“I think I’ve been had,” John Huston remarked when he finished filming his adaptation of Flannery O’Connor’s novel Wise Blood, which was just released on DVD by the Criterion Collection. Or at least that’s the story the screenwriter Benedict Fitzgerald tells. Huston’s take was that the film had a darkly comic heart, dressed in religious trappings. He was not convinced that the main character, the staunch atheist Hazel Motes, finds God in the end. That is, until the Fitzgeralds persuaded him otherwise.
If anyone other than O’Connor was aware of her intentions, the Fitzgeralds were. Robert and Sally Fitzgerald provided her with a room for two years while she wrote the novel, parts of which she shared with them. Robert became the executor of her estate after she died and Sally edited volumes of her letters and nonfiction. Wise Blood stayed in the family, so to speak, when their sons, Benedict and Michael set out to turn the novel into film, for which they recruited John Huston as the director. The brothers and their mother were present on location during the filming in Macon, Georgia, and among other things, made sure Huston’s depiction remained faithful to O’Connor’s vision.
If Huston was had, it was only because Hazel Motes was too. Haze wants more than anything to out Jesus as a liar and false prophet and to found his own religion, the Church Without Christ, as a response to the evangelism that he grew up with and has thrived around him. The grandson of a circuit preacher who would park his car, climb atop the hood, and start preaching hellfire and redemption, Haze determined early on to become a preacher too – but one who speaks against belief, who disabuses its converts of the false notions, needless guilt, and notions of depravity.
After a stint in the army, Haze makes his way to a small southern town called Taulkinham, where he finds a whore, buys a ramshackle car, and sets out to start the Church Without Christ. As O’Connor explained in a letter to the novelist John Hawkes, Haze’s striking out against Jesus was a rebellion against a deep-set faith within him: “There are some of us who have to pay for our faith every step of the way and who have to work out dramatically what it would be like without it and if being without it would ultimately be possible or not.” With the same fervor that Haze rejects Christianity and the street preacher’s refrain, he crashes into it head-on.
So it goes with Haze, that in spite of his valiant efforts to discern what is true, he’s often unable to see what lies directly in front of him. And he’s not the only one. Much is made of eyes and vision in Wise Blood; appearances are often merely facades. The blind street preacher, Asa Hawks, who Haze follows when he first arrives in Taulkinham and later becomes obsessed with, isn’t really a man of God and isn’t really blind. Asa’s bastard daughter, Sabbath Lily, gives Haze “fast eye” when they first meet, and of course there’s Haze, whose penetrating eyes, according to Sabbath, “don’t look like they see what he’s looking at but they keep looking.” That Haze continues to look becomes his saving grace. When Wise Blood’s characters believe they have clarity, it’s often the point where they’re led most astray. Take Haze’s car. He has great pride in his decrepit jalopy with one door attached by a rope; even when it breaks down, he claims it’s as fine as any. And as they’re sputtering along, Sabbath corroborates, telling Haze it runs “as smooth as honey.”
In this vein, Huston’s partial blindness to O’Connor’s ultimate vision while filming Wise Blood may help explain why the film stays so true to the novel’s tone and intent. The Fitzgeralds’ guiding hand made sure Huston didn’t stray too far from the course, but the eccentric characters and the humor of their foibles could easily have slipped into caricature. Instead, they strike O’Connor’s unique pitch. Thanks to Benedict Fitzgerald’s screenplay, many of the best lines remain untouched, such as Enoch Emery’s description of his foster mother whose hair was so thin “it looked like ham gravy trickling over her skull.” Perhaps the only off note is the musical score, that inserts a punchy banjo riff a la the Beverly Hillbillies during interludes and whenever the town’s desperate newcomer Enoch Emery appears, as if to cue laughter. In contrast, Emery’s on-screen presence – disheveled, lonely, and naively enthusiastic – is nuanced and pitiably comedic. Had the director been more attuned to O’Connor’s religious vision, the depictions could easily have become more-heavy handed, and lost some of their comic potential if not their humanity.
To speak of O’Connor without touching on religion is missing the point, but to focus so intently on religion that the story is sacrificed would be the greater loss. O’Connor’s genius was that she could perform the balancing act and execute it with near perfection. As she confided to John Hawkes, “I don’t think you should write something as long as a novel that is not of the greatest concern to you and everybody else and for me this is always the conflict between an attraction for the Holy and the disbelief in it that we breathe with the air of our times.” That O’Connor’s characters so believably grapple with disbelief makes them more human, and their struggles more profound. In the best sense, Huston’s film breathes life into O’Connor’s characters, with a single-minded Hazel Motes, a befuddled Emery Enoch, and an elfin Sabbath Lily, along with a host of characters from this small southern town, trying to find their way as best they can.
John Huston’s Wise Blood was just released on DVD by the Criterion Collection. Bonus goodies include John Huston interviewed by Bill Moyers, an essay by Francine Prose, and an audio track of O’Connor reading her story “A Good Man Is Hard to Find.”