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Southern Lit-to-Film: “The Story of Temple Drake”

06 Jul 2014

written by Mod Mobilian

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We were somewhat dismayed recently when we asked how many Mobilians have read the four books that “best capture the unique essence of twentieth-century Mobile” (per The Companion to Southern Literature) and the only response we had was “Ain’t nobody read books.”

Clearly, we are failing in our effort to promote Mobile, Alabama and Southern culture – new and old. Many people that proudly proclaim their Southerness know little or nothing about Southern books, film, art or music these days.

Southern “culture” is being co-opted by mass media and portrayed via television and movies with comical, if not pathetic, derision.

So we are going to systematize our efforts – since that works better for most people. Every week we will present a single “Southern” film, book (and/or film adaptation thereof), album or artist. You will have a 2-3 weeks to watch, read, or listen to the work before we present another one. That is plenty of time. Just one work a week is all we ask.

If we all did this in a year or so we will have started a little Southern Renaissance.

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Southern-Lit-to-Film: “The Story of Temple Drake”

 

A wealthy and flirtatious Ole Miss sorority girl on the way home from a party is brought to a bootlegger gang’s den by her drunk law student date. Her date is soon incapacitated and the girl is sexually terrorized by the gang.

Wait… what?

This is Southern literature?

Sounds like much of the sensationalistic trash put out by Hollywood today, right?

What if we told you that this film was not an early 2000s low-budget straight-to-DVD shocker, but a 1933 adaptation of a book by a Pulitzer Prize-winning author?

That’s right – it is a film adaptation of William Faulkner’s Sanctuary (1931). The anti-heroine Temple Drake is played by Miriam Hopkins.  And you can watch it online below.

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The book and film were very controversial in their time. Faulkner admitted that he had written an intentionally sensationalistic book to make some money – a “potboiler.”  And if you think the movie is shocking, it was toned down (albeit mildly) from the book – which we will spare you the details of.

Some scholars now argue for its artistic merits. Regardless, it has some noteworthy effects and elements:

  • The controversy made Faulkner famous and brought more notoriety to his masterpieces The Sound and the Fury and As I Lay Dying.
  • Some writers (like John Sledge) argue that Sanctuary is a good re-introduction to Faulkner’s works for those who might have been scared away as students by the abstruseness of Sound and Fury.
  • As in many of his works, Faulkner addresses the clash between Southern social classes head on.  The lower class is shiftless and treacherous, and the upper class (particularly the men) are ineffectual and effiminate. It would be echoed in later works like James Dickey’s Deliverance.
  • Faulkner’s theme of the decline of the postbellum South is also ubiquitous. It is one of the most gothic examples of Southern Gothic.
  • It presages later transgressive works – is it art or is it trash? Regardless of its purported Freudian allusions, is it prurient or instructive?
  • The film was largely responsible for the adoption of the Hays Code of morality / censorship in movies.
  • Perhaps most controversial question in the current day is – is it misogynistic?  Was Faulkner “lashing out at the Ole Miss sorority girls who spurned him as a town boy?” (Sledge). Does it reflect a rape culture in the South (see Rhett and Scarlett)?  Does Temple “ask” to be raped by the wild and uninhibited gang members?  Is she willingly rebelling against the confining and boring restrictions of her social class as a prominent judge’s granddaughter and does she embrace her own prostitution? Or is it deliberately ambiguous?

Regardless of the questions – both the book and movie are effectively terrifying and challenging.

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Watch it below and – most importantly – let us know what you think:


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