Tuesday’s Overlooked A/V: Wise Blood

Flannery O’Connor’s masterpiece of Southern gothic, Wise Blood, received an unusually effective film treatment. It probably had a lot to do with the cantankerous John Huston helming it, someone with enough weight to throw around to keep it cleaving to the same dark vision that inspired it. For those who sneer at “literary” it might be good to remind you that the first chapter initially came to life as her master’s thesis and other portions of it drew on stories first published in Mademoiselle, Sewanee Review, and Partisan Review.

That said, I doubt her work would get through a modern writers workshop.

Huston’s 1979 film scores with a fantastic cast: no one could capture the strangeness of Hazel Motes like Brad Dourif. I can’t find the name of the actress who played Leora Watts, but she fearlessly capture the role. Of course Harry Dean Stanton and Amy Wright as the preacher and his Sabbath Lily shine. Ned Beatty and William Hickey — and of course Huston as the fire-and-brimstone grandfather who messes up Hazel in the first place.

I caught this just before leaving Ireland; I hadn’t seen it many years but it was just as good as I remembered and even more chilling. The strangeness of Dan Schor’s Enoch Emory has a wistfulness that my younger self overlooked, a terrible heartbreak and loneliness.

The finale of the film can’t quite catch the uncanniness of the novel, but it does an amazing job with adapting a complex and strange book. “No man with a good car needs to be justified.” Coming from Michigan, that phrase had even more resonance for me. It speaks to the dream of mobility and freedom that the car industry sold in the lush times of consumer dreams in the post-war era — while papering over those atrocities. They came out in strange ways sometimes, as they did for Hazel Motes. Look it up, and enjoy a little trip with “the Church of Christ Without Christ. Where the blind can’t see, the lame don’t walk, and the dead stay that way.”

Check out the round up of worthies over at Todd‘s.


  1. Aye, they don’t make ’em like they used to … !! great post. Kate…

    1. katelaity says:

      LOL, I’m not sure that was my message, but films this good remain rare.

  2. pauldbrazill says:

    Great book, great film.

    1. katelaity says:

      Word, Mr B. O’Connor amazes.

  3. Todd Mason says:

    Interesting. I’ve been meaning to read the novel for decades. And I didn’t realize that it was what the sf folks might call a “fix-up”, a reworking of previous shorter work…PORTNOY’S COMPLAINT being another example.

    1. katelaity says:

      I still think O’Connor is best with the punch of shorts, but the novel is good and hangs together better than that structure suggests. The less said of Roth, the better.

  4. Great choice Kate – it is such a peculiar film but does I think basically succeed in capturing the even odder tang of the novel. Recently came out on DVD in the UK in a very nice edition after a long period of uanavailability.


    1. katelaity says:

      Oh, excellent to hear. I didn’t know if it were available yet on DVD.

      1. And available from Criterion in the US too.

  5. Crispinus says:

    You’re right about O’C and a modern writer’s workshop. I have to read this book every so often, or I’m done.

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