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David Milch will tackle William Faulkner’s works for HBO

At first hearing, it sounds like an instant entry in the history of bad ideas: Take one of literature’s most confounding, Baroque and at times abstract novelists and turn his books into TV, a medium that honors the literal and straightforward.

And do it — probably at great expense — over and over again.

On closer inspection, the pairing of David Milch — whose “Deadwood” and “NYPD Blue” took television about as close to art film as it’s likely to get — with William Faulkner, author of some of the most profound and important American novels — may be so crazy it could actually work.

HBO has released few details about the agreement, announced this month, between Milch and the William Faulkner literary estate to steer the adaptation of what may be numerous novels and stories. (Milch’s daughter Olivia will be coordinating producer.) Scholars seem to be both wary and excited.

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“Faulkner’s work is so cinematic,” says Thomas Hines, a cultural historian at UCLA who knew the author slightly while growing up in Mississippi. “Faulkner people have said, ‘What’s going on? Is the work just too difficult? Is Hollywood just not able to do this? Are they just interested in the sex?’”

But he sees enormous potential to the writer’s work on the big or small screen, thanks to “the flash forwards, the flashbacks, the layering, in the many things happening at the same time. We keep asking ourselves, ‘Which European filmmaker is going to do this?’”

Hines, author of “William Faulkner and the Tangible Past: The Architecture of Yoknapatawpha,” describes himself as split between “excitement and trepidation. Faulkner,” he says, “is just too good to mess up. And he has been messed up.”

Fred Hobson, who teaches Southern literature at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, is similarly intrigued. The more accessible, plot-driven novels — perhaps “Light in August,” about the mysterious and racially ambiguous Joe Christmas — would be the most natural for television, he believes. But he’d like to see Milch and company tackle the difficult, ambiguous “Absalom, Absalom!” — arguably the 20th century’s great American novel. The book is a nonlinear story within a story in which a Southerner away at Harvard recounts a Mississippi murder of many years ago.

“I’d like to see it focus in the story of Quentin Compson, a young man struggling with the burden of Southern history, who can’t take what he finds when he digs into the past.”

Hard to adapt

Sex, violence, racial tension, guilt and shame — Faulkner’s work appears to have something for everyone. Directors in both television and film, unsurprisingly, have tried their hands at the writer, who spent most of his life in Oxford, Miss., along with some time in Hollywood. (Despite his work’s supposed timelessness, his stock sank badly during his lifetime: By the time of his 1949 Nobel Prize, nearly all of his books were out of print.)

But for all the adaptations, there’s nothing resembling a masterpiece.

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Hines lists a number he’s seen — two “Sanctuary” adaptations, the meager 1959 film of “The Sound and the Fury” — without much enthusiasm, though he likes Douglas Sirk’s version of “Pylon,” from ’57, “The Tarnished Angels.”

“It’s generally agreed that the most successful adaptation of Faulkner was Clarence Brown’s ‘Intruder in the Dust,’” in 1949, a mystery novel of sorts about a black farmer accused of murder. But Hines’ favorite is “Tomorrow,” the 1972 film based on the story of that name starring Southerner Robert Duvall.

Hobson also describes himself as disappointed by what he’s seen, such as the 1969 film of “The Reivers” and the 1980 Tommy Lee Jones-starring TV movie of “Barn Burning.” It’s the inability of these projects to really get the essence of Faulkner that makes people drool at the idea of the books being done right. (Could an adaptation vivify the work, Hobson wonders, the way “The Hours” — filtered through a Michael Cunningham novel — did a Virginia Woolf novel?)

Some writers have wish lists: Salman Rushdie told Slate he was hoping for a new “Sanctuary” and “The Sound and the Fury”; Francine Prose mentioned “Light in August” and the story “Barn Burning,” adding that she looked forward to “lots of voice-over, those gorgeous Faulknerian sentences.”

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The writer’s time in Hollywood — he came out on the invitation of Howard Hawks and worked for MGM, Warner Bros. and Twentieth Century Fox — was like these adaptations: not a complete disaster but not entirely fruitful either. He ran with Bogart and Bacall and had an affair with Hawks’ secretary. A character in the Coen brothers’ “Barton Fink,” a comic-pretentious Southern aristocrat who’s often drunk, is a kind of exaggerated Faulkner.

In reality, the novelist worked on several important films, including Hawks’ film of Raymond Chandler’s “The Big Sleep.” It doesn’t feel much like Faulkner though. “There are some very Faulknerian touches in ‘To Have and Have Not,’” Hines says. “Some of it is more Faulkner than Hemingway.”

Perhaps the best thing about his stint in Hollywood, says Hines, who thinks the writer liked the place far more than he let on, is that the author’s fraught relationship to the studios sent him back to his novels. “He finished ‘Absalom’ here.”

Unconventional creator

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The best thing the HBO project has going for it may be Milch, a tumultuous and inconsistent genius with a long-standing commitment to serious themes and literature — he attended Yale and the Iowa Writers Workshop and studied with critic Cleanth Brooks and poet Robert Penn Warren. In fact, “the agony and sweat of the human spirit” — Faulkner’s own description of his life’s work — sounds similar to the way Milch, whom HBO did not make available, sees the world. (It certainly chimes better with the auteur’s voice than his anodyne quotes — “As we embark on this ambitious project, our first commitment is to serve the material…" — in the network’s news release.) Milch is the creator of a HBO’s new horse racing series, “Luck.”

But the project’s creators need to keep certain elements in mind if it’s going to work as TV, says television historian Tim Brooks. “Television is a very casually consumed medium,” he says.

HBO, with its many awards and reputation for artistic risks, is in its own category. “HBO is still in only about 30% of cable homes and isn’t growing,” Brooks says. “It’s a self-selecting, upscale, somewhat older audience.” It has prestige and creative freedom that most networks can only dream of but struggles constantly to retain its audience.

But wherever it appears “it’s all about human relationships — something that the viewer, sitting here in 2011, can relate to, even if it took place 100 years ago,” he adds. “Can they see human traits they can relate to, in their own lives? Television is a very intimate medium — it doesn’t trade in spectacle the way movies do.”

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Changing South

Faulkner is the kind of author often deemed “universal,” especially for his fascination with consciousness, point of view and ways of knowing.

But Faulkner’s settings — almost all in small-town Mississippi — were deeply specific and grounded in the South’s racial guilt. Hobson regards Faulkner highly but doesn’t see the work speaking to our times, especially to his students, the way it once did. “The South isn’t the tortured place anymore,” he says.

“I really did, as an undergraduate in the ‘60s, feel like I was still living in that world. There was a lot of consciousness of the racial atrocities of the ‘20s and ‘30s: Some of those were being played out in Selma and Birmingham. There were still Klan rallies, even in North Carolina.”

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In more subtle ways, Faulkner’s vision still illuminates our world, as the country is led by a president of the mixed blood Faulkner wrote about again and again.

“Faulkner is the one American writer I can think of who even while the approach to him has changed over the years, his status hasn’t,” Hobson says. “He’s seen by many as the dominant American writer of the 20th century.”

Whether Milch’s copious talent and HBO’s ample budgets, not to mention a sterling collection of actors, can make the material work on the small screen, remains to be seen. But the adapters have something going for them, if they pitch it right. “The play of Faulkner’s language,” Hobson says. “That you can’t get away from.”

calendar@latimes.com


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