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Horton Foote and William Faulkner: From Page to Screen

Posted: Mar 10, 2009

The award winning playwright and screenwriter Horton Foote, who died last week at the age of 92, was renowned not only for his original stage plays and screenplays but also for his adaptations from novel and short story to film. Three of those adaptations were based on works by William Faulkner: “Tomorrow” (1968) , “Barn Burning” (1980), and “Old Man” (1997).

It is tricky business to transform a story, especially one by so gifted a writer as Faulkner, into a screenplay. The writer can plant subtle hints and clues in the work, leading the reader (often without the reader’s full realization) to be able to draw certain conclusions . The screenwriter is usually confined to the use of dialogue (or perhaps an inner monologue) and must fill in the gaps through visual imagery. It is as easy to overstate one's case as it is not to give sufficient clues to the viewer. Adapting a story to the screen requires a delicate hand, a hand such as that of Horton Foote.

Critic Leonard Maltin called Foote’s “Tomorrow” the “best film adaptation of Faulkner’s work,” and Foote’s “Old Man” won an Emmy Award in 1997, but I am particularly fond of “Barn Burning.” Tommy Lee Jones starred in this little known jewel, and I used it in my Southern Literature class for years. “Barn Burning” is the story of a ten year old boy who must reject his own father in order to find himself. Sarty Snopes, named for Colonel Sartoris, is forced to betray his own father, Abe Snopes, when he finds out that, once again, his father plans to burn a barn belonging to a landowner. Sarty and his family have been run out of town before, but Sarty has always stuck to his “blood.” In the words of Abe Snopes “You got to learn to stick to your own blood, or you ain’t going to have any blood to stick to you.”

However, in “Barn Burning” Sarty’s dad goes too far. He fails to send a warning to the owner of the barn. He does not even allow time for the horses to be gotten out, so Sarty himself warns the owner, Major DeSpain. As the household runs or, in DeSpain’s case, rides toward the flaming barn, Sarty runs the other way, toward the road. The flames light the night sky and a shot rings out and then another. Sarty cries “Father, Father” but continues to run into the dark. The final paragraph of the short story ends begins with “The slow constellation wheeled on. It would be dawn and then sun-up after a while, and he would be hungry.” And the story ends with “He did not look back.”

Foote’s adaptation is meticulous. He uses Faulkner’s exact dialogue, what little there is of it, but he must do by way of  visual imagery and action what Faulkner did with language: paint a picture of a young boy who must choose between family and honor, between “blood” and what is right. It is an agonizing choice. The difficulty is of this choice is illustrated in the film by having Abe Snopes give his son a knife. On the surface it appears to be a gift that is designed to bind the boy to the giver, but as the film moves toward its denouement, the perceptive viewer understands that it is also a blade and that blades can cut and sever.

Faulkner’s stories are known for their abstruseness and their ambiguity.  The endings of many of his short stories leave it up to the reader to imagine the conclusion based on the evidence Faulkner has so deftly but sparingly provided, a notable example being "That Evening Sun." The story “Barn Burning” ends with Sarty not looking back. If one did not know that Abe Snopes appears in other Faulkner stories, one could easily assume that he has been killed—that Sarty is now fatherless. Faulkner allows the reader to consider that Sarty has, in more ways than one, slain his father.

Such an ending, possible in a short story and deliberately ambiguous, poses a problem for the screenwriter. Foote chooses to end his film with the sun rising the following morning, silhouetting a wagon filled with Sarty’s family driven by a tall man in a peaked hat . The family is going on to be a part of the life Abe has chosen to lead, but Sarty is no where to be seen. It is a brilliant touch, but, by necessity, different from the short story. The film is its own work of art.

Another little known adaptation of a short story is Foote’s screenplay of Flannery O’Conner’s “Displaced Person.” These two films, “Barn Burning” and “Displaced Person,” may be my two favorite “literary” films. I do not believe I could have taught Flannery O’Conner to college sophomores without the help of Horton Foote. His adaptation of O’Conner is brilliant. He is faithful to both the spirit and the word of Flannery O’Conner. However, O’Conner is often even more difficult than Faulkner for students to grasp because of the deep Catholicism that permeates her work. Most students, even those who are Catholic, don’t have the tools, not to mention the life experience to comprehend her work. "Barn Burning" is the more teachable film, but even students who have no concept of the depth and complexity of Flannery O’Conner's stories love--if that is an acceptable word for such a disturbing film--what Foote did with “Displaced Person.” And so do I.

---Penne J. Laubenthal

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jwcargile says...

One of the last true Southern playwrights. We mourn his passing.

PenneElk says...

I can always count on you! You were a great student and you are a wonderful teacher.

cgregg says...

The only one of these films of which I was aware is "Barn Burning." How exciting to discover their existence and the fact that Foote did them! I will be checking NetFlix for them TODAY. A true teacher, Penne, even in this short piece, you inspire your readers to learn more.

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