COMPLETE STORY — Fifty years after the death of Williams Faulkner, the Oxford writer’s work continues to be popularity. The Modern Library is reissuing six of his books this year and Hollywood is showing renewed interest in transferring his work from the page to the screen.
“I think I not only won’t ever make any money out of what I write, I won’t ever get any recognition either.” — William Faulkner to his friend Phil Stone in 1929
Renewed interest in writer shown by film industry
William Faulkner’s glum view of his future back in 1929 was certainly understandable. Up until that point, his attempts at making a career as an author had failed to gain any traction.
He eventually did make some money from his writing, and he ended up getting quite a bit of recognition. So, while he never penned what might be called a runaway best-seller, he did enjoy international critical acclaim.
Faulkner probably hit one of his peaks in his popularity long after he had died in 1962. In 2005, Oprah Winfrey recommended three of his books to her book club, and Faulkner’s popularity surged.
In fact, Faulkner continues to enjoy the benefits of the boost in visibility and popularity he got among contemporary readers that resulted from Winfrey’s recommendations seven years ago, said Jay Watson, the Howry professor of Faulkner studies and English at the University of Mississippi. Watson is also the director of the annual Faulkner & Yoknapatawpha Conference at UM.
Publishing houses still have confidence in Faulkner’s ability to sell a respectable number of titles, although Random House, which is the publisher of most of his books, does not release specific numbers.
Earlier this year, The Modern Library, a part of the Random House Publishing Group, announced it was reissuing six of Faulkner’s “timeless classics” in commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the writer’s death. The Modern Library is spacing out the release of these books so the titles will appear on book store shelves throughout the year.
For instance, on March 13, “Selected Short Stories of William Faulkner” was published, as well as “Snopes.”
“Selected Short Stories” features some of Faulkner’s best known stories, including “A Rose for Emily” and “Barn Burning.” This title was originally published by Random House in 1962, said Ella Maslin, who is in charge of overseeing the publicity of the series of reissued books for Random House.
“Snopes” features the three titles of Faulkner’s trilogy of novels focusing on the Snopes family, “The Hamlet,” “The Town” and “The Mansion.”
“The Modern Library published all three together in 1994,” Maslin said. “The trilogy volume is unique to The Modern Library.”
The other four titles coming out this year as part of this series are: “As I Lay Dying,” on sale May 22; “Absalom, Absalom!” and “The Sound and the Fury,” both on sale July 3; and “Light in August,” on sale Aug. 7.
Several of the reissues will feature new forewords, which have been written by some of today’s most respected authors, such as E.L. Doctorow, who has written the foreword for “As I Lay Dying.”
The 50th anniversary of Faulkner’s death is being “remembered through six of his most recognized and appraised published works,” the publishing house noted when announcing the series for the writer “whose work was chosen by The Modern Library as some of the best English-language literature of the 20th century.”
The new forewords in these books are expected to “enhance the work we’ve grown to respect and admire as classic literature,” according to The Modern Library. “Their modern perspectives have created a unique place for Faulkner’s work in the eyes of the 21st century reader.”
Faulkner’s may soon get reintroduced to a whole new generation of readers via the medium of movies, said Olivia Milch, a Faulkner fan and scholar who hopes to bring more of the writer’s stories and novels to a wider audience with new film adaptations of Faulkner’s work.
Olivia Milch, 23, is the daughter of David Milch, an Emmy-award winning writer and producer. David Milch’s production company, Redboard Productions, entered into an agreement this past November with Lee Caplin, the executor of the William Faulkner Literary Estate and CEO of Picture Entertainment Corp. Milch and Caplin will be the executive producers of films and television projects based on Faulkner’s works.
David Milch is serving as the executive writer in charge of adapting the works, and HBO has an exclusive first opportunity to finance, produce and distribute the projects as movies, miniseries and series. Olivia Milch serves as the coordinating producer on the projects, as well as a co-screenwriter.
Earlier this month, Olivia and David Milch submitted their screenplay to HBO for the first of Faulkner’s works they hope to film — “Light In August.” They both plan to be back in Oxford in July for the 39th annual Faulkner & Yoknapatawpha Conference at the University of Mississippi, which has as its theme this year, “Fifty Years After Faulkner.”
David and Olivia Milch say they were first introduced to Faulkner when they were students.
“I was in high school and ‘The Bear’ was the first work that I read,” David Milch recalled in a telephone interview last week. “In college, the novels of the Faulkner canon, in particular ‘Absalom, Absalom!’ and ‘Light in August,’ held my imagination.”
Olivia Milch read “Absalom, Absalom!” in her junior year of high school, and after taking a college course focusing on Faulkner, Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald, she was hooked. She ended up coming to Oxford in 2010 to work on her thesis on Faulkner.
Books to movies
It was while she was in Oxford when she met Caplin, which ultimately led to the production agreement announced six months ago.
David Milch and his daughter’s passion for Faulkner convinced them to invest their time and talents to translate his work into films that others will want to see.
As David Milch put it: “Is there still some interest in Faulkner today? I hope to hell there is. He has been a kind of shaping presence in my imagination. Faulkner himself spoke of the human heart in conflict with itself and that is a continuing theme for a work of any quality. If we are not in touch with Faulkner’s work, then shame on us.”
Because the themes in Faulkner’s novels and stories are concerned with universal truths, the books have a timeless quality about them. These issues, such as race, honor, class, family, love and one’s role in a constantly changing society, are as topical today as they were when Faulkner wrote about them in the previous century.
“I come back to Faulkner with pleasure and a kind of awe every couple of years, and it is remarkable to me how contemporary his work remains,” David Milch said in explaining why Faulkner continues to find an audience among today’s readers.
David and Olivia Milch hope they can expand Faulkner’s fan base with their efforts to bring his work from the page to the screen.
Due to the often complex structure of some of Faulkner’s novels, he has developed an unfortunate reputation among many as “the greatest writer of the 20th century who no one reads,” Olivia Milch said.
“I hope that with this project, part of what we can do is make his work accessible,” Olivia Milch said. “These are stories that should be told, and if we can’t do justice to the story, we will have done a disservice. But if our film can bring more readers to his work, we will have done what we set out to do. It would be an honor to be a steward of Faulkner’s work.”
They said it’s difficult to put an exact timetable on when production will begin on “Light In August,” but it could be as early as 2013. However, once the project is given the green light, they’re sure of their preference for where the movie should be filmed.
“It damn well better be filmed in Oxford,” David Milch said. “I think it is of the essence that it be filmed in the Oxford area.”
Regardless of where film versions of Faulkner’s work may be done, in the end, Faulkner’s works endure — and will continue to do so — because of the stories Faulkner chose to tell and how he told them, Watson said.
“I believe he remains as relevant as ever to today’s readers,” he said. “He offers an incredibly nuanced and feelingful account of people — some of them privileged but some quite ordinary — struggling to deal with change in their lives, change brought on by the dynamic forces at work in their modernizing world.
“Our world today is, if anything, even more dynamic, so I’m convinced there are lessons to be learned for the contemporary reader from the way Faulkner’s characters respond to change. We can learn as much from the characters who struggle and fail to make crucial transitions in their lives as from those rarer characters who successfully negotiate these challenges.” (May 11, 2012, Page 1A)