of years after Volcano, John Huston chose another adaptation: James Joyce’s short story The Dead (by many considered to the greatest work of short fiction ever). It would be his last film; the finale of a career that started in the Studio days of 1941 and stretched the death of that system, the revolutions of the New Wave, the emergence of the American independents, and ended in an era far different than the one in which it began.
The Dead is not a good film. But it is almost unimportant whether it succeeds on any traditional level. For me at least, I have to look at it as the swan song of a Hollywood professional, the stroke of an old man at one last feat: to bring the forty or so pages of Joyce’s Irish tale into a feature film. Huston captured the world of the Irish upper class at their Christmas party. Again he and his cinematographer picked the right colors, the dark browns, the deep reds; I only wish they were even more rich.
What he couldn’t quite bring to the screen was the sublety of Joyce’s story. It is about a successful, proud man who realizes for the first time in his life that his wife might have loved someone other than him. Sure, the story sounds simple enough but the subtext of Joyce’s writing, the details of Irish nationalism and gender relations are complex. Huston tried hard to direct Donal McCann and his own daughter Anjelica Huston in this delicate situation and ultimately failed.
However,I must respect him, the king of adaptation, for never failing to dare the literary world as a movie director. In the end of The Dead, he gave us montage of Ireland on a winter’s night. It is frozen, lifeless and beautiful. These images linger with me, and so does the man himself.