As She Walked, Living
— I am not at all certain that I can trust my recollections of Wild, the gut-wrenching new film directed by Jean-Marc Vallee, the French-Canadian responsible for helming last year’s Dallas Buyers Club. Based on a memoir penned by Cheryl Strayed, entitled Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail (2012), the film concerns a broken woman using an epic, Odyssey quest to mourn the devastating loss of her mother, who died of cancer. Literally as I was watching the film, I was receiving disturbing voice mails from my own mother, who was living alone in Massachusetts and suffering from the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease.
I know the film was powerful, because I cried as it resonated so closely to what I felt, anticipating my own journey to go retrieve my mother and take care of her as she lost her independence. However, the film transcends this already powerful and important reality via a canny use of the literary tradition. During the early stages of the journey of the film’s Cheryl (Reese Witherspoon, in a surprisingly nuanced performance), we see her reading William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying (1930), to pass the time while resting in between arduous days of hiking, inexorably northward.
During the film’s end credits, we see a set of photographs of the real Strayed, less glamorous than Reese Witherspoon, even without her Hollywood make-up. In one of these pictures, we see the real Strayed read James Joyce’s Dubliners, instead of Faulkner. This substitution allows us to reflect upon the differential function of literature in the written memoir and the cinema.
The Cheryl of the written memoir tells us matter-of-factly about the books she read during her arduous hike, which include both Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying and Joyce’s Dubliners. Strayed describes how reading books transformed her understanding of the world, but not quite as powerfully as her real-life experience alone on the thousand mile hiking trail. The memoirist Strayed blandly invokes in words As I Lay Dying: “Even the Faulkner novel had more right to be in my pack, if only because I hadn’t yet read it and therefore it could be explained as entertainment” (60).
It just so happens that, of all the books Strayed describes having read, As I Lay Dying is the most fertile for analysis. In Faulkner’s stunning novel, multiple narrators relate the story of a dysfunctional family transporting a dead matriarch, Addie Bundren, around Faulkner’s fictional Yoknapatawpha County in Mississippi, purportedly to give her a proper burial. Read through this frame, Wild becomes a stunning adaptation of As I Lay Dying, wherein the entire dysfunctional family of the novel is buried inside of Cheryl Strayed’s head. That is, Cheryl walks the Pacific Crest Trail in order to symbolically bury her mother, arguing with the past versions of her family members, her disengaged brother, her estranged ex-husband, and her beloved mother, Bobbi.
Faulkner’s approach to this material is far more pessimistic than Strayed’s. Faulkner ends his story with the revelation that Addie’s awful husband, Anse didn’t go altruistically on the herculean journey with Addie’s coffin, but instead as cover to go into town to get new teeth and a new wife. Staryed’s mother, Bobbi is nothing like Addie in Faulkner’s novel. Bobbi is idealized, played by Laura Dern as a sweet, fun-loving woman, whereas Addie, in her narration from beyond the grave, turns out to be a horrible mother. She laments of her children, “I would go down the hill to the spring where I could be quiet and hate them” (169).
For her part, Bobbi’s daughter, Cheryl is most like Darl, the central protagonist of Faulkner’s novel, the clairvoyant son who is eventually driven mad by the horrible behavior of those around him. Darl and Cheryl both respond to their terrible circumstances by lashing out at the world. Cheryl becomes a drug and sex addict, while Darl burns down a barn and is committed to a mental asylum. While Faulkner doesn’t see any hope for his characters, Strayed believes in the redemptive, transformative nature of the hike she undertook to save herself.
And yet, of the two—Darl and Cheryl—the most eloquent is Darl. He is Faulkner’s voice, and his poetic narration is virtually unparalleled in American literature. In understanding his diagnosis of insanity, Darl appreciates the irony of being labeled such in a world which is most certainly at least equally unhinged: “It’s like there was a fellow in every man that’s done a-past the sanity or insanity, that watches the sane and the insane doings of that man with the same horror and the same astonishment” (238).
But it is in his descriptions of the natural world where Faulkner’s Darl shines as a narrator. Early on in the journey, Darl describes a sunrise: “The sun, an hour above the horizon, is poised like a bloody egg upon a crest of thunderheads; the light has turned copper: in the eye portentious, in the nose sulphurous, smelling of lightning” (40). When his family crosses a river during their journey, Darl relates: “Before us the thick dark current runs. It talks up to us in a murmur become ceaseless and myriad, the yellow surface dimpled monstrously into fading swirls travelling along the surface for an instant, silent, impermanent and profoundly significant, as though just beneath the surface something huge and alive waked for a moment of lazy alertness out of and into light slumber again” (141).
The equivalent to this scene in Wild occurs much closer to the end, when Strayed reaches the Bridge of the Gods in Oregon. However, unlike the novel, where Strayed’s literary techniques are not up to Faulkner’s challenge, the film is able to capture the sublimity of nature with exquisite skill. As we look with Witherspoon’s Strayed across the chasm, we experience in the movie theatre that which only Faulkner can describe in words: a nature so grand that it cannot possibly be ruined by human frailties.
In this reading, I have positioned As I Lay Dying as a reading frame for Wild. As such, the film is far more nuanced that James Franco’s recent As I Lay Dying film, released in 2013. Franco falls into the classic adaptation trap, attempting to find direct cinematic analogues to the novel’s modernist narration. Franco uses kitschy split screens to represent the various narrators of Addie’s postmortem journey. For its part, Wild needs no such tricks. By allegorizing a journey to bury one’s mother inside the head of Cheryl Stayed, Wild is able to take Faulkner’s metaphor in a new direction.
Faulkner marginalizes the experience of most of his female characters, with the exception of the centrally positioned Addie, who is, of course, already dead. The equivalent to Strayed’s daughter figure in Faulkner is Dewey Dell, who also has a secret agenda in coming to town: she is pregnant and in need of an abortion. This of course echoes Strayed’s actual experience at the nadir of her depression, in full-blown self-destruct mode.
Both the memoir and the film versions of Wild position female experience far more centrally than Faulkner. While Strayed cannot express herself in language the same way Darl can, she does invoke a female poet who can. Throughout the story, Strayed reads feminist poet Adrienne Rich’s The Dream of a Common Language (1978). In its invocation of a female-centered version of Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, Wild shares most in common with African-American playwright Suzan-Lori Parks, whose first novel, Getting Mother’s Body (2003) is a similarly feminist riff on As I Lay Dying.
So, why does it matter that As I Lay Dying can be used as a reading frame for Vallee’s film version of Wild? Taking less than a second of screen time, the appearance of a print copy of As I Lay Dying in the film reverses a common idea about adaptation. It is frequently supposed that reading a novel requires you to imagine everything, while watching a film is a mindless act of laziness. In the case of Faulkner and Wild, the opposite is true. Strayed lists with simple prose the books that she read. However, when the film shows Witherspoon’s Strayed reading a book, we have to imagine what is happening on the page that is being read, and also what the book might have to do with the film we are watching. As I Lay Dying is an exquisite metaphor for what we all must do when confronted with the dead of a loved one: mourn their passing, endure the unbearable grief, and wait for the intense pain to pass so that we might remember the reasons we loved them in the first place. This might equally describe film adaptation, where the film invokes a novel that cannot help but be all but past, receding into the recesses of our imaginations.
– Walter Metz