As the great John Huston’s career began to wind down, he turned his directorial talent to several eclectic and unusual projects. Some became classics, like 1982’s Annie, and others faded into oblivion, some justly and some unjustly. 1979’s Wise Blood was forgotten unjustly, though it still has a small cult following today. Set in the South in an unspecified modern era after an unspecified war, Wise Blood is as far as I can tell the only decent or successful adaptation of the work of our patron saint Flannery O’Connor, taken from her 1952 novel of the same name.
Wise Blood was Flannery’s first published novel, and in this fact it is impressive, though not nearly so much as the much less famous The Violent Bear it Away published in 1960. The protagonist (it would be wrong to call him a hero) is young veteran Hazel Motes who, upon returning from the war, embarks on a crusade to deconvert the Christ-haunted South, proclaiming the Church of God Without Christ where “the blind don’t see and the lame don’t walk and what’s dead stays that way”. Turning the stereotype of the backwoods Bible-thumping ranter on its head, Hazel is a street evangelist for modern nihilism, where no one’s sins are forgiven because there was no sin in the first place. In subtle bit of good-natured humor from the author, when asked if the Church Without Christ is “Protestant? Or something foreign?”, Hazel replies that “no mam, it’s Protestant,” a line which fortunately made it into Huston’s movie.
There are a few problems with Hazel’s plan, though. For one, he talks and dresses like a preacher, leading to confusion on the part of the many unfortunate souls Hazel happens to stumble upon. The blind evangelist Asa Hawks says that Jesus has left his mark on Hazel and that it cannot be removed. Despite all his resistance, he just can’t seem to shake this Jesus figure from the back of his mind. Flannery called him “a Christian malgré lui“* who is drawn kicking and screaming into the service of God, and only at the violent end does he finally break down and allow the works of God to be made manifest in him. It is Jacob wrestling with God, and in the end God wins.
As intense as it sounds, Flannery referred to it as “a comic novel” insofar as “all comic novels that are any good must be about life and death”. Like the painfully guilt-enducing films of Tod Solondz some forty years later**, Flannery O’Connor manages to find the ironic humor in everything form racism and blasphemy, to self-mutilation and pedophilia. The comedy for her, however, lies in the ultimate inability of Hazel to overcome the will of Christ, to outrun the Hound of Heaven, if you will. For Flannery, the hilarious incongruity of Wise Blood was identical to the hilarious incongruity of history, that God chose to work his greatest miracles through sinful, deeply flawed and prideful, resistant human beings. In the end, Hazel does become a preacher, though not in the way he or anyone else expected.
None of these things were lost on John Huston as he set out to create a film of Wise Blood. Huston became interested in the film when he was approached by a movie producer named Michael Fitzgerald, the son of Sally and Robert Fitzgerald, the latter of whom was Flannery O’Connor’s literary executor. Other than his outstanding pedigree of excellent book-to-film adaptations (The Maltese Falcon, Treasure of the Sierra Madre, Moby Dick, The African Queen, honestly just about every film he ever made), Huston seemed an odd choice to make Wise Blood. Huston was an avowed atheist, O’Connor and the Fitzgeralds were Catholics. To Michael and Benedict Fitzgerald, who had known Flannery briefly in their childhoods, understood Wise Blood as a movie about the intensity of faith, whereas Huston intended to mock it. Still, production progressed rather smoothly.***
To write the screenplay, Michael teamed up with his brother Benedict (who would go on to write The Passion of the Christ with Mel Gibson). Despite the film’s low, low budget (less than $1,000,000 by most estimates) and non-union status it managed to attract several established and rising cast members. The leading role fell to a very young Brad Dourif, long before Child’s Play or The Lord of the Rings. Harry Dean Stanton plays the blind preacher Asa Hawks, who seems to have emerged from the womb in his present form, never aging and never having been young.**** Even Ned Beatty makes an appearance as the aptly named rival preacher Hoover Shoates. Considering the talent behind the movie, one wonders why it never gained a mainstream audience.
In adapting Wise Blood, the brothers Fitzgerald externalized Hazel’s conflict, telling the story as literally as possible, rarely delving into the psychology of Hazel and his companions in the way the novel does. For this reason I suspect that as a film Wise Blood might fail, as most of the points the novel makes are hidden within the internal narration of the characters. Therefore I think it is best to look at Wise Blood as a companion piece to the novel, and not as a stand-alone movie (that said, I have never had the experience of watching Wise Blood without the knowledge of the book, so I cannot really judge the film in this respect). Considered in this light, Huston’s film is excellent. It is anchored enough in reality to be believably the segregated and religiously invigorated South, but quirky and fantastical in enough small details to nudge the film just outside of the tight circle which we know as mainstream cinema. Everyone drives cars made in the 1970s, but they ride in steam-powered locomotives and wear hats whenever they venture outside. Little touches like these, most of them unintentional, make Wise Blood seem imbibed with a subtle kind of insanity, the kind that seems to drive Hazel throughout the film – that of misplaced religious fervor.
Huston, you see, set out to subvert Flannery’s story, mocking religious zealotry instead of romanticizing it as the only legitimate response to the frightening figure of Christ. In a supreme irony that would have made Flannery guffaw in smug delight, Huston became himself somewhat of a Hazel Motes figure in his attempt to outrun Jesus. It was only when actor Brad Dourif pressed the director on the meaning of the film’s final moments that the atheist Huston, defeated by his own direction, admitted that “at the end of the film, Jesus wins.” And boy does he, in the most bizarre and horrific of ways.
I chose Wise Blood this week because last Sunday was Laetare Sunday on the Latin calendar, one of two Sundays out of the year colored liturgically rose. Placed strategically in the middle of Lent, Laetare Sunday is about finding the joy, tempered with sadness, in anticipation of the Resurrection on Easter Sunday. We are still doing penance, but it is a joyful penance because we know what is coming. Wise Blood, both in print and on film, revels in this joy, in expectation of the prophet which God endeavors to, and finally does, make out of the apostate Hazel Motes. The Church is the nation of Israel, fulfilled and transfigured into the Body of Christ. Israel means, in Hebrew, to struggle with God. Therefore to be in the Church means to struggle with God, and Wise Blood is about just that. Struggle in an inherent part of the story and the story’s story. Both the characters, Motes chief among them, and his creators O’Connor and Huston, spend their lives duking it out with the Holy Spirit. And we all know the outcome.*****