Terry Heller:  Writing Projects
Terry Heller:  Home Page

Intruders in the Dust:
The Representation of Racial Problems
in Faulkner's Novel and in the MGM Film Adaptation

by Terry Heller

This essay is slightly revised from its first appearance in The Coe Review 8 (1977) pp. 79-90. Thank you to the editors and to Charles Aukema, advisor and a good colleague.

     We expect differences when a novel is transformed into a film - changes resulting from such factors as the different media and the intended audiences. These two are probably quite significant factors in Clarence Brown and Ben Maddow's 1949 adaptation for MGM of William Faulkner's Intruder in the Dust (1948). For example, the move from a "serious" novel to a Hollywood film with mass appeal probably helps to explain why Faulkner's morally complex story of a child's growth in racial consciousness becomes on the screen a more simple "whodunit." What happens to ideas about race relations during this change of medium is the subject of this essay. This question is significant not only for what it may tell us about the effects of adaptation upon the meaning of the story, but also for what it may reveal about Hollywood's attitude toward racial problems at mid-century. 1

     First, we ought to examine briefly the part racial problems play in Faulkner's novel. It was clear to contemporary reviewers that the novel was in some sense a response to growing racial tensions in the South and to what Southerners perceived as an increasing tendency on the part of the Federal Government to intervene in the racial problems of the states.2 However, the novel is not didactic. Preachy as it may seem, it is not organized as an apologue, but as Cleanth Brooks argues, as a representation of Chick Mallison's growth into understanding of the injustice that is his heritage and of a means of overcoming it. 3 Chick's final vision of the problem and of a possible solution is a personal attainment which the novel makes us want him to reach. In the process, of course, we come to know that vision. It has been natural for critics to assume that Faulkner's primary intent was to recommend this vision to his readers. To some extent that may be the case and may account for objections to the novel's preachiness.

     What is the content of Chick's vision? It begins in a feeling of indebtedness. Lucas Beauchamp, a proud, independent Negro, warms Chick in his cabin after Chick has fallen into an icy stream. When Lucas refuses to accept money in return for hospitality as a "nigger" should, Chick begins to grow. For the next four years, he fails to escape his sense of obligation to Lucas, fails to deny the human relationship Lucas has established between them. When Lucas is falsely accused of murdering Vinson Gowrie, Chick's education accelerates. He acts first from his irksome sense of indebtedness rather than out of love, or faith in Lucas's innocence, or desire for justice. This motive leads him to the graveyard and his discovery that Lucas is innocent. His motives proceed through transformations as his information and understanding grow. Upon learning Lucas is innocent, he begins to act out of hatred for the mob as represented by the supposedly vengeful Gowrie family. When he sees Vinson's father, Nub, grieving for his lost son as he once saw Lucas grieving for his lost wife, Chick grows again. This perception meshes with the precepts his uncle Gavin Stevens preaches - after his own discovery of' Lucas's innocence - to complete Chick's understanding of his responsibility as a white Southerner to correct the injustices of racial prejudice. Stevens insists that the task of achieving justice between the races is complex, that it involves different parties in different capacities, and that much time and patience are necessary in order to change men's hearts. Chick comes to see himself as one limited person in a large arena of responsibility and this event as one in the long history of man's struggle to be human.

     Chick learns how wrong he was to reject his feeling of obligation to Lucas. At the end of the novel, he sees the community struggling against this same sense of indebtedness, and he realizes that this struggle is a hopeful sign. The community wanted to make Lucas into the "nigger" he refused to be. It condemned an accused Negro without a hearing and nearly condoned a fratricide. Lucas has become a tyrant over the town's conscience; it must grow as Chick has grown. Lucas has not been the cause of Chick's change of vision nor is he the sufficient cause of the new pressure on the town. Rather, in refusing to be a "nigger," Lucas becomes a catalyst in this process of changing visions. He helps to make Chick and the town conscious of racial injustice, and this consciousness creates the desire for new humanized relationships.

     In the novel, then, responsibility for the resolution of racial injustice falls upon the entire community. It begins with individuals everywhere, who must act out of love and a sense of justice in the hope of changing men's hearts, just as Lucas, Miss Habersham, Aleck Sander, and finally also Chick and others have acted in their attempts to save Lucas from the mob. Responsibility extends to the community and the region to overcome the blindness of eye and heart that allows a black man to be condemned by accusation alone. Gavin Stevens's comments extend responsibility to the North which must not misuse the law to impose a change of heart on the South and to the Negro who must continue to endure while remembering that his best interests lie more in changing hearts and minds than in merely changing the law. Whatever the merits of this position in the real life of America, in the novel it is clearly superior to Chick's initial understanding. In his world, it is a realistic program that lets no one off the hook. It expresses, as do most of Faulkner's mature novels, the hope for a community of the heart as well as the anguish of waiting through seemingly endless injustice for the realization of that community. Both are essential elements in Faulkner's view of the human situation.

     What happens to these ideas when the story that contains them becomes material for a film? Let us approach answering this question through three phases. First we will compare the representations of Negro life and characters in the two works. Second, we will analyze the view of race relations which emerges from the film. Finally, we will attempt to evaluate the significance of the differences between the two works.

     In both novel and film, Negroes live in fear of the wrath of the white county, but there is a difference. In the novel, Negroes see Lucas as revolutionary and dangerous to their interests. His pride isolates him from Negroes as well as from the whites. In the film, Negroes are shown in contrast to the white mob. Awake in their homes at night, they are families, personal victims of the mob's impersonal violence. They peek out their doors as Chick, Aleck, and Miss Habersham set out to rescue them from fear by rescuing Lucas from the mob. The Negroes in the film lose their complicity with the mob and become pure victims. The moral universe becomes simpler. Victims and persecutors are more sharply differentiated.

     The film tends to make Negroes seem less complex than they are in the novel. We can see this in the development of Aleck Sander, the Negro playmate who accompanies Chick and Miss Habersham on their visit to the graveyard. In the novel, Aleck is close to nature. His senses are sharper than Chick's. Though he is a loyal companion, he seems instinctively secretive. He never tells all he knows. While Chick seems intellectually superior to Aleck, Aleck is instinctually superior to Chick. During their journey to the graveyard, it is Aleck who knows that quicksand has frightened Chick's horse. He hears and sees the mule, its rider, and his burden before the others do. He hides the truck, notices the disarranged flowers, begins work with the shovel rather than with the useless pick, and finds a board so both boys can dig. In all practical matters, Aleck takes the lead. In the film, Aleck is reduced to faithful servant and brainless follower; Chick tells him what to do. Chick concludes that quicksand has frightened his horse. We hear the mule almost as soon as Aleck does. Chick starts digging with the shovel leaving Aleck with the useless pick and, then, instructs him to find another digging instrument. At Sheriff Hampton's next morning, Aleck's lines remain nearly unchanged, but in the film, they are spoken in such a way as to seem simple minded rather than cagey. In the film, Aleck is hardly different from the stereotypical faithful black companion, a good servant but hardly the equal of his white "master."

     This lack of complexity in the Negro community and in one of the two major Negro characters increases the contrast between them and Lucas Beauchamp. In the novel, Lucas is his own man. Being a descendant of one of the original white settlers in the area, he considers himself the equal of any man (19).4 He carries with him a group of characterizing emblems: a hat like his white grandfather's, a gold toothpick, a gold watch chain, and the pistol purchased from his grandfather. His pride, which makes him a host rather than a servant in his home, is the primary quality which the county opposes when it condemns him for not acting like a "nigger."

     This pride and self-assurance carry over into the film. Juano Hernandez plays Lucas almost exactly as I imagine him when reading the book. But an essential factor is missing from the portrayal, the source of Lucas's pride. From the confrontation at Fraser's Store, which the novel uses to establish Lucas's family pride, all mention of miscegenation disappears. In the film, Vinson Gowrie becomes Lucas's attacker, providing a possible motive for murder. This weakens our condemnation of the townspeople's presumption of Lucas's guilt. Because Lucas seems to offer no provocation in this confrontation and because he has no white blood, we tend to see him more clearly as an innocent victim. While these changes reduce the complexity of the novel, they leave Lucas exposed to accusations of overweening pride. Overall, however, Lucas emerges from the film as too good. He is extremely brave and heroic: trying to wait, offering himself as bait to trap the real murderer, and refusing to name the man who might murder him at any moment. In the novel, he is primarily interested in self-preservation. He makes no special offers. He plays his information like a poker hand as he tries to get help from people he knows are unwilling to give it. One result of these changes is that the good and the bad are easier to identify in the film. We may also begin to see how responsibility for Lucas's plight in the film is removed from some areas and reduced in others as it shifts primarily onto the shoulders of the villain and the community he dupes.

     At the end of the film, Gavin Stevens asserts that Lucas has become the keeper of their consciences. At first viewing, it is not really clear what Stevens means. An analysis of the film that clarifies this statement will also help us to see how responsibility is finally redistributed in the film.

     Certain scenes show interesting and significant camera work. One notices, for example, the shifting points of view in the scene when Chick returns to talk to Lucas in his cell after Stevens's first visit. Lucas looks out through the bars, and we see one large eye as he tells Chick to go to the cemetery. Then, we are inside the cell looking out at Chick's eye as he reacts. Next we look at the bars from the outside where Chick's and Lucas's hands contrast on the bars as if both were prisoners. A dilemma is raised by these shots, one that reverberates throughout the film. On the personal level, they are both prisoners. Chick owes Lucas a debt he has never been able to repay. Lucas is more literally a prisoner because he is locked up and threatened with death. On the social level the roles also are mixed. On which side of the bars is the jail? Who is the victim, and who is the criminal? In the eyes of the town, the social structure is threatened by this peculiarly outrageous crime. Even though the white man is socially insignificant, this crime is so outrageous that burning the Negro murderer with gasoline is thought the appropriate punishment. The town sees itself as victimized and Lucas as the criminal. However, if Lucas is innocent - as we must be able to believe - then he is the victim, and the criminals are those outside the jail who want him to die. When we learn that Lucas is not the murderer, it becomes literally true that Lucas is a victim kept in jail to protect him from society, the criminals in the street.

     This scene is echoed in the somewhat improbable confrontation between Crawford Gowrie, the as yet unexposed murderer, and Miss Habersham. Perhaps the most intense sequence of the film, this scene is almost entirely invented for the film. It begins just after the stolen body has been removed from the quicksand and we are sure Lucas is not the murderer. We cut to town and the carnival atmosphere of the waiting crowd. Crawford, goaded by a few associates, fills his gas can and leaves a trail of gasoline from the pump to the steps of the jail. As he approaches the screen door of the jail, we see Miss Habersham seated at her mending. Then we cut inside and watch Crawford outside as he asks her to move. Two guardians of society meet. Crawford represents the victims of the Negro murderer. He is the lower class redneck of the New South confronting the aristocratic lady, the best of the Old South. She represents the principles of justice which ought to apply to all men equally. Much of our reaction to the situation depends on our secure knowledge of Lucas's innocence and on the sexual overtones of the confrontation when Crawford, after trailing gasoline across the square, pours some out on the floor in front of Miss Habersham, but fails to put a match to it. Her refusal to be impressed by his masculine assertiveness sends him humiliated away from the door. The main issue raised here is similar to that raised in the meeting between Chick and Lucas. Who really represents society? On which side of the door is the jail? On the personal level, Miss Habersham is protecting a man she knows to be innocent and, though we do not know it yet, Crawford is trying to cover up his guilt. After this confrontation, the camera moves back, revealing the whole jail and the crowded street. We see the irony. Lucas in the jail is believed guilty by the crowd in the street, but the jail protects him from them. This scene further reveals how the moral complexity of the novel is reduced in the film. We know Lucas is innocent, but we do not know Crawford is guilty. Because Crawford has the appearance of the villain and is shown here acting the part, he becomes a prime suspect and, as the object of our dislike, an ideal scapegoat. While the camera's movements imply that everyone outside the jail is guilty, the content of the scene centers the guilt on Crawford. The visual pattern creates a dilemma which the content tends to solve.

     These two confrontations illustrate the central thrust of the film plot. They emphasize the problem of establishing true identities as characters come to recognize and deal with the confusions of identity. Other scenes contribute effectively to this development of a conflict that is so appropriate to a kind of detective thriller. One scene is Crawford's confrontation with his father at Lucas's house, when Crawford - expecting to confront Lucas - falls into the trap set for him. Through a change of identity of the expected victim, the hunter becomes the hunted. Crawford, deprived of his match and gun, becomes powerless as his true identity is revealed. Another scene shows the crowd staring at Crawford as he is brought to the jail. They are confronted with the dilemma in yet another shape. Hampton tells them this is the man who killed his brother. They then recognize that Crawford has manipulated them; he has attempted to make them accomplices in the murder of two "brothers," one black and one white. If the visual impression here succeeds as I believe, we see on their faces the recognition that they and not Lucas are the ones who have been jailed, perhaps behind the wall Stevens says has "grown up" between blacks and whites. The verbal expression of this dilemma follows this scene. Miss Habersham drives by below the balcony of Stevens's office saying that if they get into trouble again to call her. Stevens reflects in his usual declamatory style that not Lucas but "we were in trouble." All identities now are correctly perceived.

     The confrontation between Lucas and Stevens also shows this general pattern. The first time Stevens and Lucas meet, Stevens tells him he is guilty, that he (Stevens) will neither help nor defend him, and leaves believing that Lucas wanted to tell him a lie. Even within this scene we are not sure who is in control. At one point, Lucas reverses the questioning process and asserts himself over Stevens. It is always apparent that Lucas knows Stevens better than Stevens knows Lucas. The second confrontation is after the body is uncovered. A reversal has taken place, and true identities are known. Lucas is innocent and Stevens is guilty. Already at this disadvantage, Stevens tries to persuade Lucas to name the murderer. Lucas will not condemn a man he has not seen as did Stevens and the rest of the community. Lucas's refusal has the advantage of complicating the plot and maintaining suspense at a critical point, but it also carries moral weight. It emphasizes the contrast between Lucas as an accused innocent and Stevens as a representative of the community. Stevens is made to feel even more strongly the weight of his mistake, the significance of his identity. Lucas shows by the risks he is willing to take for the preservation of justice that he is rnorally superior to Stevens who would not agree to exhume a Gowrie in order to prove a black man innocent.

     The town's effort to make Lucas act like a "nigger" backfires, forcing the town to reassess its assumptions about identities, including its own. In refusing to name the murderer because he has not seen the crime, Lucas acts according to the highest human ideals in spite of the stereotypical expectations of the community. Lucas shows the town how it should have acted and obliges it to imitate him. Not only are the townspeople indebted to him, but they are forced, as Stevens is forced, to admit that Lucas has shown them a proper mode of behaviorm, much as Chick was forced to admit that Lucas's refusal of payment for hospitality was proper. Lucas has become the keeper of their conscience if that means he has embodied an ideal and has put them in a position where they are obliged to imitate him. This interpretation does not justify so much as explain the last scene. This point seems better made in the penultimate scene when Lucas comes to pay a debt he cannot pay and, in a sense, does not really owe, and pays it in pennies to save himself a trip to the bank.

     In the film, the process of Chick's education is almost entirely omitted. Chich is caught up into events which require growth, but the results for his character are different. The film seems to concentrate on the relations between Chick and Lucas as individuals. The social and ethical levels of Chick's growing awareness are either subdued or absent. Stevens rather than Chick concludes that the people in the crowd are running from themselves. Chick keeps guessing why they are running and finally can only conclude that they are, indeed, running. What the flight means is unexplored. At the end of the film, Chick thinks the town cannot see Lucas; he remains unaware that the town is now squirming as he did when he could not pay Lucas. Chick does learn from Stevens that injustice may be prevented if just one person chooses not to run away. The film itself contradicts this cliche; it took at least three people. Though we see his sense of justice assert itself once he knows Lucas is innocent, the greatest realization we see him coming to is that Lucas is somehow the keeper of his conscience. If this means he has learned not to assume a man guilty on circumstantial evidence, part of which may be the color of that man's skin, then in comparison to his counterpart in the novel, he has learned very little.

     In the film, responsibility for the maintenance of justice seems to rest not on the entire community, but almost entirely upon the individual. For, in the world of the film one person who defies society in the name of justice can succeed. This world view arises in conjunction with a plot concerned primarily with achieving true knowledge about the identities of the agents of justice, the criminals, and the victims. The main moral question involves premature judgment, the fixing of identities without sufficient evidence. Lucas performs the definitive moral act by showing the proper response to this problem. Because he does not know the murderer's identity in the film, but only suspects it, he can show how to reserve judgment even when his life is in danger. Stevens and the community, because they have been precipitate in their judgments, owe Lucas an apology which implies an obligation to imitate his behavior. He becomes the keeper of each individual conscience.

     The novel, on the other hand, centers on Chick's growth into a fuller consciousness of the inherent injustice of his racial heritage. This growth is, in itself, a moral problem. Lucas and Stevens are both his teachers: Lucas by example and Stevens by precept. Between the three of them with assistance from Miss Habersham and Aleck, they manage to interrupt the traditional ritual of retribution to prevent a particular injustice and to materially reduce the probability of the cycle's recurrance. The novel establishes a new set of relations between Lucas, who because of Stevens's generalizations is representative of all the best Negroes, and the community. The trio's grave opening - instead of being a descecration - becomes a redemptive act for the whole community, establishing more fully humane relations among its parts. Stevens, who is clearly always opposed to injustice, learns that every man is worth whatever risks are necessary to maintain justice. He, too, is taught by the others.

     Both novel and film begin with the information that Lucas Beauchamp has shot a white man in the back, then proceed to make us doubt this information. Up to and slightly beyond the points where Lucas is proven innocent, we are made to feel the force of community custom which demands death by fire for such a malefactor whose guilt, because of his color, is questioned. In the novel, the solution of this problem is for every person to share Chick's experience as the novel allows each reader to do. The novel implies, therefore, that the racial. problems it depicts are not solved by improving or even merely enforcing laws, but by changing people's moral presuppositions, ways of thinking, in short, their hearts. Though difficult, the task is possible because of those underlying verities, those truths of the heart revealed to Chick in the recognition that Nub Gowrie repudiates the fratricide and grieves for both of his lost sons. This principle of family love is one that must be broadened to include the entire human family, even "Sambo," Stevens's universalization of Lucas. The film seems to offer a simpler solution: as often as such particular problems arise, if there is one person who insists on justice, then we will muddle through and somehow justice will prevail. Such, a solution is provisional, attacking the symptoms rather than the illness. Provisional solutions often prove practical, but the ideal is to end prejudice and, thereby, to realize in practice the principle of equality before the law. The film shows racial prejudice endangering the principle and responds not by depicting and asking for an end to prejudice, but by more strongly affirming the principle. When we compare the two works, we see that the novel's solution is long range, attacking the problem at its roots as well as achieving the short range goal of saving Lucas. The film establishes racial prejudice as a problem with regard to equal justice, but finally does not work as directly as the novel to restructure the vision of its main characters. By sacrificing the representation of Chick's change of consciousness, the film also sacrifices much of the moral power available in the story.

     We can further illustrate this point with a brief look at Gavin Stevens. In both works, Stevens makes the mistakes of believing Lucas guilty without proof and of failing to give him a fair hearing. Stevens's response upon discovering this mistake is changed. In the novel, Stevens's understanding of the implications of his mistake comes with his discovery, and he begins to explain his understanding to Chick. In the film, Stevens is much less sensitive from the beginning. He seems to see only the legal problem and never confronts the fact that Lucas's blackness was a major factor in the presumption of his guilt. At one point Stevens expresses his inability to understand how Lucas could convince Stevens of his guilt and yet, convince Chick of his innocence. Stevens seems only angry with himself for being mistaken. With his Northern accent and his legalism, he sounds like the "outlanders" the Stevens of the novel condemns. He does not reflect as he might on that crucial question behind Lucas's response when asked why he did not tell all he knew in the first place, "Would you have believed me, a black accused murderer, had I protested my innocence?"

     Of course, we can see sound dramatic reasons why the film could not easily handle this problem. In the film, Stevens is long-winded - though less so than in the novel -, and his talking nearly spoils the race to uncover the body in the quicksand and mars some other scenes. Any added fancy talk could further weaken the dramatic intensity. It was probably largely to achieve this intensity in the film that Chick's moral growth was displaced. On the other hand, it would have been rather simple for Chick or Stevens to turn to the other and say, "Gosh! Do you realize that we are so blinded by racial prejudice that we would let a human being be burned to death or imprisoned for life for no other cause than our refusal to listen to and believe any words that come from an accused Negro?" One might say that such an idea is implicit in the film, but it seems to me that unless the major characters realize it, it is not really there for a mass audience. Such a speech could replace any of several inane "liberal cliches" and the film would probably contain as strong a moral statement as it could while remaining appealing entertainment. That the film does not bring itself to this point probably reflects to some extent the limits of what Hollywood thought America would accept.

     This is not to say that the film is not bold in its own way. Contemporary films depicting Negro life acknowledged that the life of the Negro in America was particularly difficult, and some of these films earned a considerable income.5 But Intruder in the Dust was boldest in its positive portrayal of a complex Negro. Some measure of the riskiness of this portrayal is available in studio reaction and in the reviews. Mayer only reluctantly accepted Hernandez's strong performance upon reviewing the final cutting.6 The reviews tended to justify his fears. Like his counterpart in the novel, Lucas challenged contemporary reviewers. Newsweek saw him as "insufferably haughty ... too scornful of mixing in 'white folks' business to reveal the name of the man who really did the shooting."7 Variety said that Lucas is "just as bigoted in his own way as the white folks.8 For Pauline Kael, the film portrays the maddening Negro rather than the "good" Negro.9 Even though the lack of explanation of Lucas's pride may make him seem too proud, none of these statements is true. In Lucas we see no scorn of meddling in white folks' business, nor do we see bigotry. He is only maddening to those who believe him a murderer. this lack of sensitivity to Lucas's postion as an accused Negro murderer reveals to some extent the sensitive nature of the portrayal. The full characterization of a manly Negro may seem like a small risk compared to those Faulkner took with the preferences of the American audience he often hoped would buy his books, but even this move reveals what many observers have seen as a significant amount of social consciousness in Hollywood productions of this period. Even though the film seems finally to avoid dealing explicitly with the racial problems it raises, it does raise such problems and it does portray Lucas boldly. These facts seem to indicate some desire on the part of the film's makers to raise America's consciousness about racial prejudice.


lIn the New York Times Film Reviews appendix, the Times' choice of the ten best films for 1949 includes four films dealing with Negroes: Pinky is about a nurse who decides to accept her mixed blood and live as a Negro in the South; Lost Boundaries is about a light skinned doctor and his wife who pass as white until he tries to join the Navy medical corps; Intruder in the Dust, and The Quiet One, a documentary about a Negro child growing up in Harlem. Home of the Brave (1949), not on the ten best list, also treated racial themes. There seems to have been considerable interest during this period in films dealing with racial problems.

2Edmund Wilson, "William Faulkner's Reply to the Civil Rights Program," The New Yorker (Oct. 23, 1948) 106-13, and Orville Prescott, New York Times (Sept. 27, 1948) 21, see Faulkner's novel as a "reply."

3Cleanth Brooks, William Faulkner. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1963, pp. 279-94.

4William Faulkner, Intruder in the Dust. New York: The Modern Library, 1948.

5Paul Michael, The American Movies Reference Book (Prentice Hall, 1969) lists Pinky as among the top grossers of 1949. Home of the Brave was also quite successful.

6Bosley Crowther, The Lion's Share. New York: Dutton, 1957, p. 293.

7Newsweek 34:81 (Dec. 5, 1959).

8Variety (Oct. 12, 1949), 6.

9Pauline Kael, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. Boston: Little Brown, 1968 p. 284.

Copyright 1977, 2001 by Terry Heller.