Flannery O’Connor’s style is cinematic, dripping with desolate atmosphere and moral quandaries, however, few visual adaptations exist. John Houston’s Wise Blood comes close to getting it right. Brad Dourif is the ideal actor for Hazel Motes bringing intensity to the character’s directionlessness. His eyes have that searching quality even though we know he’ll never find any answers. The supporting cast does great work including an underused Harry Dean Stanton as the blind preacher who’s the subject of Hazel’s obsession.
Huston follows the book’s plot closely but he lacks the moral gravity that O’Conner places in every sentence. Overall if you are unfamiliar with Flannery O’Conner this is a good starting point as it does include all of her trademarks like racial and religious commentary, Southern setting, and desperate characters.
What he misses is the tone and sense of atmosphere O’Connor evokes. The soundtrack, filled with jaunty turn of the century orchestras, is completely detrimental to the material. This problem extends to almost all aspects of the film, it needs to be more sparse. O’Connor’s text is loaded with weight in every line of dialogue. By contrast, Houston is functional with his shooting style and deemphasizes dialogue and presents the setting as merely wallpaper. He also reimagines much of the story as comedic. Look at the Enoch and Gorilla sequence, played for laughs while in written form (both the short story and its revision in the novel) is that of solemn loneliness.
The story’s final section dealing with Hazel martyring himself with a combination of barbed wire, self-blinding and rocks only to die in a cop car is the typical Flannery gut punch ending where the bleakness just below the surface boils over and destroys the character’s life (even if they did achieve grace/redemption). Without establishing the moral gravity to frame Hazel’s mindset before, Huston’s take on this portion falls flat and comes out of nowhere.
The opening credits display run down churches, fast food restaurants and confederate flags in black and white. If Huston would have photographed the whole picture in this fashion he would’ve landed closer to the environment created in Flannery O’s prose. Wise Blood is a superficially close adaptation with solid technical craft but lacks what makes the novel so enduring and essential.