James Franco is everywhere these days. Between acting in just about everything and directing feature after feature, it seems safe to say that he's in the prime of his creative output. In terms of his directorial efforts, Franco definitely has an affinity for adapting tough pieces of literature, like his upcoming feature Child of God, which is based on a novel by Cormac McCarthy, plus As I Lay Dying and The Sound and the Fury, both of which are based upon William Faulkner novels previously thought to be unadaptable. The adaptations didn't start with that recent trio of films, however, but in the late 2000's with several short films based on poems. One of these short film adaptations comes from a Frank Bidart poem called Herbert White, and, as luck would have it, it's is probably one of the most disturbing films that you will ever see. Oh, and it stars Michael Shannon.
Inspiration for short films can come from any number of strange places, but some of the best short films draw their inspiration from seemingly simple concepts that turn out to be far deeper and more involved than first appearances would allow. Herbert White is one of those films, as it tackles a subject that is tremendously taboo, but presents that subject within the context of a character (Michael Shannon) who is equal parts despicable and dedicated family man.
So here's James Franco's adaptation of Herbert White, which as I mentioned before, is extremely disturbing and not for the faint of heart.
In an excellent interview on Vice, Franco talks in-depth about the process of adapting the poem, and the changes that he had to make in order to make it work in the short film format.
Short narrative films work best when not too much happens and the characters don’t need to change that much. Any big change will make the whole piece feel like a morality tale.
Because I didn’t want the movie to hinge on a moment of self-recognition and recrimination, I altered the pivotal dynamic to the family versus his secret life. This is why the family scenes alternate with the cutting machine scenes. The logging scenes are full of noise and energy. They embody the monstrous side of Herbert without having to show the character being monstrous. The juxtaposition with the plain and quiet moments with the family gives them even more power. At the end of the film, there is possibly a moment of self-recognition, but nothing definitive. Instead, the horror that has just been revealed is covered over by the innocuous voice of the son.
The poem that Franco adapted for this piece is, not surprisingly, just as disturbing, if not more so, than the film adaptation. With that said, however, it does provide an incredibly interesting piece of source material that practically begs for some kind of visual adaptation. Here are a few snippets from the poem:
When I hit her on the head, it was good,
and then I did it to her a couple of times, --
but it was funny, -- afterwards,
it was as if somebody else did it --
Everything flat, without sharpness, richness or line.
Still, I liked to drive past the woods where she lay,
tell the old lady and the kids I had to take a piss,
hop out and do it to her --
The whole buggy of them waiting for me
made me feel good;
but still, just like I knew all along,
she didn't move.
And then there's this dandy of a scene, which Franco also incorporated into the film in the form of a single, raw long-take.
but the more I drove,
I kept thinking about getting a girl,
and the more I thought I shouldn't do it,
the more I had to--
I saw her coming out of the movies,
saw she was alone, and
kept circling the blocks as she walked along them,
saying, 'You're going to leave her alone.'
'You're going to leave her alone.'
If you're interested in reading the full poem -- and I recommend that you do, because it sheds a bit more light on this film -- then you can find it here.
Ultimately, this is one of those films that falls squarely into the "not for everybody" category. It might even fall into the category of "not for anybody, except for those who are interested in complex, despicable characters." With that said, it's an interesting study in how various types of source material can be adapted for the short film medium, and it's an excellent example of how cinematic form and language (when coupled with brilliant acting from Michael Shannon) can transform the source material into something unique and provocative in its own right.