So I’d heard that James Franco had made a film version of Cormac McCarthy’s powerful-and-disturbing novel Child of God (1974), and I casually wondered why I hadn’t heard anything about it. A year ago Franco also did a film version of William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying (1930), which I showed to an American Gothic literature class I was teaching, and that went well enough, even if it did seem rather amateurish at times. So innovator and film-buff that I am, I decided to show Child of God to a graduate seminar, in which we had just read Marilynne Robinson’s beautiful new novel, Lila, which concerns a loner/misfit of sorts, Lila Dahl, who often lives in isolation, and whose life is marked, at least to some extent, by violence. The stories have some similarities, but are also greatly different. It would illustrate a range of fictional/mythical approaches. Sounds reasonable, right?
Child of God is basically the life story of Lester Ballard, the misfit of all misfits, a deranged hillbilly that makes The Misfit of Flannery O’Connor’s great short story “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” (1953) look like a lightweight schoolteacher. He’s also a little like Faulkner’s Bundrens or Snopeses—or their evil twin, at least—an Appalachian ne’er-do-well to the nth degree. So I’d be comparing the representations of two isolated loners, both released recently, with Robinson’s novel published this year and Franco’s film made just last year. What could go wrong?
Still, I wondered why I hadn’t heard anything about this film. Now I know why. To say it’s horrible is an understatement. It mangles (and sexually abuses) the novel into a poorly done horror film. Not to mention it’s downright disgusting. The necrophilia was just too much. It makes The Hills Have Eyes (1977, 2006) look like The Sound of Music (1965). So be warned. I have to reread COG again to see how closely Franco’s aberration of a film follows the novel, but the main difference, I believe, is Franco shows the necrophilia that was mainly implied in the novel. At some point you realize you’re watching a crazed hillbilly screw dead women. Oy. It’s the reversal of that old adage: Show, don’t tell. In this case showing is not the right move. Or perhaps I (and all my shocked and dismayed graduate students, thank you very much) am just too squeamish. It was so awful it was kind of funny. Kind of.
My wife suggested, “Perhaps you could have watched the film first, before showing it to your class?” Good idea! Although not an idea whose time has come, but rather one that’s a bit late, like the horse that has escaped the proverbial barn, because she couldn’t stomach what that crazed hillbilly was doing in there . . . .
I’ll say it’s this bad: I feel the need to defend the novel. McCarthy’s Child of God is creepy and disturbing, true, but it’s also eloquent, austere—even poignant. There’s a touch of the sublime, and a compassion for the misfits of the world. Here’s a good mini-review of it by no less than Mary Gaitskill:
“The travails of a homeless, retarded necrophiliac killer roaming the hills of Kentucky. It sounds like a joke but somehow, it’s not. (Though, if I were John Waters, I’d option it immediately.) Not only do you take this ghoul seriously, once you’re halfway through the book, you realize you’re on his side. Without psychologizing, or even getting into the protagonist’s completely non-reflective head, McCarthy makes us understand him; what he’s doing makes total sense to him, given what he knows. He comes to seem merely an extreme version of all people – blind, cosmically and comically ignorant, doing what makes sense to us given what we know.”—Mary Gaitskill From The Salon**com Reader’s Guide to Contemporary Authors, pg 156.
So, in the sonorous tones of a mockumentary “public service announcement,” be warned. This ain’t the Coen Brothers doing No Country for Old Men—and winning Best Picture for it. More like the original I Spit On Your Grave (1978), only worse.