the Signet version of Sanctuary that Veronica bought because she liked the cover and really opened the door to my Faulkner collection

Sanctuary

  • Author:  William Faulkner  (1897  –  1962)
  • Rank:  #62
  • Published:  1931
  • Publisher:  Jonathan Cape and Harrison Smith
  • Pages:  341  (Vintage Corrected Text)
  • First Line:  “From beyond the screen of bushes which surrounded the spring, Popeye watched the man drinking.”
  • Last Line:  “She closed the compact and from beneath her smart new hat she seemed to follow with her eyes the waves of music, to dissolve into the dying brasses, across the pool and the opposite semi-circle of trees where at sombre intervals the dead tranquil queens in stained marble mused, and on into the sky lying prone and vanquished in the embrace of the season of rain and death.”
  • ML Edition:  #61  (three dust jackets  –  1932, 1959, 1967)
  • Film:  1933  (***), 1961
  • First Read:  July, 1994

The Novel: “Good god, I can’t publish this.  We’d both be in jail.”  Those are supposedly the words that Harrison Smith wrote to William Faulkner after Faulkner submitted the manuscript to his fifth novel, Sanctuary, to the publisher in the summer of 1929.  Or, at least, that is what Faulkner would like us to believe happened.  Much of this novel, its road to publication and the ensuing film that followed are wrapped up in the mythology of Faulkner and the degradation and utter amorality of the story.  Scholars and even friends of Faulkner have long maintained doubts about the veracity of the introduction to the Modern Library edition of Sanctuary that was first published in 1932 in which he claims to have written it in a torrent, sent it off and had it rejected.  He then claimed to have massively rewritten it “trying to make out of it something which would not shame The Sound and the Fury and As I Lay Dying.”  And there are many who would have you believe that the film version, The Story of Temple Drake, just about single-handedly lead to the enforcement of the Production Code.  But let’s step back from this legend for a minute and look at the book itself.

my copies of Sanctuary

Or let us look at the two different versions of the book.  The first is those galleys that Faulkner felt were terrible, the ones he claimed to have written in three weeks just to make money.  It is interesting that he should make the comparison to The Sound and the Fury, because if there was anything he did in the revision, it was to move it structurally further away from The Sound and the Fury.  As Noel Polk so perfectly puts it in his afterward to Sanctuary: The Original Text, the original version of the novel existed in the shadow of Sartoris and The Sound and the Fury, was more of a psychological study, and it was the work he did between the two versions of the book – revisions to The Sound and the Fury, the writing of As I Lay Dying, and numerous short stories, that lead him to change the book.  If the argument against publication in the first place was that it would have landed them both in jail then it still never should have been published, because nearly all the horrific material from the first version remains intact in the second.  It is merely the connections to the earlier novels (straightening out the narrative, removing some of the more overt incestuous overtones among the Benbows) that were removed.  In many ways it was still the same pot-boiler that it was in the first place, the child of Dashiell Hammet’s detective novels mixed with a modernist style.

There is no question that there is a great deal of horror in the book.  From the early scene where we are first introduced to the members of the bootleg house and the baby sleeping in the box (“I have to keep him in the box so the rats cant get to him.”), to the horrific moment in the trial where we finally see the pipe (“He held in his hand a corn-cob.  It appeared to have been dipped in dark brownish paint.”), the novel is full of danger and evil and lust (“She gathered a handful of it and lifted her head, and saw within her fallen coat naked flesh between brassiere and knickers and knickers and stockings.”).  It is the dark story of two individuals, both of them weak, but both of them strong in their own ways.  Horace Benbow is a lawyer, trapped in a loveless marriage, devoted to his sister (in later novels, Benbow is abandoned by Faulkner but is very much embodied by Gavin Stevens).  Temple Drake is the flirtatious college girl who ends up at the bootlegger cabin in a night of violence and looming horror.  The link between them is Popeye, much like the Judge in Blood Meridian, the godchild book to this one, is a study in pure evil.  He kills the poor halfwit, Tommy, then proceeds to rape Temple with the aforementioned corn-cob pipe (something that is never really made explicit, but is hinted at and then there is the sudden realization with that stain on the pipe is).

the covers of my copies of Sanctuary

But this novel is also a masterpiece.  Yet, it doesn’t get the reputation it deserves, mainly for two reasons.  The first is the sordid history of its publication, of the film that followed, of the dark nature of the book.  It felt too much like the hard-boiled detective novels.  At the time it was left to the French to discover in this book the power of Faulkner’s style and language.  The second is that he has so many other masterpieces.  I am clearly not the only one who thinks so.  Three of his novels were on the Modern Library list (The Sound and the Fury, As I Lay Dying, Light in August) and a fourth is often mentioned among the best books of the 20th Century (Absalom Absalom).  Sanctuary has simply been lost in the attention paid to Faulkner’s other novels.  But look at the kind of language that pervades the novel: “He smells black, Benbow thought; he smells like that black stuff that ran out of Bovary’s mouth and down upon her bridal veil when they raised her head.”  Much has been made of Faulkner’s lack of education, but there is no question, as that quote proves, that he had a deep knowledge of literary history.

But perhaps the quote that best seems to show the mastery in Sanctuary comes from the middle of the book.  In one fell swoop, he manages to show his mastery of plot, style and language, yet also the horror at the core of the book.  He moves things forward and lets us slowly begin to learn what has happened without the need to ever explicitly state it:

She sat limp in the corner of the seat, watching the steady backward rush of the land – pines in opening vistas splashed with fading dogwood; sedge; fields green with new cotton and empty of any movement, peaceful, as though Sunday were a quality of atmosphere, of light and shade – sitting with her legs close together, listening to the hot minute seeping of her blood, saying dully to herself, I’m still bleeding.  I’m still bleeding.

The Films:

Miriam Hopkins in a menacing scene in the bootlegger cabin in The Story of Temple Drake (1933)

The Story of Temple Drake (1933 – dir.)

I wrote about this film once already, here.  But I focused then on the unavailability of the craziness of it being completely unavailable when it is, quite frankly, a well-made film, the best ever made from a Faulkner novel.  But I didn’t look at it very closely from the point of view of being an adaptation.  We already know it’s a good film.  But how it is an adaptation of the novel?

Well, it was at an advantage in that it was being made before enforcement of the Production Code (in fact, if rumors are to be believed, it is the film primarily responsible for the enforcement of the Production Code).  So it was able to show the true menace and horror of the novel (including the scene where the baby is in the box to keep it away from the rats).  It stays fairly close to the novel, although it eliminates most of Horace Benbow’s storyline.  It also manages to somewhat combine him with the character of Gowan Stevens.  (For some reason they changed most of the names for the film – Popeye was understandable as the cartoon had become popular in the ensuing two years, but the changing of Stevens and Benbow’s name was simply odd).

The filmmakers decided that the story really hinged around three things – the horrific night at the bootlegger’s cabin, the time in the Memphis whorehouse and the trial itself.  They certainly changed much of the novel, including the ironic way that Popeye meets his end (even in the pre-Production Code days they wanted to make sure he got his comeuppance from the person he deserved to get it from).  They hint at the rape, but they remove all mention of the corncob pipe.

But in another sense, they don’t stray too far from the book.  It (oddly) reminds me of the first X-Men film.  In that film, they didn’t follow any particular storyline, but they were faithful to the original comics in that all of the characters stayed true to the way the characters had been written.  That applies to The Story of Temple Drake as well.  They change aspects of the plot but they don’t stray far from the characters themselves.

The key to the film, why it works so well, is the casting of Miriam Hopkins as Temple Drake.  There were very few actresses in Hollywood at the time who truly could have pulled this off.  She manages to perfectly portray the overt sensuality and flirtatiousness of Temple, while also perfectly recoiling from the horror of the night she endures.  I can imagine no other actress of the time being believable both in the night scenes, but also in the scene in the whorehouse where she tries to throw Benbow off the scent by claiming to want to stay (for more of her career, read this fine piece written by Mythical Monkey here).  Benbow comes off as a weakling, but he is fairly weak in the book and the film simply expands on that (it is too bad he has that horrible last line that concludes the film – “Be proud of her, Judge.  I am.”  It almost undercuts the horror that preceded it).  But the film as a whole stands up, both as a film and as an adaptation of the novel.  Faulkner wanted to write something that wouldn’t shame The Sound and the Fury or As I Lay Dying.  Well this film doesn’t shame the novel.

Lee Remick in the bootlegger cabin in Sanctuary (1961)

Sanctuary (1961 – dir. Tony Richardson)

This film manages to do things right and very wrong at the same time.  The first thing to know is that this is not just an adaptation of Sanctuary, but also of Requiem for a Nun, the novel/play that followed as a sequel 20 years later.  That much is obvious within 20 seconds of the film starting, as Nancy, the black maid of Temple and Gowan is sentenced to death for killing their child.  It’s interesting because neither the film nor the IMDb itself mentions Requiem as part of the film.

From that point, rather than move into the action of Requiem, the film decides to take a flashback and move into the action of Sanctuary itself.  This is a good decision, but perhaps too late.  The film has started out clumsily, doesn’t make us interested in any of the characters.  It’s been badly directed so far and it’s hard to figure out what is happening and why.  Tony Richardson might have been the right director for the angry young men of Britain, but put him the American South and he’s quite out of his league.

Once we move into the past, we get into the strengths of the film.  Just like Miriam Hopkins was the right actress at the right time, I thought that Lee Remick would be the right actress at the right time for the remake (today I think Anna Paquin would be the perfect actress for the part).  Remick, who had been so full of Southern sensuality in The Long Hot Summer, yet had also shown in Anatomy of a Murder that she could act as well, seemed to be the right person to play Temple.  But instead, there seems to be something missing.  There is too much time spent in the scenes where she and Gowan are partying before they finally make it to the bootleggers cabin.  Yet, even with all of that partying, she doesn’t seem very interesting and Remick’s performance seems oddly flat.  Nowhere is there any evidence of her performance in The Long Hot Summer that must have made her the first choice for this role.  And then there is Yves Montand – he sort of plays Popeye (though called Candy Man, which just doesn’t feel right), but he doesn’t do it very well and he isn’t very menacing.  He just can’t get across anything of the menace in the role and it’s embarrassing to look at him in this as compared to his performance in a film like Wages of Fear.

To make things worse, the screenwriters seemed to have decided that to make thing more interesting they would combine random aspects of Requiem with Sanctuary and try to make it one long story instead of two completely different stories that deal with the same characters.  It’s bizarre that they would have even attempted to remake Sanctuary under the auspices of the Code.  It was the horror of the story that made it so cinematic.  And in this they want to get just enough of the horror to remind you why Sanctuary is such a fascinating read, but pull back easily far enough so that they could get past the censors.  If you want a film version, stick with The Story of Temple Drake.

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