Faulkner and Film: A Bridge Between Mediums

By Chandler Ryd

Faulkner

From the opening pages of William Faulkner’s experimental novel The Sound and the Fury, it’s immediately apparent that the story unfolds through an unconventional narrative technique. Those familiar with the body of Faulkner’s work will likely notice his trademark use of stream-of-consciousness, but in this novel, Faulkner adds something even more unusual. The novel is divided into four sections of roughly equal length, each told from the perspective of a different narrator commenting on the decline of a southern aristocratic family—the Compsons—in the early 20th century. The first section is, in my opinion, the most formally interesting. It is narrated by Benjy Compson—one of the three sons of the family—and although he is thirty-three years old, his narration betrays his stunted development; he is mentally handicapped and has little temporal or linguistic capacity. In choosing to narrate this section through Benjy, Faulkner presents himself with a puzzling literary challenge: how does one convey in writing the stream-of-consciousness of a man without time or words?

The answer: through images and sounds.

In the Benjy section, simple depictions of images and sounds replace almost all commentary upon the action. Most of the text is either terse descriptions of actions or dialogue from other characters. On its own, this disrupts the prose, but to make the language even more fragmented—and to better illustrate how Benjy sees the world—Faulkner frequently interrupts the narration with images and sounds that come from Benjy’s tangled memory and intrude upon the present (these shifts are usually indicated by italics). Take this example from the first page, in which Benjy shifts from a scene in 1928 with Luster, one of the Compson family’s black servants, to an episode involving his sister, Caddy, in 1900:

“Wait a minute.” Luster said. “You snagged on that nail again. Cant you never crawl through here without snagging on that nail.”

Caddy uncaught me and we crawled through.

On the first read, these abrupt shifts are likely confusing, if not unsettling, but perhaps they shouldn’t be. In fact, this effect should be familiar to us. As members on contemporary society, we have witnessed it countless times, but always on a screen and rarely on a page. To solve a literary challenge, Faulkner relies upon a solution from another medium: film.

Faulkner is here employing the cinematic cut. Just as the filmmaker whisks the viewer from one shot to the next through the power of editing, so too does Faulkner instantaneously transport the reader away from the present and into the past. It’s a remarkably simple solution to the problem. Benjy can’t express language, so Faulkner expresses images; Benjy can’t conceive of time, so Faulkner merely cuts.

An apt way to describe Benjy’s reality is to compare him to a camera. Benjy’s language is flat. One critic remarks, “his monologue is a series of frozen pictures, offered without bias . . . . The Benjy section represents extreme objectivity, a condition impossible to the ordinary mind.” Even during the most traumatic moment of the plot, Benjy merely recounts his own actions: “I began to cry,” he says. Like the boundaries of the frame, furthermore, Benjy’s narration focuses only on that which he can record as sensory data. When a character leaves his sight, he merely notes the departure: “Uncle Maury went away. Versh went away.” He describes everything in visual terms relative to him, much like the style of a film script. Another way of writing these two sentences might be, “Uncle Maury left the frame. Versh left the frame.”

This comparison between Benjy and a camera may at first seem dehumanizing, but in fact, Faulkner’s terse descriptions of images and sounds give Benjy a vibrant inner life. Through them, the central concern of the novel begins to take shape. It becomes apparent that Benjy loves his sister, Caddy, but is disturbed by her loss of virginity as she matures and runs off with ill-intending men. The entire novel revolves around Caddy’s loss of virginity and disappearance, and Benjy has some profoundly human reactions to these events; he is left feeling fearful, lonely, and confused. But in order to understand this inner life, it’s vital to understand the cumulative effect of the images and sounds over the course of the entire narration. Essentially, we need to treat Benjy’s narration as though it were a film itself, and must accordingly include the realm of cinema into our literary analysis.

Film

Four years before Faulkner published The Sound and the Fury in 1929, an upstart Russian scholar, essayist, and filmmaker named Sergei Eisenstein astounded the artistic world with one of the masterpieces of cinema, Battleship Potemkin. The film chronicles a mutiny onboard a Russian navy vessel, and contains some of the most iconic (and most often copied) imagery the medium has ever produced.  

In Potemkin, Eisenstein—like Faulkner in The Sound and the Fury—uses an unconventional narrative technique that he calls “montage.” In his book, The Film Sense, Eisenstein defines montage: “two film pieces of any kind, placed together, inevitably combine into a new concept, a new quality arising out of that juxtaposition.” The key element of Eisenstein’s definition is the word “juxtaposition.” When juxtaposed, two shots create a meaning that doesn’t exist independently in either shot, but arises only from their juxtaposition. Elsewhere, he uses the words “representation” and “image” to elaborate upon this idea of juxtaposition. He defines a representation as any sensory or descriptive information that a storyteller may lend his audience, while an image is the whole product of several juxtaposed representations. In a montage construction, therefore, the juxtaposition of representations “calls to life and forces into the light that general quality in which each detail has participated and which binds together all the details into a whole, namely, into that generalized image.”

In this definition, it’s important to note two things. The first is that, in montage, the image itself is distinct from the representations—it’s not merely a sum of the representations but is a new creation. The second important point is that Eisenstein’s definition of “representation” is not limited only to images; it includes sounds, smells, and even actions within its scope. In Battleship Potemkin, for example, Eisenstein brings the film to a frenzied climax by juxtaposing various shots of the inner workings of a battleship preparing for war, including shots of dials, knobs, guns being raised, and crew members buzzing about. None of these shots in themselves tell the viewer that the ship is preparing for war, but by cutting between them, Eisenstein communicates this mere fact as well as creates the climactic tension the scene needs. To use Eisenstein’s terms, the representations of the ship’s inner workings collide to produce the image of the frenzy before a battle.

Although Eisenstein’s definition may seem limited to the medium of film, Eisenstein makes a compelling argument for the applications of montage in the written word. In the opening chapter of The Film Sense, titled “Word and Image,” Eisenstein singles out several renowned writers as experts in written montage, citing Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake and Milton’s Paradise Lost as excellent examples of montage through language. The chapter is full of other examples; Eisenstein dissects a prose passage from Guy de Maupassant, poems by Alexander Pushkin, John Keats, and Vladimir Mayakovsky, as well as a written plan for one of Leonardo daVinci’s unfinished landscapes, The Deluge. In each of these written works, he provides deep analysis of the function of montage and then produces an individualized shooting script. Essentially, he sees these as prime examples of cinematic writing. Eisenstein is keenly aware of the interdependent relationship between literature and film, and he uses montage to bridge the gap between the mediums. He argues, “there is no inconsistency between the method whereby the poet writes” and the method whereby the shots in a film “are made to flash in the hands of the director through the agency of the montage exposition and construction of the entire film.”

In fact, Eisenstein wasn’t the only artist to see the connection between the mediums. Many twentieth century writers admired Eisenstein and tried to emulate his theory of montage in their own writing. Battleship Potemkin was a major source of inspiration for John Dos Passos; James Joyce chose Eisenstein to direct an adaptation of Ulysses, though it never saw the screen; James Agee hailed Eisenstein’s films as “some of the greatest works of art this century”. Agee’s admiration went even further. To Agee, Eisenstein was a “great hero” and an artist with “a unique blend of poetic, intellectual, and purely animal energy.” Faulkner himself had a brief encounter with Eisenstein while working on the film Sutter’s Gold in Hollywood and later mentioned Eisenstein by name in his novel The Wild Palms. This evidence, though anecdotal, describes the interdependent relationship between twentieth century writers and the then-fledgling medium of film. Gertrude Stein puts it simply: twentieth century writers were “doing what the cinema was doing.”

The Bridge

In the Benjy section of The Sound and the Fury, Faulkner does what Eisenstein was doing; that is, Faulkner uses montage. To reiterate my earlier statement: Benjy is like a camera. Benjy’s narration, therefore, is like a strip of edited film, and Faulkner uses cinematic logic to carry the prose from scene to scene. Montage is the mechanism of this logic. To use Eisenstein’s language, the images and sounds in Benjy’s narration—from both past and present—are the representations, and Faulkner juxtaposes them to create the image of Benjy’s inner life. In a book titled Faulkner and Film, critic Bruce F. Kawin speaks to Faulkner’s use of montage: “[Benjy’s narration] is words about a wordless experience . . . it was conceived as a visual montage and recast into language.”

And montage is the perfect formal technique for the subject matter because it’s truly the only way Faulkner can adequately express Benjy’s inner life. Because Benjy has no concept of time, he cannot differentiate the past from the present. So something that Benjy can see or hear in the present—the gate on the edge of the Compson property, for example—launches Benjy into the vault of his memory, where he is gripped by previous experiences. In Benjy’s mind, therefore, all is present; his entire past collides in his consciousness at the impetus of mere sensation. As Jean-Paul Sartre says in his essay on Faulkner’s metaphysics of time in The Sound and the Fury, for Benjy, “the past takes on a sort of super-reality . . . the present . . . is full of gaps, and through these gaps, things of the past, fixed, motionless, and silent as judges or glances, come to invade it.” Indeed, Faulkner himself asserts a similar claim about the effects of these montage-like shifts: “To that idiot, time was not a continuation, it was an instant.” Only montage can accomplish the immediacy of Benjy’s narration because it is the only narrative technique that allows for instantaneous and sometimes inexplicable shifts between the present and the past. Nowhere in the Benjy section is there expositional language like, “Thirty years ago . . .”; rather, Faulkner cuts.

It’s important, therefore, to note what exits on either side of Faulkner’s cuts. What does he cut from and what does he cut to? In almost every case, the answers to those questions revolve around Benjy’s sister, Caddy. When Benjy sees the gate on the edge of the Compson property, Faulkner cuts to past incidences involving the gate and Caddy. The same thing happens when he hears the word “caddy” spoken by passing golfers, and again when he encounters any number of objects in and around their house. Benjy’s narration—like the novel itself—revolves around Caddy, and Faulkner fundamentally expresses this through the novel’s form.

But what if he hadn’t? What would be lost if Faulkner told the story with without montage? A somewhat montage-free version of The Sound of the Fury does, in fact, exist—ironically, as a film. In 1959, Twentieth Century Fox released a screen adaptation of the novel written by Irving Ravetch and Harriet Frank Jr. During this era of Hollywood production, most films adhered to the continuity system of narrative structure, which favored clear, chronological storytelling over experimental, poetic styles. For the film, the screenwriters chose to discard much of Faulkner’s experimental montage in favor of “accessibility” by telling the story linearly and entirely in the present. In doing so, Ravetch and Frank abandoned the very technique which makes the novel so cinematic. Benjy’s inner montage is gone. In fact, through removing it, the screenwriters almost eliminate Benjy from the story. He becomes little more than a prop, having almost no depth or significance. His stream of consciousness, and his love for Caddy, is absent. Instead, the film opts to record Benjy’s face, which is wholly inadequate. If only Ravetch and Frank had heeded Sartre’s words on the experimental structure—“Faulkner did not first conceive this orderly plot so as to shuffle it afterwards like a pack of cards; he could not tell it in any other way”—perhaps then some of the richness of Benjy’s character would show through.

In choosing Benjy as the narrator for the first quarter of The Sound and the Fury, Faulkner forces himself to step outside of traditional narrative forms. To honestly convey the reality of a man who can’t understand language or time, Faulkner expresses the story through images and sounds juxtaposed through cinematic montage. In so doing, he molds the form of the novel around Benjy’s inner life and Caddy’s loss of virginity. Personally, what I find so captivating and liberating about montage is that it suggests a bridge between a very old medium and a very new one, and Eisenstein’s work as a scholar, essayist, and filmmaker is the foundation of this bridge. Furthermore, it suggests interdependence between the mediums that may often be overlooked. If montage is one bridge, I hope that many more already exist, and that many more are yet to be discovered.

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