It's hard to know where to start with James Franco these days. This week his novel, Actors Anonymous, comes out. And last Friday his adaptation of As I Lay Dying opened in New York before a VOD roll-out that begins Oct. 22 on iTunes. He's already wrapped another Faulkner adaptation, The Sound and the Fury, and just started filming a The Interview, a comedy directed by buddies Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg about a talk-show host who gets mixed up in a North Korean assassination plot.
That eclectic mix has given James Franco a reputation more for ambition (his graduate degrees, his writing) than any particular kind of work (aside from maybe self parody as recently manifested in his Comedy Central roast and This Is the End). But when it comes to his recent spree of literary adaptations, including William Faulkner's As I Lay Dying, he is completely sincere.
"I probably care about these projects as much or more than anything that I do," he told The Atlantic Wire. "I feel like I’ve been honored and blessed to be able to work with this kind of material—with Faulkner, one of my favorite writers, and Cormac McCarthy, my favorite living writer. [His adaptation of Child of God played at Venice, Toronto and the New York film festivals.] So because I’ve been given these opportunities, I feel a great responsibility to, you know, deliver great movies or to rise to a certain level."
Some critics are taking Franco's interpretation of the Bundren family's journey seriously too. "In rushing in where wise men might fear to tread, Mr. Franco has accomplished something serious and worthwhile," A.O. Scott wrote in the New York Times. Of course, the film is not for everyone, even Franco admitted that, though he said he makes these adaptions "with the audience in mind." As I Lay Dying is slow moving and filmed, in part, in split screen, a maneuver that nods to how Faulkner's narrative is told from multiple perspectives. "The story itself, to me, is not enough," he said. "If I just adapted the story I felt like that would not be capturing the spirit of the book. The style and the structure were part of the adaptation. So I needed to make it strange or structurally complex like the book if I wanted to be loyal to the book."
Of course, because this is Franco, eyebrows were raised when people learned he was taking on material as venerable and difficult as Faulkner. And the Internet issued another round of groans when a tie in copy of the book was released featuring Franco's mug. Franco reposted an image to his Instagram of Time Out New York's film critic Keith Uhlich brandishing the book, head in hands. Franco told us that he didn't know what the controversy was about—"I guess I can guess"—and that he didn't know the tie-in was happening. "If they had asked me about a photo for the cover—I like that photo, but I don’t really think that it really the captures the spirit of the book—so if they wanted to do a movie tie-in I would have suggested another one," he said.
That said, Franco did argue the cover's case. "If it gets more readers for As I Lay Dying then who cares?" Franco said. "You can sit around and say, 'well we’re just protecting As I Lay Dying,' well, if people don't read it then, you know, it's dead. If it gets more readers then I think it's ultimately fine." He added, "If people don’t like me and then don’t like the film because they don’t like me, then there’s nothing I can do about that."