Adapted from a book by Flannery O’Connor, I can’t say I’m especially taken with Wise Blood as a literary adaptation. The strong imagery and symbolic resonances seem somewhat silly when depicted on screen: false prophets, blind faith preachers finding faith without sight, self-inflicted crucifixion wounds, sexual temptation, an ersatz Mary and a mummified, shrunken and deformed ‘baby’ Jesus (a stolen, substitute relic), fire and water.
The racist Southern worldview we follow is never directly confronted, but framed as a fact of life. African American ‘n———‘ are the followers and sellers of faith, cheap labour building cheap cars that are directly compared to apes in the zoo; the visiting ‘gorilla’ costume, Gonga (essentially a white man within the metaphorical blackness of animalised, ‘African’ black fur), alluding towards the King Kong copycat of Konga (1961), becomes the lead attraction outside the theater for the film’s only African American representation in the guise of black children comprising half of the kids lining up outside in glee. This King Kong parallel is only emphasised within the silliness of the ape costume going wild, becoming something to fear for elderly white couples. Hazel is so white, he can be pulled over by a cop, explicitly speak back to his face and state he has no license, and only end with his broken, steaming car pushed into a lake – not to his demise. The cops can locate his living body across the railroad tracks, and drag him safely home.
The name of Jesus is invoked throughout, not as an aspirational human son/image of God and sanctity, but as a method of selling faith. The atheist preacher worldview of Hazel becomes preferable: selling honestly in the contradiction of a Church of Jesus without Jesus Christ, rather than knowingly selling faith (and gaining dollars from unwitting converts) where no belief lies. There’s something radical in a humanist worldview of the human man – imbued with no bastardisation or spiritual longing – that can speak out against the preachers that act as conmen in selling a ‘false’ faith – like Dean Stanton’s blind man eliciting sympathy for his cane. There’s strength in Hazel resisting the idea that he can bring a dog and become instantly rich. Within a secular realm, faith is sold not only in religion but in the audience and anticipation around Gonga, car dealerships selling their car, belief that the car will survive when it is patently obvious it won’t.
Though Brad Dourif does a good enough job, it’s hard to get past the pinnacle of ‘southern gothic’ in cinema – The Night of the Hunter (1955), with its intoxicatingly seductive lead, the realms of LOVE and HATE, sheep’s clothing and deaths – than in Dourif’s eternally unlikable preacher. The colour cinematography is at times interesting, but Alex North’s score, though good enough in his scores for Kubrick, is plainly unlistenable, destroying any sense of tone within the film; one wonders what Jhon (sic) Huston, directing in his later career, would have made of the novel closer to its original publication, directing in black and white with a more suspenseful atmosphere and (hopefully) a better score. O’Connor’s writing is so powerful in what I’ve read (A Good Man is Hard to Find) that one suspects this parable becomes more effective within prose than depicted with literalism on screen.