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Sixty-one year old widower Will Varner, in ill health, owns many businesses and property in Frenchman's Bend, Mississippi, including a plantation. To him, his children are a disappointment, they who he sees as not being able to carry on the Varner name in the style to which he has built around it. Son Jody Varner has no ambition and does not work, spending much of his time fooling around with his seductive wife, Eula. Twenty-three year old daughter Clara Varner he finds clever, but he feels she also wastes her time on more contemplative pursuits. While most of her contemporaries are married, Clara has been dating Alan Stewart, a genteel mama's boy, for six years. Will would not mind Alan so much if he too thought Alan had a bit of a forceful man in him, which he could demonstrate by actually asking Clara to marry him. Conversely, Jody laments that nothing he does is ever good enough for his father, while Clara plain does not like the way he treats them. Into their lives comes Ben ... Written by
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About the best literary adaptation you could ever hope for
The Long, Hot Summer is an adaptation of William Faulkner's novel The Hamlet. Now, I just happen to be one of the world's biggest Faulkner fanatics, having read all but five of his novels. I have read The Hamlet, and it is a somewhat lesser work than his grand masterpieces (The Sound and the Fury, As I Lay Dying, Absalom, Absalom!, A Light in August, and Go Down Moses; I would also add, though they are lesser known than those five, If I Forget Thee Jerusalem and Pylon). It is more or less a novel made up of a bunch of various stories about the Snopes' family invasion into Yoknapatawpha County in the early part of the 20th Century (1920s, if I remember right; it's been a while since I've read that novel), and as such, it is quite poorly constructed. Faulkner's miraculous writing is intact, but the structure is convoluted.
The Long, Hot Summer changes most of what happens in The Hamlet, but it still ends up feeling very Faulknerian (if a little Hollywoodized, especially around the ending). The Hamlet contains a cast of several dozen townfolk and the Snopes family, a Northern family of carpetbaggers who have their eyes set on the hamlet of Frenchman's Bend. The main character in the novel is Flem Snopes. His name is changed in the film to Ben Quick, who was himself one of the original townspeople in the novel (in fact, the Quick family, although they never play a major role in any novel or even short story, pops up constantly in Faulkner's mythology). Quick is played impeccably by Paul Newman. If Flem Snopes had remained as he was written by Faulkner, Paul Newman would have been way too handsome to play him. Instead, the screenwriters,Irving Ravetch and Harriet Frank Jr., have made him more likable without losing his complexities. They do it by making Ben Quick the little boy who runs away from his barn burning father ( from the short story, one of Faulkner's most anthologized, Barn Burning). That little boy disappears without a trace in Faulkner's writings. Flem Snopes, a teenager during Barn Burning, stays by his father's side afterwards.
Will Varner remains fairly intact in the film, the most enterprising of any person in the community. He may actually have a more complex character in the film than in the novel. The literary character is more or less an opponent who is forced to deal with Flem Snopes and his family. Here, Will Varner meets a man who reminds him too much of himself in Ben Quick. The filmic Varner has a rather selfish desire to have grandchildren before he dies, and he tries desperately to get his two children to reproduce for him. In the novel, Will Varner has 16 children. With Orson Welles, we should expect nothing more than the best, and we get another one of his masterful performances here. Will Varner is a lot like Hank Quinlan from Touch of Evil (which was released the same year), and the complexities that Welles communicates here are equal to his Charles Foster Kane or Harry Lime.
All the other characters are basically completely changed from the novel. Eula Varner is still a sexpot, but she is no longer Will Varner's youngest daughter, but his dauther-in-law (Flem Snopes originally married her). I don't remember Jody Varner too much from the novel, but I'm pretty sure the insecurities he feels towards Ben Quick were created by the screenwriters (Will Varner never got chummy with Flem Snopes in the novel, so there would be less of a reason for the hatred of Jody). I believe Clara Varner either didn't exist in the novel, or she was much less important. She certainly wasn't the school teacher, since he fell in love with Eula Varner at 13 and ultimately had to resign because of his lust, and then one of the Snopeses taught, I think I.O.
The part of this film that really gives it power is the amazing dialogue. I'm pretty sure that no direct dialogue, or at least very little, was taken from the novel. It was all created by Irving Ravetch and Harriet Frank Jr. It is absolutely poetic. I don't think that there is much dialogue in the novel. Faulkner rather likes to tell his stories silent for the most part. Also, if you are a Faulkner fan, or a fan of this novel in particular, keep your eyes open for echoes of other novels or of things that have dropped out here. There is the sewing machine salesman crack when Ben Quick is approaching Varner's mansion (a joke about the salesman Ratliffe, who provides a majority of The Hamlet's point of view), the hint at Absalom, Absalom! (when one of Varner's horses foals near the end), and the hint at A Light in August (the fire in the distance, the townspeople moving towards it). All in all, The Long, Hot Summer is a masterpiece. It is a beautiful, passionate, and intelligent film, and the best literary adaptation of which I am aware, or maybe only second to The Unbearable Lightness of Being.
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