Flannery in Film

Although many have attempted to adapt Flannery O’Connor’s stories to film, three adaptations are widely known and easily accessible: The Life You Save (1957), Displaced Person (1977), and Wise Blood (1979). Each has a different amount of faithfulness to the original stories and are shot in different styles and on different locations. For anyone curious about these films, this article will provide information for each movie, comments on how close it is to the original story, and rank them from worst to best.

The first movie made from an O’Connor story was The Life You Save based on the story “The Life You Save May Be Your Own.” Filmed as an episode of a television series called “Schlitz Playhouse of Stars.” Widely considered the worst of the three films, it was the first and only adaptation Flannery allowed during her lifetime. Flannery was incredibly disappointed in this version because it was very unfaithful to the original story and failed to present the underlying message. Mr. Shiftlet’s character is changed into Mr. Triplet and played by Gene Kelly, someone much too wholesome and suave to play a drifter. There are a few changes throughout the film, but the main problem is the ending. The short story ends with Mr. Shiftlet abandoning his new family. In this adaptation, Mr. Triplet turns around and returns to his new bride, completely changing the understanding of the story. It turns the story into a happy, little story that audiences will like, rather than something that will make them think. In The Habit of Being, Flannery writes to a friend, through the sale of her film rights, it provided her enough money to buy a new refrigerator for Andalusia. In expressing the ups and downs of having the movie made, she says, “Mr. Shiftlet and the idiot daughter will no doubt go off in a Chrysler and live happily ever after. Anyway…while they make hash out of my story, Regina and me will make ice in the new refrigerator.” [1]

The next film is Displaced Person, which premiered on television in 1977. Like the last one, this film involves some recognizable actors, most notably a twenty-eight-year-old Samuel L. Jackson. Around an hour long, this film is a much more faithful adaptation of the original short story by the same name. The few made, were mainly changing narrated parts from the written story to dialogue in the movie. The best part about this movie, though, is that it is filmed entirely on the grounds of Andalusia. As someone intimately familiar with the current version of the house and the items within it, it was an absolute joy to see the property exhibited as a working dairy farm. Throughout the film, several pieces of furniture, vases, and bric-a-brac are seen still in the house today, as well as the old Nail House, which collapsed years ago. When reading the story, it sounds like the setting could easily be Andalusia. Filming it there makes the set authentic, and allows the audience to see the farm from the story, how Flannery must have viewed it when she lived there. Overall, it is a decent film and faithful adaptation, but the written story is better. The main reason I would suggest watching it would be to see the farm in action.

Philip Bolton, “Movie Faithful to O’Connor,” Macon Telegraph (Macon, Georgia), Wednesday Morning edition, June 16, 1976.

Last but not least, we come to the most well-known of any film adapted from an O’Connor book: Wise Blood. Since this film came from one of O’Connor’s novels, it is a full-length movie at 1 hour and 46 minutes. It is also the only one on this list that showed in theaters. Director John Huston filmed most of the scenes in downtown Macon, Georgia which was fun to see. However, the 1970s cars in the background of a story set shortly after World War II lacks consistency. Because this film tried to adapt an entire novel into a movie, parts are missing for the sake of brevity, but no major plot holes are evident. However, this does provide a more straightforward understanding of the entire synopsis. The movie is very entertaining to watch, and the actors bring life to the dialogue.

Overall, although “The Displaced Person” is one of my favorite O’Connor stories and was a more accurate adaptation, this is the more entertaining film to watch. As is the case with most movie adaptations of books, the book is always better. It is hard to say if a film will ever be made that truly captures the themes and moods Flannery embodies in her work. Hopefully, by staying true to the story, Flannery might have enjoyed the adaptations more.

[1] Flannery O’Connor, The Habit of Being, ed. Sally Fitzgerald, (New York, NY: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1971), 174.

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