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All the King’s Men

Sep
28
2006

The second film adaptation of Robert Penn Warren’s Pulitzer Prize-winning All the King’s Men has finally hit the big screen. Unlike the first screen version, which won multiple Academy Awards, the new film has disappointed many critics, including me.

A complicated novel is not well-translated to the screen. There are too many storylines to explain and sustain, and it is never clear if the film is meant to be a political picture, a bildungsroman, or a crime mystery. It seems that writer-director Steven Zaillian, who won an Academy Award for his screenplay for Schindler’s List, could not decide what kind of movie he was making.

If it is meant to be a political movie, then the story would belong to Willie Stark, played in the movie by Sean Penn and modeled in the novel on Louisiana Governor Huey P. Long.

If it is meant to be a bildungsroman – a coming-of-age tale – then the story should be Jack Burden’s, played by Jude Law. There are actually two storylines about Burden: One reaching back into his youth in a family of Louisiana’s petit aristocracy, the other beginning as he leaves his career in journalism to serve as Stark’s right-hand man.



“All the King’s
Men”

If the movie is supposed to be a crime story, then the question is not so much whodunit as why-they-done-it. And, while the mystery of the crime is actually the most entertaining thread of the movie, that becomes apparent only late in the film. For that reason, (and because I would have to tip-toe around too many spoilers) I’ll drop any discussion of the mystery – but it is the most interesting to think about on leaving the cinema.

In the book, Willie Stark is a populist Depression-era politician in an unnamed Southern state; the movie is set in Louisiana, though it is moved from the Depression years when Long was governor (1928-32) and U.S. senator (1932-35) to the 1950s. (The movie takes great pains to get the local color and the period right and it mostly succeeds; the only slip I caught was when some character mentioned “any county” in Louisiana. Louisiana has parishes, not counties.)

There is nothing subtle about the names Warren gave to his characters. Stark manages to capture all three dictionary correlates to his surname: he is “bare or blunt” in his language and demeanor, “complete or utter, extreme” in his goals and means, and “harsh, grim” in his background and lack of polish. And Burden carries around a great deal of history as well as a lot of responsibility – he tells this story.

History – and literature – is full of characters like Stark. Their rise from humble beginnings (Stark is a dirt farmer) and fall – whether they are done in by evil outside forces or their own hubris – makes for great drama. But All the King’s Men does not present Stark’s story as historical biography. Instead Warren and Zaillian intertwine Burden’s own story – his struggles to recapture a long-lost love (Kate Winslet) and to live up to his principles and those of his family (and a surrogate-father judge played by Anthony Hopkins). There’s nothing remarkable about that kind of story: Caeser needs his Brutus, the vampire needs his interviewer but it confuses the point of this drama.

What is remarkable – and what made me think about the story from a very different angle when I learned it long after reading the book – is that the Burden character was something of an afterthought for Warren.

“Burden got there by accident. He was only a sentence or two in the first version—the verse play from which the novel developed,” Warren said in a Paris Review interview in 1957.

“[Burden] was an unnamed newspaperman…. When after two years I picked up the verse version and began to fool with a novel, the unnamed newspaperman became the narrator. It turned out, in a way, that what he thought about the story was more important than the story itself. I suppose he became the narrator because he gave me the kind of interest I needed to write the novel. He made it possible for me to control it. He is an observer, but he is involved.”

And therein, I think, lies the problem – a surmountable one in the confines a large novel, fatal for a film: Burden was not inextricably part of Stark’s story at the beginning. Warren reconciled this development in his narrative, but echoes of the added-on story haunt Zaillian’s telling.

The novel’s treatment of Stark as a grand historical figure is wonderful. Warren had room to develop and track Burden’s burdens – his idealism, his past, his love and friendships lost and potentially recaptured – and weave them into his relationship with Stark, wrapping their relationship up in multiple mysteries and ambiguities with quite a few surprises along the way. The movie simply does not have room to ramble as the novel did – to develop Stark’s and Burden’s characters and make them part of a coherent political morality tale.

“Schindler’s List”

Zaillian’s brilliant script for Schindler’s List had no such problem: it got the political morality right of course, but it also very deftly developed the characters of Oskar Schindler (Liam Neeson), Itzhak Stern (Ben Kingsley), and Amon Goeth (Ralph Fiennes). Zaillian’s All the King’s Men script looks more like the confused story of Gangs of a New York, another complicated and confused film for which he wrote the screenplay.

Share  Posted by mzeringue at 3:15 PM | Permalink

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