Because my film adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s book Child of God will be released this August, I thought I would share one of my previous attempts at transforming literature into film. When I was at NYU, I made a short based on Frank Bidart's poem "Herbert White," which you can watch above.
What follows below is a talk I had with Matt Rager about my adaptation of “Herbert White.” Matt co-wrote the screenplays for my movies The Sound and the Fury and As I Lay Dying—both of which are also adaptations. During our talk, we touch on the ideas behind my film and Frank's amazing poem and the powers and limitations inherent in the mediums of film and literature.
James: Frank Bidart’s poem “Herbert White” was introduced to me in a seminar class at an MFA program. The teacher read it aloud, and it was immediately galvanizing for me. Some things speak to us. We can read hundreds of pages a day, but much of it falls into the background. Only a few works urge us to investigate and align ourselves with their power—Bidart’s poem was one of those special works.
In the class, the initial discussion addressed the unusual depravity of the subject matter—a necrophile murderer. Bidart later told me that he wrote the poem while in a workshop with Robert Lowell at Harvard. Lowell told him that there were some subjects that were suitable for poetry—and this was not one of them. The poem eventually became the first poem of Bidart’s first book Golden State.
The idea came to Bidart after reading a dime-store psychology book called 21 Abnormal Sex Cases, one of which was “The Necrophiliac.” The book was 1960s pornography disguised as a case-study book. Bidart used some of the details of the necrophiliac’s case and fused them with facts from his own childhood growing up in Bakersfield, California. His father was a lothario who lived in a motel and got remarried and had more children with his second wife, of whom Frank was very jealous. Frank gives Herbert the yearnings of a poet. He’s trying to decipher the world around him. But Herbert can’t understand the world, not in the ways that Frank can. Herbert doesn’t have the capacity to express himself or to contextualize his world. Instead, he tries to control it through violence. Frank calls the Herbert character his anti-self, a concept he picked up from Yeats, through which one can examine oneself by depicting the opposite of oneself.
Matt: I can’t help but notice the interplay between Bidart’s “Herbert White” and Anthony Hecht’s “Feast of Stephen.” In “Feast of Stephen,” it is about the distance between narrator and character. In “Herbert White” it seems to be about collapsing the authorial voice within a first-person character. Would you say that this interplay between voices is something you’re drawn to?
James: Definitely. Once I decided to adapt “Herbert White,” I had to figure out what would stay in the narrative. I was struck by two moments at the beginning of the poem that led to an approach for the entire film. The first is at the very beginning, when he says, “I hit her on the head and it was good.” This is a mysterious line. Read alone, it’s ambiguous. What world allows a woman’s struck head to be “good”? I used my initial reaction to this one line to shape how I would depict the mystery around what Herbert was doing in the woods. In other words, the opening of the film was directly influenced by the ambiguity of the first line of the poem. In the film he is dragging something that can’t be seen through the woods and then he hit it and he nods as if in approval, as if it was good.
The other surprising thing for me was that Herbert has a family. He mentions leaving them in the car while he goes into the woods to have sex with the corpse. This implies a depth to him, that he isn’t simply a monster. He has a family that he supports. But more than all that, it implies that he has a secret life. And this tension between the public/family life and the secret shameful life is what I built my film on. Matt: What is transgressive in one media is familiar in another. For instance, the homo-social bonding between boys in "The Feast of Stephen" is familiar as a poetic theme, but to see it manifested in your film was much more shocking. Herbert White was an opposite experience for me. The poem is shocking. But when the film opens with the scene of Herbert White carrying what is clearly the dead body of a young girl, I found myself immediately thinking: OK, he’s a serial killer.
James: You’re right. We have different expectations for different mediums. We can watch pornography for free on the internet, but if it enters into our films, people get upset. We see murder after murder in film, but in a poem it seems infinitely darker. The other weird dichotomy is between fiction and non-fiction. This is a tangent, but maybe important for the poems and films we’re looking at. How crazy does Tom Cruise look proclaiming his love for Katie on Oprah? But in a film like Jerry Maguire, that performance would look great. I know that one is supposedly real and one is fictional, but what is Oprah but entertainment? Guests don’t go on that show and act like they do when they are at home in their living room. Talk shows and non-fiction are a mix of reality and entertainment. Certain stories are being selected and told in a specific way for a desired effect. This is why, as Godard says, (I’m paraphrasing) that even a choice of a camera angle is a political choice.
Matt: I’m interested in the structure of the film and the way that you used repetition and images of circularity to develop rhythm and tension. There’s the scene where he sees the girl on the street. He passes her and circles back around the block in one long tracking shot. We watch him wrestle with himself and try to resist the urge that we know is building. Since the camera is in the car with him, the girl becomes the focal point around which the camera, car, and Herbert circulate. These images capture the thematic concerns of the poem—a man trapped within a familial cycle of violence that he can’t escape. Was this structure consciously inspired by the poem?
James: The circling car scene came from a few different places. There is a section in the poem where Herbert has gone to visit his father and he sees that his father is engaged with his new family in a way that he never was with Herbert. In the poem, instead of confronting his father, Herbert prowls the streets for a new victim. It is as if murdering young women is the only way he knows how to channel his pent up feelings.
For the film, I thought Herbert’s struggle with himself would be best captured if we didn’t cut away from him. The racing around the block along with Michael’s screeches and curses (ad-libbed) adds to the depiction of the inner struggle. We shot it three times, racing around the block. I was in the back with my DP. We were both pinching each other because the scene was so intense.
Matt: The poem also dramatizes several scenes with his father and moments from his childhood. Why did you decide not to depict those?
James: In the poem, there are significant sections that deal with young Herbert, including his first experience with death. Young Herbert kills a goat on accident, while trying to have sex with it, when it strangles itself at the end of its tether in an attempt to get away from him. Herbert takes his mother’s notion that “Man’s spunk is the salt of the earth, it makes things grow” literally and tries to bring the goat back to life by masturbating on its corpse. But his spunk does not make things grow. This is an interesting and comedic episode in the poem because it ties sex, death, and the parents’ struggle all together in young Herbert’s mind. But when putting it on film would be difficult. The image of a boy fucking a goat is hard to swallow. It would put an audience off and I wanted to save the most horrifying image for the end of the film.
The other issue with the flashback scenes was that they are much more concrete on film than they are in poetry. The poem doesn’t actually jump back to the past. A literal translation of what was happening would have depicted Herbert speaking directly to the camera, talkingabout his childhood. If you don’t do that, then you have to depict scenes with a different actor, a young actor. Scenes like that are less powerful, because they are so literal.
Matt: Most serial killer shows only depict brief snippets of the killer before cutting away to the good guys investigating the crime. They titillate the viewer by presenting the depravity, but they dole it out in manageable chunks and then mitigate it within predictable genre conventions. By staying with Herbert the whole film, you do not allow the viewer to dismiss him as a monster. The tension builds because we are not allowed outside of his cycle of violence. And the film ends without any indication that the cycle of violence will be broken. However, your ending is very different. Why?
James: The poem ends with self-recognition. Herbert has been murdering women and sleeping with them without acknowledging it to himself. But regardless, it would be hard to portray this absence of mind on film. Imagine what the actor would look like while in such a trance. And what about the moment toward the end of the poem when he realizes what he has been doing? That is the material of melodrama and overacting. Finally, at the end of the poem he says, “I hope I fry.” This seems to reference the electric chair, which would imply that he has been caught. But it also means that the character has taken a full turn and is full of self-recrimination. This kind of turn is hard to do convincingly in a 15-minute film. 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.
Matt: I like that idea that the pivotal dynamic in literature is internal and psychological. But in order for this to work in film, it must be shifted to a spatial or physical representation.
It is an interesting choice to embody the monstrous within images of machines. They have immense destructive power, but the power is transient and offers nothing in place of what has been destroyed. While operating the machine, one experiences the power. But at the end of the day, those working that job have very little agency. They are still beholden to the whims of forces beyond their control. Not only do the machines represent the inner turmoil and the drive to destroy, but they also points toward the feeling of impotence Herbert feels at his inability to understand the world, to understand himself, and to control his actions.