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“To Put it all into Words is a Hell of a Hard Thing:” Faulkner’s Adaptation of History and Fiction in A Ghost Story/War Birds

William Faulkner first came to Hollywood in 1932 because, as Joseph Blotner notes in Faulkner: A Biography, he had been told that he could make between 500 and 750 dollars a week in Hollywood.  In a letter to his wife in November of 1931 he wrote, “if all that money is out there, I might as well hack a little on the side and put the novel [probably Light in August] off” (Blotner 727). When he finished his last work for Hollywood in 1954 he had, according to Sarah Gleeson-White, written or collaborated on at least fifty screenplays. This significant body of work has been studied by Tom Dardis, Bruce Kawin, Peter Lurie, Gene Phillips, and most recently by Gleeson-White, among others. But it demands still more careful scholarly attention. As Gleeson-White concludes in William Faulkner at Twentieth Century-Fox: The Annotated Screenplays, “any future considerations of Faulkner the writer—in all senses of the word—need to negotiate the multilayered dynamics and contingencies of his Hollywood screenwriting career” (759).

The following analysis of one of Faulkner’s early screenplays is partly an answer to that call, and partly an attempt to comprehend how Faulkner practiced the art of adaptation. A close look at A Ghost Story/War Birds, one of the unproduced scripts Faulkner wrote for MGM between November 1932 and January 1933 (Kawin 257), suggests that he understood, or at least came to understand, the potential of film to communicate emotions, thoughts and feelings visually, as well as its ability to sustain the kind of literary images and metaphors for which he would become famous. Faulkner recognized the fact that films, while they incorporate language, are not dependent upon it in the same way that novels are, nor are they able to rely on language in the same ways that novels do.

Faulkner was not alone at this historical moment as he worked to understanding the complex and multivalent relationships between literature and film. In 1926, while Faulkner was working on Mosquitoes, his second novel, Virginia Woolf noticed what she perceived to be the value, as well as the limits, of the cinematic image. Adaptation studies has since rejected much of the essentialism Woolf attributes to medium, but her notions likely reflect the way many scholars would have felt in the late 1920s and early 1930s. In “The Movies and Reality” Woolf observed that random images on a screen could generate emotion, and she reasoned that movie directors and actors

have at their command—but what? Is there, we ask, some secret language which we feel and see, but never speak, and, if so, could this be made visible to the eye? Is there any characteristic which thought possesses that can be rendered visible without the help of words? (Woolf)

At the same time that she seems to celebrate the untapped potential of film, Woolf goes on to note what she considered the medium’s limitations. Later in the same essay she quotes the first two lines of Robert Burns’ “A Red, Red Rose” and argues that the literary image of the rose Burns creates

presents us with impressions of moisture and warmth and the glow of crimson and the softness of the petals inextricably mixed and strung upon the lilt of a rhythm which is itself the voice of the passion and hesitation of the lover. All this, which is accessible to words alone, the cinema must avoid. (Woolf)

At the dawn of the sound era Woolf insightfully identified one of the central struggles of those involved in the adaptation process. How, in short, can a screenwriter take advantage of cinema’s visual potential, while navigating its tendency to literalize literary metaphors?

As a screen adaptor Faulkner recognized and tackled this problem head on. As he once suggested in an interview, “You can’t say the same thing with a moving picture as you can with a book any more than you can express with paint what you can with plaster” (qtd. in Phillips 1). Faulkner was clearly working in this early part of his time in Hollywood to become a better screenwriter, and he understood the consequences of adapting novels for film as only a fiction-writer-turned-screenwriter could. Throughout his career Faulkner would depreciatingly comment that he had “never learned how to write movies,” but he clearly learned something from his time in Hollywood, and at least some of what he learned is made evident in A Ghost Story/War Birds (Phillips 55).

It is worth noting here that screenplays have traditionally been ignored in both film and literary scholarship. They fall into the crack of being neither works of literature nor finished films. Jack Boozer’s Authorship in Film Adaptation tackles this problem by focusing an introduction and a dozen essays specifically on the role of the screenplay in films adapted from different sources. Boozer suggests that “the increasing attention to intertextual and intermedial influences in adaptation over the last two decades provides an opportunity to highlight the most consistent and crucial example of intertextuality at work, namely, the writing of the transmedial screenplay” (1). Gleeson-White joins Boozer in this sentiment, and argues, more specifically, that

Faulkner, like so many literary authors over the past one hundred years or so, wrote across many different genres and forms. In order to give validity and recognition to this dynamic transmediality, and the occasionally breathtaking continuities between high art and industrial expressive forms, we need to treat Faulkner’s screenplays first and foremost as screenplays. (15)

Although A Ghost Story/War Birds was never produced, the screenplay remains as an intermedial step in the incomplete transmedial process of making a film based on a literary text.

Although he seems to have gained important insights into both fiction and film through his screenwriting, Faulkner likely never considered his film work more than a part-time job. He always suggested that he was a novelist who occasionally wrote for the screen. He once told Stephen Longstreet that studio work was “like chopping cotton or picking potato bugs off plants; yo’ know damn well it’s not painting the Sistine Chapel or winning the Kentucky Derby. But a man likes the feel of some money in his pocket” (Longstreet 53). This attitude was likely a healthy approach to Hollywood. Jack Boozer points out that “even in cases where a studio sought out a specific writing talent to adapt a literary work,” as was the case with Faulkner, “studios continued to rule the process” (11). But Faulkner’s approach to screenwriting did not always sit well with his Hollywood colleagues, the men and women who had chosen screenwriting as a career. Faulkner, for instance, was well known for writing during what he called hot streaks. Some of his novels were reportedly written in as little as six weeks. But this tendency to write in spurts did not make his time in Hollywood any easier. One fellow screenwriter complained that “Faulkner is turning out too many pages. He sits up all night sometimes writing and turns in fifty to sixty pages in the morning,” making the other screenwriters look bad (Longstreet 51).

His attitude toward the screen adaptations of his own works was similarly casual, at least on the surface. In 1962 an interviewer asked the author how he liked seeing his own works adapted to the screen. Faulkner answered that selling his stories to Hollywood was simply “a good way to make a little money” (Faulkner “Faulkner at Westpoint” 216). He then said something that, though a little flippant, does indicate the way he separated the writing he did in Hollywood from his other writing. “I have in the contract,” he said, “that I don’t have to see the picture, so it never confuses me” (216). Allowing for Faulkner’s dry sense of humor, there may very well be a grain of truth in this statement. He did not explain what might be confusing about viewing a film made from one of his novels or short stories, but it is clear that Faulkner found film and literature in some ways incompatible. This is an odd attitude for a man who not only worked on films for a number of years, but one whose most well-known screenwriting credits came on successful films adapted from novels. These include Hemingway’s To Have and Have Not (1944) and Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep (1946).

This attitude also belies Faulkner’s apparent interest in film specifically, and with popular culture in general. Peter Lurie, in Vision’s Immanence suggests that in the late 1920s and early 1930s Faulkner became deeply involved in exploring the apparent dichotomy between high and low culture, most easily seen in the differences between movies and literature (30). He argues that the two versions of Faulkner’s Sanctuary, first drafted in early 1929 and rewritten and published in 1931, actually dramatize those differences (25-30). If we accept Lurie’s arguments we must also accept that Faulkner’s interest in Hollywood involved more than just the source of his next paycheck. He was also interested in understanding films and the culture industry they had created. Nevertheless, Faulkner’s disparaging comments about the movies indicate one of the most important assumptions he made about both film and literature. He saw books and films, even films that had been adapted from literature, as separate and distinct things. This attitude flew in the face of what many of his colleagues and most scholars of the period thought about film adaptations of literary works.

Most writers and critics of the mid-20th Century, if they thought about film adaptations at all, believed that it was possible simply to capture a novel on film. Scholars have often suggested, for instance, that some literary texts may be “transposed” into film. Geoffrey Wagner argued as late as 1975 that the simplest kind of adaptation is “transposition, in which a novel is directly given on the screen, with the minimum of apparent interference” (222). These kinds of films he imagines to be little more than “book illustration[s]” (223). Wagner does go on to define more complex kinds of adaptations, but for him at least some films based on literature are “transposed” or “given on” the big screen, as one might transpose a song from one key to another.1 In conflating literature and film in this way writers and critics failed to recognize that novels had to be adapted for the screen, not simply filmed, and that the adaptation process involved creating a new work of art in a new medium. Faulkner’s experiences as a writer had apparently taught him this fact. Though he never expressed them systematically, his ideas about adaptation were likely closer to what George Bluestone wrote in 1957, just a few years after Faulkner completed his final film project. Bluestone suggested that the adaptor “does not convert the novel at all. What he adapts is a kind of paraphrase of the novel” since the novel’s “language is inseparable from its theme” (62). Both Faulkner and Bluestone recognized the basic incompatibility of the two mediums. Films and literature are completely different, and the kind of writing Faulkner did for each was equally different.

Faulkner’s fiction was often criticized for its rambling prose and “overloaded pages” (Longstreet 49). His reported response to these criticisms, noted by Stephen Longstreet, is important since it reveals something essential about the way Faulkner thought about his fiction. Strictly speaking, he did not think in terms of prose. He seemed to imagine ideas, images, events and characters, and then struggled to recreate these things with words. Faulkner suggested that his complex and sometimes convoluted style was thus a result of this struggle to write what he considered unwriteable. “I can write prose as simply as anybody,” he said,

but when you are trying to say, well, that desires and dreams are in the final scoring incomprehensible, yo’ have to have between yo’ and the reader a kind of veil that forms the mood and the color, that sets the fact that life is studded with pain, and to seek it is to expand one’s own agony in a way, I suppose. To put it all in words is a hell of a hard thing, very hard. (49)

To accomplish this “hard thing” Faulkner resorted in his novels and short stories to prose that was sometimes designed to communicate not the event or the fact, but “the mood and the color” he was working to create. In very similar language Jack Boozer notes that, like fiction, screenplays tend to work toward similar goals, but with very different tools. “The adapted screenplay,” he writes, “usually pares down dialogue and avoids metaphorical style,” in order to “set a mood and tone, as well as tell a story in the eventual service of an audiovisual design” (5).

This tendency of screenplays to avoid literary metaphors and embrace more literal or cinematic imagery (that may or may not be metaphorical) is supported by the famous story Faulkner told of The Sound and the Fury originating as an image of Caddy’s wet underpants. In an interview given in 1956 and originally published in The Paris Review Faulkner claimed that The Sound and the Fury began as a mental picture “of the muddy seat of a little girl’s drawers in a pear tree where she could see through a window where her grandmother’s funeral was taking place and report what was happening to her brothers on the ground below” (Faulkner, “Interview with Jean Stein Vanden Heuvel” 245). He claimed that he only “realized the symbolism of the soiled pants” much later, after writing was well under way (245). If this origin story is true, and there’s no reason to believe that it isn’t, then it suggests something important about the way Faulkner wrote. At least some of the time his work began with a mental image that the writer himself had to work to understand.

Because he at least occasionally conceived of stories as images, it might be assumed that screenwriting would come naturally to Faulkner. Movies are, after all, made up at least partly of images. I’m not sure, however, that this was the case. Faulkner was the lead writer for Howard Hawks’ The Land of the Pharaohs (1955), and during an interview in Memphis at the film’s premier he suggested that writing for the screen presented “separate problems and challenges to the writer,” but “that a competent craftsman should be able to handle them all” (“Faulkner, Lured to Preview” 116). Once again Faulkner did not explain to the interviewer what these separate problems and challenges were, but based on his comments noted above we might make a couple of educated guesses. When he wrote prose Faulkner was working, at least some of the time, to turn ideas and images into words, but when he wrote screenplays he was writing words that were often designed to be turned into images. In other words, screenwriting was almost the opposite of fiction writing for Faulkner. His screenplays had to find ways to communicate visually if they were going to be successful.2

In this light, literary metaphors, one of the important building blocks of Faulkner’s fiction, were likely to get in the way of writing a good screenplay. To return to The Sound and The Fury for a moment, the description of Caddy’s muddy drawers as she climbs the tree to peek into her grandmother’s room is a perfect example of this. Climbing the tree and showing her underwear suggests both her strength of character as well as her vulnerability. Moreover, her muddy underpants become a potent symbol of her later relationships with Dalton Ames, Herbert Head, and her Nazi boyfriend. In short, the idea of her underpants works quite well as a multifaceted literary metaphor. As a film image, however, which would have literally appeared on the screen, it was more problematic. Thus director Martin Ritt, in his 1959 film version of The Sound and The Fury, adapted by Irving Ravetch and Harriet Frank Jr., does not include any shots of Caddy’s underpants. But if this literary image really is the heart of the novel, as Faulkner suggests, then leaving it out must have had consequences. Perhaps it should not be surprising that the adult Caddy in the film, played by Margaret Leighton, is a much less sympathetic figure than Faulkner’s Caddy3. This is not to suggest that cinema, even in Faulkner’s time, did not incorporate metaphors. Rouben Mamoulian’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1932), released a year before Faulkner started working on A Ghost Story/War Birds, is filled with metaphors. From Fredric March’s Hyde make-up to the film’s set design and innovative use of on-screen mirrors, nearly every scene in the film has visual elements that can be read metaphorically. Faulkner seemed to understand this potential for film to function metaphorically, and worked during his time in Hollywood to create cinematic as well as literary metaphors. This is arguably the most important adjustment Faulkner had to make when he went to Hollywood. Though the Hollywood machine might have asked screenwriters like Faulkner to change plot points and add characters as they adapted literature for the screen, this notion of visual storytelling is probably the most significant difference between many works of literature and their cinematic adaptations.

A second, and in Faulkner’s case perhaps even more important, difference between literature and film is the different nature of point of view in the two mediums. Faulkner appreciated deeply the mediating role of the printed word, and his own chosen role as mediator. Boozer notes that the “specific challenges for adaptive writers and filmmakers usually include ways to visualize the fiction narrator’s exposition, metaphors, and interior character observations and their thought processes” (7). In Faulkner’s case the various points of view he employs in his novels and short stories are, in fact, often the most vital features of his work and make the screenwriter’s job even more difficult. In the case of a novel like The Sound and the Fury point of view becomes the central structural feature of the work. In Ruppersburg’s assessment of Faulkner’s point of view, “out of the metaphor of individual perceptions blossom his innovations in point of view, one of the most important and distinctive elements in his writing” (8). The practical limitations of point of view in film means that when he commenced working in Hollywood Faulkner was forced to rethink one of his most important literary tools. This is true, even though Faulkner was both screenwriter and, to some extent, the fiction writer for the A Ghost Story/War Birds screenplay. But a study of this screenplay suggests that at least part of the time he chose to adapt the use of point of view to a cinematic context, rather than simply abandon it.

The rest of this essay focuses specifically on A Ghost Story/War Birds. In 1926 Howard Hawks, working at MGM, acquired the rights to War Birds: Diary of an Unknown Aviator, a popular non-fiction account of the WWI air war. Published anonymously by Elliot Springs, a former RFC pilot, a few months earlier, the book, in diary form, follows the adventures of an American pilot who flew in the British Royal Flying Corps, and was shot down and killed in 1918. War Birds: Diary of an Unknown Aviator is most notable for its honest portrayal of the life of a pilot during the war. The author is critical of the leadership of the RFC, the underpowered planes the pilots flew, and the inadequate training he and his comrades received. The author also unselfconsciously records the mortality rate of pilots. The diary notes the death of another pilot at the end of almost every entry. Springs first published the work serially in Liberty Magazine, and then as a best-selling hardback. Springs also sold the film rights to MGM at about the same time (Kawin 257). The first edition of War Birds: Diary of an Unknown Aviator sold well, and a year later Springs prepared to publish a second edition. Before that could happen, however, he was sued by Josephine Grider Jacobs. Josephine had recognized details in the book from her brother, John Grider’s letters home (see Figure 1). Springs eventually confessed that he had taken the diary from Grider’s effects after the other pilot’s death, and Josephine received a $12,500 settlement (Polston). Springs did not mention Grider’s name in either of the early publications, or to MGM, and likely intended that his friend remain an “unknown aviator.” In the foreword of the second edition, however, Springs acknowledges Grider as the source of the book, justifies his earlier editing out of information that would have identified Grider, and suggests that the journal, though “an individual diary,” became a kind of communal property, “the actual history of those two hundred and ten” American pilots who joined the RFC (Springs vi).

To Put it all into Words is a Hell of a Hard Thing: Faulkner’s Adaptation of History and Fiction in A Ghost Story/War Birds, Dennis Cutchins, Literature Film Quarterly
Figure 1: John McGavok Grider in uniform (source: https://www.findagrave.com/memorial/61749119/john-mcgavock-grider).

When Faulkner first went to work for the studios he wrote several treatments, and was assigned to help other screenwriters on various projects, but A Ghost Story,4 based loosely on War Birds: Diary of an Unknown Aviator, is very likely only the second screenplay that he completed alone. Today We Live, released in 1933, was probably the first5. This is an important point if we want to explore the differences between Faulkner’s fiction and his screenwriting. A Ghost Story is one of the first sure places that a comparison of the two styles might be made. A comparison is even more apt since Faulkner borrowed characters and events from his own fiction in writing the screenplay.

Faulkner’s time in Hollywood is described in several places. Tom Dardis devotes a chapter to Faulkner in his Some Time in the Sun, an exploration of the screenwriting careers of a number of 20th Century American fiction writers including Faulkner, Fitzgerald, Nathanial West and others. Gene D. Phillips’ Fiction, Film, and Faulkner discusses Faulkner’s work in Hollywood beginning with “Manservant,” one of the first treatments Faulkner worked on when he began at MGM, and ending with a discussion of the adaptations of two of Faulkner’s own literary works, “Barn Burning” and The Reivers. But neither Dardis nor Phillips mentions A Ghost Story. In fact, the screenplay is mentioned only three times in the scholarly literature: once in Joseph Blotner’s outstanding biography of Faulkner, once in Bruce Kawin’s Faulkner’s MGM Screenplays, and once by Sarah Gleeson-White. Blotner mentions in the notes to volume one of his biography that Howard Hawks, who died in 1977, allowed him to read “a 100-page finished film script titled A Ghost Story, the rights to which are owned by Mr. Hawks” (Blotner 114). The Hawks papers are now housed in special collections at the Harold B. Lee Library at Brigham Young University. Despite Blotner’s note that Hawks owned the rights to the work, the Faulkner estate has worked to claim rights to the screenplay. Kawin records the basis for this contention in the introduction to Faulkner’s MGM Screenplays (xxxiv). Blotner surmised that A Ghost Story was an early version of the War Birds screenplay, which was later published by Bruce Kawin in Faulkner’s MGM Screenplays (1982). Kawin, though he did not have access to Hawks’ papers while he was conducting his research, made a similar assumption based on his reading of a War Birds script he found in the MGM vaults (257).

Both researchers were correct in their assumptions, but after comparing the two screenplays side by side I would add that A Ghost Story is not an early version of War Birds, but the early version. War Birds is a nearly word-for-word retyping6 of A Ghost Story. There are changes between the two texts, but almost all of the changes are designed to make the text more fully meet the conventions of screenplay writing. A Ghost Story, for instance, does not note scene changes on the copy, an important convention for someone actually considering production. In the margins of the copy from Hawks’ papers someone has penciled-in scene numbers (1 to 323). Those numbers have been carefully typewritten in the copy of War Birds published by Kawin. Moreover, handwritten additions and strike-outs on the Hawks copy are meticulously followed in the War Birds text. There are, however, no other significant changes between the two texts, other than corrections of obvious typos. At least one typo, in fact, remains in the later screenplay7. From this fact one may surmise that the text of War Birds is very likely the work of Faulkner and Faulkner alone. The lack of screenplay conventions in A Ghost Story suggests that Faulkner did not have a collaborator when he wrote the text, since practically anyone else working at MGM would have used more conventional formatting and screenplay style. Moreover, penciled-in corrections suggest that it is very unlikely that there were any intermediary “versions” of the script between Faulkner’s draft of A Ghost Story and the War Birds screenplay published by Kawin. If we are, in other words, looking for something that is indisputably an example of Faulkner’s early solo work in Hollywood, this is it. This is important since it allows us a relatively “clean” look at the way Faulkner adapted his writing style for the more visual medium of the movies.

The story, like many of the screenplays Faulkner wrote for Hawks, centers on a handful of fighter pilots during WWI. In the story Bayard and John Sartoris, twins from Mississippi, join the Royal Flying Corps and leave for England to join the fight. Faulkner borrowed the Sartoris brothers from his Flags in the Dust/Sartoris.8 John leaves his pregnant wife, Caroline and, at her request, promises to keep a journal of his time away. John is faithful in keeping the diary, but unfaithful in most every other way. As soon as the brothers arrive in England John begins a series of affairs with local women. He also develops an intense hatred for Spoomer, another pilot who manages to seduce away his British girlfriend, Sheila9. Spoomer is another Faulkner character, originally appearing in “All the Dead Pilots.”

Except for the frame story, which is set in Mississippi after the war, most of the narrative is told in flashbacks and through John’s journal entries. There are numerous scenes of John’s hand writing in the journal followed by crossfades to the action being described. This is likely a partial result of the popularity of Grider’s published diary and Faulkner’s attempts to preserve the flavor and tone of a journal or diary in the film. But in a departure both from Grider’s book and from Hollywood convention, Faulkner also uses what might best be described as a shadow puppet show several times in the narrative. (Here and elsewhere I have cited page numbers from War Birds rather than from A Ghost Story, since the former is readily available to scholars.) In one such scene shortly after the two brothers arrive in England we read “DISSOLVE through hand still writing. As it writes, there falls on the page the silhouette of a girl’s head” (291). The silhouette, meant to represent Sheila, shows up again a few pages later. On another diary entry centered on John’s conflict with Spoomer over Sheila we read, “DISSOLVE through writing hand. The girl’s shadow is now gone, in its place the silhouette of a man’s head, and the head of a dog” (292). After the entry is complete the silhouette changes again: “The hand withdraws, as if John were reading what he has written. The man’s head begins to laugh in pantomime, and the dog to bark, making no sound” (292). This series of shadow images, however clumsy, represent an important attempt to create an actual picture with his writing as Faulkner describes superimposing a visual image onto a written page. Faulkner, in short, is trying to tell his story with cinematic images rather than literary descriptions. He is also working to preserve the particular point of view of the journal writer.

But Faulkner did not completely abandon literary metaphors. In fact, one of the most interesting elements of Faulkner’s visual storytelling in this screenplay is his use of particular images as visual shorthand to communicate complex ideas and relationships. Spoomer’s dog, the dog of the shadow pantomime, becomes one of the most useful images in the text. Dogs were common RFC pets, and Grider mentions them in his journal. He writes, “Everybody in the squadron has some sort of a dog,” and Faulkner puts this bit of trivia to good use (166). In his cinematic diary John first describes Spoomer, much as he does in “All the Dead Pilots,” as “a captain, with a dog almost as big as a calf” (War Birds 19, “All the Dead” 513). Faulkner creates a close association between Spoomer and the dog (they are often seen together) so that later, when John sees Sheila and the dog riding in a cab, he realizes that Spoomer and Sheila are having an affair (293). The dog becomes a very useful and practical symbol, or sign if you will, a bit of visual shorthand that allows Faulkner to imply an ongoing affair between Spoomer and Sheila with the literal image of the dog. But Faulkner also uses the dog as a metaphorical image10. John had previously made up his mind to break off his relationship with Sheila because of the guilt he feels for betraying his wife, but hates having been driven out of the affair by Spoomer. John notes in his journal that “it makes me feel pretty low in the self-respect to know that the symbol of my conscience and the mentor of my behavior is a dog” (298). John reiterates this sentiment a few pages later when he explains to Bayard that it was Spoomer’s dog that forced him to break off his relationship with Sheila (300). If the earlier image of the dog in the cab is a literal image, then the note in the journal and the conversation with Bayard indicate a metaphorical image, since it depends on the linguistic metaphor of a man acting “like a dog.”

John and Bayard eventually wind up in France where John quickly establishes a new liaison with Antoinette, an attractive French woman from the nearby village. The only bright side of France for John, as he twice records in the diary, is that he’ll “never have to see that dog again” (298, 302). Of course, as soon as he arrives at his new base the first thing he sees is Spoomer’s dog, “Suddenly he stops, an expression of shock and outrage comes over his face. The door opens, a sergeant comes out with a list, and behind him Spoomer’s huge dog emerges, strolls out and trots away” (302). Once again, Faulkner creates the presence of Spoomer and a foreshadowing of the love triangle with the image of the dog. It is worth noting here that the tragic love triangle was already a familiar plot device for Faulkner. One of his early co-authored screen treatments was Absolution, a story about two pilots who fight over a woman. That story ends as one shoots the other down over France in WWI (Blotner 775). And when contract demands later required that Joan Crawford appear in Today We Live (1933) Faulkner recycled the love triangle from Absolution.

Just as in England, Spoomer again manages to usurp John, this time by bribing Antoinette’s mother. John’s discovery of Spoomer’s involvement with Antoinette leads to what is perhaps the funniest moment in the screenplay and one of its most visual episodes. Spoomer restricts John to the base, and uses his privilege of rank to visit Antoinette in town. John recognizes, however, that if free, the dog inevitably follows Spoomer wherever he goes. John sets the dog loose and briefly follows it as it leaves the base and trots toward town. As soon as he is sure where the dog is headed John returns to the base and takes his plane up. He lands just outside of Antoinette’s village, walks to the inn where Antoinette is working, and discovers Spoomer in Antoinette’s bedroom, hiding under the bedclothes. Rather than fight him (Spoomer is a clearly a coward and not worth the effort) John gets his revenge by stealing the other officer’s clothes, and dressing a drunken Ambulance driver in the uniform. He then allows a British soldier to drive the fake Spoomer back to the air base where his arrival causes a good deal of confusion. When the real Spoomer eventually returns he arrives in a haywagon dressed in women’s clothing. The real humor of the scene, though, is created when Faulkner places the commanding general near the front gate as the haywagon arrives. A series of eyeline matches allows viewers to see this scene from the general’s point of view. Spoomer’s return is straightforward visual slapstick, common in Hollywood films at least since the days of Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd, and Charlie Chaplin.

The cart stops. The woman descends, clumsy in her skirt. The General watches, swelling with outrage. Descends step, angrily, approaches cart as woman turns. They both stop dead still, on the General’s face an expression of outrage, then puzzlement, then outrage again.
Take off that shawl.
The woman looks at him, then slowly removes the shawl. It is Spoomer. (331-32)

This use of the general’s point of view to create humor, another technique common in silent films, reflects Faulkner’s ability to adapt successfully one of his favorite fiction tools to screenwriting.

John and Spoomer are involved in a number of conflicts over Antoinette, until eventually John is transferred to the front and given a particularly dangerous assignment. Bayard’s unit, commanded by Spoomer, is stationed forty miles away. Bayard does his best to look out for John, but is rebuffed by his brother at every turn. Antoinette, meanwhile, comes to the front to find John. By far the most complex and compelling visual imagery in the screenplay is used to communicate Antoinette’s enduring love and devotion towards John. This love seems to be largely Faulkner’s own creation. In “All the Dead Pilots” Antoinette is rather a flat character with no particular love for John. Grider’s journal, too, notes the presence of numerous women in England, but none of them is mentioned more than once or twice, and Grider is quick to observe that in France,

there are no skirts on our clothesline and there’s small chance that we’ll see anything eligible for at least three months. That sounds like I am a woman hater, which I am not, but this is the first time in my life that I have ever been entirely removed from feminine influence and for the moment, I like it. (157)

In the screenplay, however, Antoinette both deeply loves John and follows him after he is transferred to the front. Grider’s offhand remark about the clothesline, in fact, may have have inspired one of Faulkner’s most interesting cinematic images—Antoinette’s taking in of John’s laundry. Eventually Antoinette finds John at the front, but he rejects her because of her earlier relationship with Spoomer. Still in love, Antoinette resorts to washing John’s clothes, the only way she can be close to him. There are no traditional “love scenes” between John and Antoinette in the screenplay. Instead Faulkner illustrates their love with this fairly melodramatic, but highly visual bit of business. Antoinette begins taking in John’s laundry in hopes that her patient devotion will eventually soften his heart. John’s batman, or personal servant, however, is happy to go along with this scheme since it means he can pocket the extra money that would have paid for the clothes to be washed. Thus John never discovers Antoinette’s labor of love. Although it is never confessed verbally by her, a bartender does tell several of his customers that Antoinette does John’s laundry “for---mark you---love” (366).

As he does elsewhere, Faulkner uses visual imagery and multiple points of view to give meaning to this part of the story, too. As John becomes more obsessed with Spoomer he begins leaving formation and flying alone. More than once scenes of Antoinette’s work on John’s clothes are interrupted by the sound of airplanes flying over. This happens the first time just after she begins taking in his clothes. Faulkner writes, “Antoinette mending a sock as noise of aeroplanes begin. She goes to window, looks up and out as flight passes overhead, again with a gap in the formation. She is anxious, holding the sock to her breast as the sound of engines dies away” (349). The gap in a formation is, of course, the classic sign for a missing pilot, but Faulkner makes sure we understand a deeper meaning of this sign by letting us see it from Antoinette’s point of view. In that way her love and John’s foolhardiness may be seen together. Antoinette eventually confesses all of this to Bayard, but the imagery of the laundry and the passing planes has already shown us all we need to know.

I came here believing that I-----that he. . . . . . And instead, I wash his clothing by subterfuge. I sit at that window and I see his flight pass over. I have learned to know it now, and his position in it. And I see them go out, and they return and each time his position will be empty, and I die, die, die. . . . . . . .
(Sinks to her knees, her head in her arms on the freshly ironed shirt. (366)

Repetition would suggest that Faulkner found this image of Antoinette clutching John’s clothes as she watches his patrol fly over a powerful bit of visual storytelling.

John, meanwhile, grows more obsessed with getting some kind of revenge on Spoomer, and becomes more reckless in his flying. He often flies alone11, and insists on shooting down his first German plane in a situation where Spoomer will be forced to acknowledge his skill. He does manage to shoot down a German plane in front of Spoomer, but Spoomer falsifies the report, refusing to give John credit for the kill.

This incident illustrates both an important difference and an important similarity between Faulkner’s WWI fiction and his screenplays. In “All the Dead Pilots,” one of the stories from which Faulkner borrowed as he wrote A Ghost Story, there are no flying scenes. This story, a first person narrative told from the point of view of an officer who witnesses much of the dispute between Spoomer and John, has implied air battles, but none of them are shown. The only time flying is even described in the story is in the letter John Sartoris’s commanding officer sends home to inform his family of his death (“All the Dead” 530). In the screenplay, on the other hand, there are several depictions of air battles. True to his fiction writing roots, however, Faulkner does not portray the battles from an objective point of view, but rather uses multiple first person eyeline matches to give the action meaning. This technique had been used in William Wellman’s Wings in 1927, and Faulkner seemed to grasp its effectiveness. His description of John’s first kill, for instance, uses this technique. The passage begins with John’s point of view as he is “cruising, looking about, sees flight far away, climbs, opens throttle. Spoomer’s flight dives on two huns, John follows, his face grim, eager, looking at leading machine” (350). Had it been filmed this shot description would likely have involved a number of close-up shots of John peering into the distance, eventually coupled with a shot of Spoomer’s patrol and the German planes. In the first of the explicit eyeline matches Faulkner has John recognize Spoomer’s plane; “FOCUS on number and slipper insignia. John dives” (350). Then in a shift to Spoomer’s point of view we read, “Spoomer gets on hun, firing at him. Suddenly John dives between him and hun, shoots hun down” (350). Faulkner then gives a third point of view as Bayard, outside of the action, watches all of this happen: “BAYARD ALARMED AND SURPRISED. Watches John follow hun until it takes fire, then zoom away, banks over Spoomer, his thumb at his nose” (350).

The battle scene here is much more explicit and much more visual than any scenes in “All the Dead Pilots,” and Faulkner controls the action with a cinematic point of view. We understand, for instance, that John chooses this particular German to attack based on the proximity of Spoomer’s plane. We also get to see both Spoomer’s and Bayard’s reactions to John’s antics. We come to understand, in other words, not just what happens, but why things happen and what they mean. As he did with the earlier scene of Spoomer’s arrival on base dressed in drag, Faulkner manages to create these different points of view visually, rather than with dialogue or narrative description. This is a distinct departure from his fiction.

This scene also established another image Faulkner uses as both a practical symbol as well as a metaphor. Spoomer’s airplane has a distinctive insignia, a woman’s slipper. Metaphorically speaking, this is a good image to associate with Spoomer. It is both effeminate as well as taunting—a constant visual reminder of his romantic triumphs. But this iconography has a more practical and more cinematic purpose, one that is not incidental, but is, rather, central to the narrative. John uses the slipper to identify Spoomer’s plane in the air. If this film had been produced then the insignia also would have helped audience members make sense of aerial combat scenes. The insignia, however, leads to a dangerous moment of mistaken identity later when Bayard’s plane is damaged and he borrows Spoomer’s plane for a mission. John, recognizing the slipper insignia, attacks the plane, only discovering at the last minute that it is being flown by Bayard12 (194). A few days later we see John, scanning the air with his binoculars, and again he recognizes the slipper plane. He flings his binoculars overboard and attacks Spoomer. He is stopped by Bayard, now flying his own plane, and the two brothers spar in the air. John’s attempts to kill Spoomer are only stopped when a German patrol suddenly attacks the group. One of the German planes also has a distinctive insignia, a skull smoking a pipe. John and Bayard are separated, and before Bayard can help him John’s plane is shot by the skull plane and catches fire. In a scene very reminiscent of the death scene from James Warner Bellah’s “Blood,” John climbs onto the wing of his plane, gives his brother a “flippant salute,” and leaps to his death to avoid being burned (375).

John’s death sends Bayard on his own quest for revenge. This allows Faulkner to insert another interesting image and provides the source of the screenplay’s first title. As he flies out each day to find the German, Bayard apparently rendezvous with John’s ghost. A passage from the screenplay reads,

BAYARD cruising alone. He approaches a cloud as though it were a rendezvous. As he reaches cloud, ghost of JOHN’S ship resolves as though waiting him13. JOHN lifts his hand. BAYARD points forward. JOHN nods, the two ships go on together, BAYARD looking this way and that through binocular. Steadies glass, turns, waggles his wings. JOHN waggles back. BAYARD indicates a flight of ships in distance. JOHN nods. They turn and fly toward ships, BAYARD watching them through glass. (383)

Faulkner created this image of the ghostly John specifically for the screenplay. It is not found in Faulkner’s stories, Bellah’s story, or in Grider’s book. The narrative power of the image is undeniable, though it is certainly melodramatic.

Bayard daily seeks out the German skull plane, eventually finding it just before the Armistice goes into effect. In a deft bit of visual parallelism Faulkner repeats an earlier gesture. After Bayard spots the skull plane he throws his binoculars overboard as he makes his final attack, just as John did before he attacked Spoomer. This visual parallel may suggest the obsessive and problematic nature of Bayard’s quest. These visual handles allow Faulkner to write the air battle scenes with little or no dialogue. They are almost pure visual storytelling.14 Bayard manages to shoot down the smoking skull plane, but the German pilot, whose name is Dorn, is not killed. When the two meet after the armistice in a café15 Bayard recognizes the futility of his quest for revenge, and winds up bringing both Dorn, and Antoinette home to live with him.

The image of John’s ghost is repeated again at the end of the screenplay as part of the frame story. Although Bayard has brought Dorn and Antoinette back home to live with him, he has not explained to Johnny who they are. Throughout the frame story Dorn and Antoinette attempt to explain to John's son, Johnny, how John died and what their relationship to him was. Johnny is angry at first, particularly with Dorn. And Faulkner writes a scene in which the boy takes a riding crop and beats a coat rack superimposed with the image of Dorn (281). After hearing the whole story, however, Johnny forgives Antoinette and Dorn and the three go to tell Bayard that Johnny understands the truth. As they reach Bayard, Faulkner describes a dissolve to allow the image of the cobbled-together family to fade out. But in the last lines of the screenplay he writes, “IN DISSOLVE there passes behind Bayard the ghost of John’s ship, John looking down at them, his face bright, peaceful. The ship goes on in dissolve; sound of an engine dies away” (420). As the earlier appearance of John’s ghost helped explain Bayard’s quest for revenge, this manifestation illustrates both John’s lasting influence on this group of people, as well as the potential end of his haunting. He apparently flies into the sunset at the close of this final scene16.

There were many sources for this screenplay, and recognizing them is important if we hope to understand Faulkner’s adaptation process. The ostensible source is John McGavock Grider’s published wartime journal, War Birds. As he worked on the A Ghost Story/War Birds screenplay for MGM and Howard Hawks, Faulkner had access to War Birds, as well as the legal right to adapt it, but it was not his only source. A great deal of other material went into this adaptation. Springs apparently wrote a treatment himself which Faulkner may have read (Kawin 257), and Faulkner brought in elements from at least two of his own previously published short stories, “Ad Astra” and “All the Dead Pilots,” both published just a year or so earlier in 1931. Moreover, Faulkner may have been influenced by the work of prolific adventure writer, James Warner Bellah. Richard T. Dillon points out that Faulkner likely found in the work of Bellah and Springs “a starting point for his future work. For both these authors make a connection between the knighthood of the air and an older, aristocratic military tradition” (633). Dillon singles-out Bellah’s Saturday Evening Post short story, “Blood,” published in April of 1927, as a particular influence on Faulkner. “Blood” is the story of German twins, Paul and John Von Beulen. The brothers follow in the footsteps of their martinet father and officer cousin and join the cavalry at the beginning of WWI, but John is quickly killed. Paul is wounded several times as he seeks revenge for his brother’s death, eventually losing his leg. He survives, however, and finding himself unable to ride horses anymore, joins the air corps. The second half of the story follows Paul’s personal battle with a particular British pilot. Paul is eventually able to shoot the British pilot’s plane, causing it to catch fire and dooming the pilot. But before the flames reach him the British pilot climbs out of the cockpit and prepares to leap from the burning plane. Just before he jumps, however, he puts his thumb to his ear and waggles his fingers at Paul in a gesture of bravado and contempt. Several of the elements of Bellah’s story, including the taunting pilot leaping to his death, make their way into Faulkner’s screenplay.

To make the search for the sources of War Birds/A Ghost Story even more complicated, by the fall of 1932 many of the elements of air combat movies were already well-established in Hollywood by films like Wings (1927), Hell’s Angels (1930), and Dawn Patrol17 (1930). Each of these three films focuses on close companions who fly in the war, two of the films have love triangles similar to the one found in Faulkner’s screenplay, and two of the films involve brothers and/or revenge for a downed companion. In Aviation Lore in Faulkner Robert Harrison notes that stories about WWI were not particularly popular immediately after the war. It was not until 1926 that “stories of aerial combat became an overnight sensation” (28). Harrison argues that the phenomenon was a direct result of the success of Springs’ and Grider’s War Birds. “Almost instantly,” Harrison argues, “the newsstands were packed with pulp magazines dedicated to slaking the public thirst for tales of aerial adventure. At the peak of the craze there were 38 magazines devoted entirely to the subject” (28).

In citing these sources, however, I do not mean to suggest that Faulkner was guilty of plagiarism. His situation is clearly more complicated than that. He had an obligation to adapt the Grider/Springs book, and no one would grudge him the right to adapt material from his own short stories. The similarity of the screenplay to Bellah’s novella or to other recently produced films highlights the fact that he was working in a genre that was both highly conventional and very popular. His own WWI pilot fiction, as well as his screenplay, thus reflect a strong trend in the late 1920s and early 1930s. This wide range of sources suggests that he was well aware of the conventions of the WWI air war genre, and that his adaptation process did not involve a one-to-one “transposition” of the Grider/Springs book, but rather a creative synthesis of his own ideas with a half-dozen other sources.

Gleeson-White cites Richard C. Moreland from Faulkner and Modernism to suggest an even more generous possibility (Gleeson-White 32). Moreland points out that Faulkner “constantly recycled and refit plots, episodes, characters, and phrases from poems to stories to filmscripts to novels to other stories and other novels” (Moreland 4). This recycling often involved significant plot and character revision. He suggests that “these repetitions and especially the differences they emphasize might represent . . . revisions of Faulkner’s ongoing thinking and writing, revisions not just of minor details but of whole plots and structures of thought” (4). For Moreland, in short, Faulkner’s reuse of characters, plots, and conventions allows us to see how the writer was constantly revising his understanding of human nature and of the world in general. I would add that it also displays the way Faulkner constantly adjusted his technique and style to fit new situations (see Figure 2).

To Put it all into Words is a Hell of a Hard Thing: Faulkner’s Adaptation of History and Fiction in A Ghost Story/War Birds, Dennis Cutchins, Literature Film Quarterly
Figure 2: In one of his many "situations," Cadet William Faulkner wears the uniform of Royal Flying Corps circa 1918 (Source: https://www.wikiwand.com/en/Royal_Flying_Corps_Canada).

Faulkner’s use of cinematic imagery and literary symbolism in this screenplay is a clear departure from his fiction writing. The influence of other screenwriters aside, he seemed to understand the inherent differences between fiction writing and screenwriting and adapted himself accordingly when he wrote for the screen, every bit as much as he adapted the texts from which he was working. His use of a shifting point of view, for instance, often employed in his fiction writing, was put to practical use in his screenwriting. The fact that viewers are forced to view the “missing man” formation through Antoinette’s eyes as she clutches John’s clothes is a good example of Faulkner’s use of conventional visual storytelling as well as his manipulation of the cinematic point of view. With a few notable exceptions, such as John’s suggestion that he was acting like Spoomer’s dog, Faulkner also seemed consciously to move away from literary imagery to a more visually immediate or physically direct representation. In all of this he established himself both as a competent screenwriter and as someone who had a fairly complex understanding of the relationship between fiction and film. Despite the distinctiveness of Faulkner’s achievements as a novelist, his early work for MGM shows him more than willing to reinvent himself as a screenwriter.


1  See Albrecht-Crane and Cutchins, pages 15-16.

2  George Bluestone discusses this idea of “seeing” in literature and film in Novels into Film (1,61). There he argues that when writers and filmmakers talk about “seeing” they are referencing very different ideas.

3  This lack of sympathy is at least partly the result of the fact that the adult Caddy does not appear in the novel at all—except in the 1946 Appendix.

4  Faulkner’s title for the screenplay was A Ghost Story, but when it was retyped and submitted to MGM the title was changed to War Birds. This change likely reflects the popularity of Springs’ and Grider’s book and the fact that MGM recognized the value of name recognition.

5  Gleeson-White points out that attributing writing credit for a Hollywood screenplay during the studio era is a difficult prospect. “Complexity, frequent arbitrariness, and politics” plagued screenwriting, and multiple drafts and revisions, often produced simultaneously, render “all but futile any attempt to anoint any one version authoritative” (14). As will become evident, however, there is good reason to believe Faulkner completed A Ghost Story alone.

6  They do seem to have been typed on different typewriters.

7  See endnote 13.

8  And if Dillon is correct, the Sartoris brothers in Flags in the Dust/Sartoris may have been loosely based on James Warner Bellah’s twin brothers, John and Paul Von Beulen from “Blood.”

9  “Sheila” is one of the many women mentioned by Grider in War Birds (106).

10 George Bluestone describes the application of cinematic symbolism in some detail in his analysis of John Ford’s The Informer (1935), released just a few years after Faulkner wrote A Ghost Story.

11 After the winter of 1915-16 “the days of the ‘lone eagle’ were all but over. Seldom did individual airmen go aloft on ‘missions of opportunity’ in search of unarmed two-seaters; the era of formation flying had arrived” (Harrison 68).

12 This borrowing of an “enemy” plane may have been adapted from Wings (1927). In that film American pilot David, who is shot down and presumed dead, steals a German plane and attempts to return to his base. But his friend Jack, bent on revenge for David’s supposed death, shoots him down, only discovering his mistake in David’s melodramatic last moments of life (Wellman).

13 This apparent typo, “…as though waiting [for] him.” is present in both screenplays.

14 The air battle scene from “Turnabout” incorporates a similar kind of visual storytelling. Claude, the young Brit invited along by the American pilots to get a look at the real war, sees that a bomb has tangled in the control wires of the airplane and watches as it literally drags in the sand upon landing. In the short story Faulkner allows only Claude to see the bomb, even the reader must wait until the final lines of the chapter to understand the danger the men have been in (492). Faulkner offers no comment on the incident, simply the image of a suspended bomb. In the film version of the same scene in Today We Live (1933), however, both Claude and the audience are allowed to see the bomb. The film audience is allowed to see the danger that the reader only comes to know after the fact.

15 This scene is borrowed from “Ad Astra.”

16 Faulkner apparently liked this image so well that he reused it a few years later. In the screenplay for the WWI epic The Road to Glory, written by Faulkner and Joel Sayer in 1936 and produced later that year, ghost soldiers march across the screen in the last scene. See Gleeson-White page 180.

17 The genre was popular enough that in 1931 Warner Brothers released a parody air war Bosco cartoon titled “Dumb Patrol.” The same title was used again in 1964 with Bugs Bunny playing the leading role.

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