Wise Blood'. Starring Brad Dourif, Harry Dean Stanton, Army Wright. Based on the novel by Flannery O'Connor. Directed by John Huston. Flannery O'Connor's first novel, "Wise Blood," is a powerful, eccentric, and disturbing work. The main character is a young Southerner named Hazel Motes. He comes from a long line of preachers, and desperately wants to rebel against his heritage.
When the book first came out, the author was distressed to learn that some readers applauded Hazel for his flight from religion. So she added a note to the novel, explaining that Hazel is a hero for exactly the opposite reason -- not because he struggles against religion, but because he never manages to win the ridiculous battle.
Thus, to the writer herself, "Wise Blood" is an essentially pious book. Yet it makes its points in roundabout ways, and contains passages that are downright horrifying. As O'Connor sees it, Hazel's big problem is that he has no real church to fall back on. Willynilly, he develops a do-it-yourself religion of his own, full of nightmarish penances. He's crazy, and he's wildy sincere, and the book partakes of both these qualities. It's a comic novel, by design, but its humor is as black as midnight.
The movie version of "Wise Blood" was initiated by Michael and Benedict Fitzgerald, who are the sons of O'Connor's literary executor. Their family was friendly with O'Connor before her death, and it was in their parents' house that the book was written. To direct the project, they called on John Huston, a grand sold filmmaker whose experience stretches from "The Maltese Falcon" to "The Man Who Would Be King." Since the novel is lean and descriptive, there has been no need for extensive changes in transferring it to the screen. Yet alterations have been made, and this is where the film's main weakenesses lie. It's a reasonably faithful adaptation, but not a flawless one.
The biggest problem has to do with mood and atmosphere. Dutifully, the film reaches out for black comedy, but never gets past light blue. Portions of the movie are almost sunny -- for the sake of variety, perhaps. Even less appropriate, some of the book's most outlandish conceits have been reduced to mere jokes. When a policeman pointlessly destroys Hazel's precious car, for example, the effect should be hilarious and horrible at the same time. Instead, cute banjo music plunks to the soundtrack, and the episode becomes a slapstick interlude.
Such comparisons between the film and the book are inevitable, since the movie clearly aspires to capture the essence of its source. In this, it doesn't quite succeed. Yet considered on its own, it has a number of noteworthy elements. Brad Dourif is craftily weird as Hazel, and Army Wright is chillingly convincing as his unregenerate mistress.
Harry Dean Stanton, a wonderfully gifted actor who rarely gets a chance to show what he can do, misses a few beats in his portrayal of Asa Hawks, a fake evangelist who enters Hazel's universe. By contrast, Ned Beatty strikes just the right sour, pathetic note as Hoover Shoats, the preacher who precipitates catastrophe by stealing Hazel's thunder.
Like O'Connor's other novel, "The Violent Bear It Away," and some of her best short stories,' Wise blood" has a fierce momentum and a savage wit that stand alone in comtemporary literature. The movie makes a good try at capturing these elusive elements. But ultimately it loses its balance, and many viewers may wonder whether its rewards are worth all its perversities.