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FIREWORKS - VERBAL AND VISUAL
By Nancy Grisham Anderson
Auburn University Montgomery

We have all left a movie theater, or turned off a television, and remarked, "I liked the book better," or "That [filmed version] was even better than the book." As audience members, we all recognize that the two mediums are different: essentially the writer uses words to tell the story and to stimulate readers' imaginations; film makers begin with the words and, based on their imaginations, create a literal visual rendering. Inevitably, the move from one to the other invites comparison - and often these comparisons dominate the reviews.

When Bruce Kuerten and John DiJulio decided to move from making documentaries, a genre for which they have received awards and prizes, to adapting short stories to film, they began the process of selecting a work that would lend itself to that transformation. They judged the stories by a number of criteria, with basic structure of the story perhaps the most important. The story needs a clear beginning, middle, and end, in a three-act movement from exposition and introduction of conflict followed by the confrontations and complications and finally a resolution of the action - in essence, the traditional short-story structure. In addition, because of their location at Auburn University in Auburn, Alabama, they were attracted to Southern works, either works by Southern writers or works set in the South. A Southern setting obviously could simplify scouting for a location for filming. Also the themes explored in Southern works appeal to them: the ties to the land, consciousness of place, a concern for the past, and the importance of family. They sought recommendations from family, friends, readers, professors, and students - anyone who might have a suggestion - and began the task of reading hundreds of stories. After months of reading hundreds of stories, they selected "The Cracker Man" by Alabama-native Helen Norris. 1

A simply told story, "The Cracker Man" fulfills Kuerten and DiJulio's criteria: Southern authorship, a Southern setting (albeit some challenging characteristics), the definable three-part structure, and the careful attention to traditional Southern themes of place, past, and family. Bruce Kuerten further describes the thematic appeal of this story: "an off-beat drama that explores the ties that bind us to past and place. It is about the emotions and actions that break those ties, and the redemptive, transforming power of grace." 2 Additionally, there is the attraction of visual spectacle - fireworks and the family home destroyed by fire. There are also advantages with the primary setting being a farm and only three significant characters, Gloria Turner, Hank (the "cracker man"), and the 100-year-old Grandpa. After deliberation and consultation with readers and teachers about appeal and teachability of the story, they got the author's permission and began the two month process of conversion from page to film.

Kuerten and DiJulio read and reread the story. In interviews about the making of "The Cracker Man," the two have laughed about the Hollywood guidelines for film-making: read the story, and whatever stays with you the next day goes into the film; you throw away the rest - guidelines that they agree are "too brutal." Although Norris's collaboration on the film was limited, they did ask her what she wanted to protect in the adaptation: her response - the character of Gloria Turner. With this background, they wrote a script for the film and then sent it to a variety of readers --including scholars Bert Hitchcock and Wayne Flynt- for suggestions. Fortunately for the film-makers, the Alabama Shakespeare Festival, in Montgomery, Alabama, through its Southern Writers Project (SWP), has a commitment to the development of new plays about the South or by Southerners. Under the auspices of SWP, a draft of "The Cracker Man" went through the workshop process with a public reading by professional actors and an audience-response session. Changes prompted by this reading include expansion of Grandpa's role, additional exposition on Hank, and the inclusion of a "falling action," a more elaborate final scene. With these and five other pages of notes from the reading, Kuerten and DiJulio revised the script.

Finally the script neared completion. 3 The process then shifted to location scouting, design, construction, casting, staffing, everything that must come together for the filming to begin. Finding a location, even with the setting being in the rural South, presented a challenge. After all, they had to find a farm with a crumbling house, a barn, and a field for the fireworks - all reasonably close to motels and conveniences for the cast and crew, but far enough from roads to eliminate sounds of civilization. As if those specifications were not enough, they had to have a house that they could burn down. Finally, with a good location, with a budget of approximately $350,000, with Rudy Gaines directing and Ashley Crow (Gloria), John Dossett (Hank), and Patrick Cranshaw (Grandpa) starring, the 12 day process of filming began.

The short story and the film of "The Cracker Man" tell the same story. Thirty-three-year-old Gloria Turner, whose parents died in a car wreck nine years ago, has sole responsibility for the family farm and her great-grandfather, "a precious person handed down to be preserved." Gloria wants a special celebration for Grandpa's one-hundredth birthday on July 4. Because of his war experiences - Gloria "couldn't tell you the wars he fought" - Grandpa reacts to anything that is "bright and loud"; so Gloria hires Hank, the "cracker man," for a fireworks display to mark the birthday. Unfortunately, the celebration has grievous results, with Grandpa's death and the igniting of the house fire. Afterward, Hank decides to stay and help Gloria instead of packing up his fireworks and moving on.

Both the author of the short story and the filmmakers have paid careful attention to details. Not only is the story the same, but much of the original dialogue is transferred directly from the pages of the short story to the script of the film, with the camera, the director, the actors, the cinematography having to replace the story's narration between parts of the conversations. Gloria's meeting of Hank underscores the film's faithfulness to the dialogue and description in the printed word and the transformation of narration to action.

Helen Norris's version, in the short story, is more narration than dialogue:

Beneath the plunging roof was a counter. Nothing there but a can of paint. She leaned way over and looked inside. There on the floor was a man laid out in a red-T-shirt. There were boxes around him, head to foot. She thought at first that he might be dead.

"Mister?" she said.

She saw him yawn and stretch an arm till he hit a box. He sat straight up. He smiled at her, and his eyes were a deep-down golden brown, deep down and lazy sweet, like cane syrup in the wintertime. She saw that he hadn't lived long enough to practice up on a look like that. She guessed you were maybe born with it. She guessed he hadn't hit her age. He kicked a box and stood up straight. He was medium tall and lean and mean, except for his eyes, which were lazy sweet. His hair was sand and ribboned with paper, the shreds you find in a packing box. He shook his head like a wet dog and it all came out on the counter top. He brushed it back inside the stand, as it if was something he always did and there it would be to sleep on next. He smiled again.

"You lookin' to blow up the world?" he said.

She couldn't help laughing aloud at that. She had to remind herself not to shout. "You got enough here for that?" she said.

"You'd be surprised what all I got." And the way he spoke he seemed to mean more than fireworks.

(107-108)


The version in the film's script, though establishing the actors' lines, does not include the expressions and gestures necessary to accomplish the impact of this pivotal meeting:

EXT. FIRECRACKER STAND, DAY.

Gloria reaches the stand, stops. Not a soul around. Beneath the plunging roof is a counter. Nothing on it but a can of paint.

She leans over and looks inside. On the floor, asleep, is a man, HANK. There are boxes around him from head to foot. For a moment, she watches him sleep.... She leans over the counter.

GLORIA: Mister?

Hank yawns, sits up and smiles. He looks at her with lazy eyes that have seen a few miles, but still carry a smile of their own. His hair is ribboned with shreds of paper from the boxes. He rises, shaking the shreds loose like a wet dog and smiles again.

HANK: You lookin' to blow up the world?

GLORIA: (surprised, laughing) You got enough for that?

HANK: (smiling back) You'd be surprised....

And this kind of attention to the integrity of the original story is typical of the film.

Obviously the two versions, the short story and the film, although telling the same story, must use different techniques. Whereas the writer must rely exclusively on words for the structure of the story and to stimulate readers' imaginations for the details of the setting, characters, atmosphere, tone, and themes, film makers have the full range of words and visual effects at their disposal. Thus, there will, of necessity, be differences. The significant changes, or variations, in the adaptation of "The Cracker Man" are: setting, plot structure including additional scenes, and tone.

The setting of the film is not really so much a change, or difference, as it is a more precisely defined time and place. Norris's story gives readers no specific time or no specific place, but the details give a feel of the rural Southern setting: the sounds of the pigs and tree frogs and crickets, the cottonwood trees, a howling hound dog, the woods surrounding the house, the still heat. Because viewers have to look at the characters in their clothes and vehicles and the specific setting, Kuerten and DiJulio had to make some choices. Finally, they designated a rural Alabama setting in 1947, a decision which drove costume designs, hair styles, and even the vehicles used in the production. The film also pays attention to details, with careful use of the camera to emphasize this sense of place - the dirt roads, the bluebird house, the sounds of leaves and katydids rather than vehicles.

In this time and place, Gloria's story is lived out. Although the short story has a chronological structure, it does switch back and forth in time to provide the background we need for Gloria's activities and responsibilities leading up to the Fourth of July celebration. Readers have to learn about Grandpa's wartime past, Gloria's parents' deaths, and her isolation, and Norris provides this information in narrative flashbacks throughout the story.

In contrast, however, the film begins in the middle of the fireworks display with Gloria's voice over: "Glad I saw that day. Time was, I never thought it'd come...And time was, I never thought I'd live to see it pass." Thus, viewers have fireworks as the foreshadowing of the story and the visual image to carry them through the narrative, as the film leads back up to the fireworks at the climax of the movie, giving the film a sort of framed structure. But the film has to tell - and to show - the story leading up to the disastrous birthday celebration.

Filming may also necessitate additional scenes in order to fill the gaps covered in the story's narration. The most explicit example of a created scene for the purpose of showing the story instead of telling it is Gloria's trip to town for the 100 birthday candles and the new hinges for the gate. In the short story, Norris's opening sentence says it all: "She [Gloria] rarely ever went as far as town." But the film has no narrator to tell this detail so it provides a scene of Gloria's going to town. The scene is significance for more than just additional settings and characters. In dialogue and distance, viewers can see just how isolated Gloria is from people, how knowledgeable she is about hardware, how self-reliant and self-assured she can be (making the truck run to get her to and from town), what things are important to her (gate hinges and not clothes and lavender), how abrupt she can be around the townspeople, and just what a small town in 1940s Alabama was like. The addition of such a scene underscores the ability to show in a film through dialogue and visual details.

The other significant addition comes as part of the resolution. After the climax of the fireworks display and the burning of the house, the story ends with a confrontation between Gloria and Hank. The film, however, has a scene with the undertaker and Gloria in front of the remains of the house as he prepares to take the body away in his hearse and as Hank returns with some of the animals he has found. Then the film ends with Hank's plan to stay and help Gloria.

The details and dialogue of this final scene result in a tone slightly different for the film from that of the short story. In Norris's story, a shaken, frustrated, even angry Gloria tries to understand what has happened to her and to explain to Hank that Grandpa "was takin' care of" her, not the other way around. She has had purpose and meaning in her life because she had Grandpa and the farm. Now she has no family and no money, with a piece of land and maybe a few animals, if Hank can round them up. Twice he tells her that "It's a start" for him to tear down his fireworks stand and move onto her land. Finally, he yells at her, "It means I ain't takin' off," the conclusion of the story.

In the film's closing scene, after the hearse drives away, Hank returns with some animals, the lumber from his stand, and the desire for "a warm place to spend the winter, and I be grateful for your company." With a smile or two crossing Gloria's face and the sound of a pig in the background, the two of them begin unloading the truck. Significantly, after Hank says that he has found at least one pig, it is Gloria who says, "That's a start," with an acceptance and even a tone of hope that a future is possible. The anger and frustration in the story, now with smiles and looks passing between Gloria and Hank, and a change of speaker and tone of voice, become bittersweet, with a hint of a possible love story to come.

Even with the changes and variations, the film has dramatized Gloria's story, with its themes of past, family, and place. Attention to details in script and filming has resulted in a successful transformation from the short story into the filmed version of "The Cracker Man." The critical recognition that this film has already received is testimony to the care with which Bruce Kuerten and John DiJulio have written and produced "The Cracker Man:"

  • One of three selections, from a national search, for the American Stories Initiative series by the Independent Television Service and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting;

  • Winner of the prestigious Crystal Heart at the Heartland Film Festival;

  • Best Feature Film, Sidewalk Moving Picture Festival;

  • Featured Selection, Nashville Independent Film Festival.

  • More festivals scheduled for the summer and fall of 2000

  • An Alabama Public Television premiere in June of 2000

  • National distribution beginning in July of 2000 (check the ITVS site for local listings).

Certainly, the printed version and the filmed version of one story are not exactly the same works, but with commitment to the original story, attention to detail, and appropriate use of the tools of the trade, the two different mediums reach - and touch - their different audiences.


Selected Bibliography

"The Alabama Connection." First Draft 5.2 (Summer 1998): 24.

The Cracker Man. Screenplay by Bruce Kuerten and John DiJulio. Dir. Rudy Gaines. Perf. Ashley Crow, John Dossett, and Patrick Cranshaw, 1999.

The Cracker Man web site. www.crackerman.com

Norris, Helen. "The Cracker Man." The Burning Glass. Baton Rouge and London: Louisiana State UP, 1992. 105-128.

Thompson, Jeanie. "An Alabama Story Brought to Life...at Home." First Draft 5.2 (Summer 1998): 4-5.


Notes

1 Helen Norris, "The Cracker Man." The Burning Glass. Baton Rouge and London: Louisiana State UP, 1992. 105-128.

2 Jeanie Thompson, "An Alabama Story Brought to Life...at Home." First Draft 5.2 (Summer 1998): 5.

3 Of course, the script continued to be revised throughout the filming process. For example, on location, the director and actors convinced Kuerten and DiJulio that the cake scene was "overwritten" and that the camera could and should tell the story, collaboration that resulted in more script revisions.


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