By Delaney McLemore
Ernest Gaines knew well the risks associated with adapting his novels to film. Prior to the release of the film adaptation of A Gathering of Old Men, Sonya Masingale interviewed Gaines for the Louisiana Public Broadcasting program Folks. When Masingale asked how it felt to see his work “come alive” on screen, Gaines reflected, with some hesitation, that “the writer writes to be read. His book is written there to be read. To see the book on screen is an added thing.” He added that while there were many good scenes in the film, much was changed from the novel. The benefit, though, is that the film "helps sell the book; it helps promote the book and it makes the writer known.” There lives the essential dilemma of film adaptation: while it will help with the writer’s recognition, it will inevitably change from the story told in the written text.
In the film adaptation of A Gathering of Old Men, there are several key differences in how the story shared in Gaines’ novel relates the murder of Beau Boutan and the resulting reactions of Mathu, Candy, and Charlie. In comparing the film and the original text, we’re not evaluating based on a hierarchical, better or worse value system, but rather as materials in conversation with one another. This helps to situate the differences between the two stories as differences in how we interpret stories in different media, avoiding the tendency to base the merit of the film on its adherence to the original text.
Released in 1987 as a made-for-television movie for CBS, The film adaptation of A Gathering of Old Men was released in 1987 as a made-for-television movie on CBS. According to Ruth Laney's story in the Sunday Advocate Magazine, it was filmed in Thibodaux, LA, and Gaines served in the role of unofficial consultant (4). The film was directed by Volker Schlöndorff, a white German director hired by Gower Frost, a white British producer. Frost was the major proponent behind converting the novel to film. Laney quotes him as saying, “I read it straight through on Sunday and phoned Gaines’ agent on Monday… Sometimes you read something you can just visualize with a film” (5). Charles H. Fuller, Jr., a Black American playwright, was hired to write the adaptation. While Gaines may have been on set as a consultant, he was quoted later as saying, “There are lots of things you can criticize anytime someone makes something else out of your work. I’m sure Shakespeare could have criticized productions of his work. Tolstoy or Faulkner, you know. God with the Bible. Somebody is going to have to pay for it when they get up there with Him” (Gaudet and Wooten 89). While we can imagine the ways that Gaines may have taken issue with differences between his text and the film, our goal here isn’t to speculate on which is better or worse, but rather, why might these changes be made and how do they affect how we interpret the story?
In the first scene of the novel, we meet the young Snookum as he is charged by Candy Marshall to deliver information as quickly as possible. The first sense of panic or tension we have is then created with Candy’s urgency and expectation to be heard. In the film, the first images that greet the viewer are of Black people in the Quarters, conducting their ordinary days. After the title fades, we watch as an agricultural machine mows down sugarcane and we witness a functioning plantation. Then, we hear yelling—a Black man runs out of the sugar cane being chased by a tractor, driven by a white man screaming, “I’m gonna get you, Charlie! I’m gonna get you, boy!” (A Gathering of Old Men 1:40-1:46). We watch as the man on the tractor points a shotgun at the back of the running Charlie. A voice-over tells us, “It didn’t start this morning. It started 30, 40 years ago. That wasn’t the first time I run from somebody. All my life, that’s all I’ve ever done is run from people” (1:52-2:04). This voice-over uses language from the scene of Charlie’s return in the book, but instead of occurring as the film’s climax, they chose to frame Charlie from the beginning as the one who shot Beau. He is the first film character we see, the first voice we hear—as told in the novel, Charlie only appears on stage at the end of novel, when he returns to Mathu’s house in the room of old men. By contrast, in the film we see Charlie actually shoot Beau in this opening scene, which eliminates the narrative surprise of the book, the reveal of Charlie as the killer.
The next scene in the film then establishes how Candy and Mathu’s roles changes in how this story is told. We see Candy crossing her porch, asking Janey if she heard the gunshot that she’ll discover has just killed Beau (4:40). She immediately hops in her car to investigate, and in the time it takes her to drive to Mathu’s house, Charlie has explained to Mathu that he cannot stay to be lynched by Fix Boutan, Beau’s father. Mathu tells him to go, to escape the extralegal violence the men will commit in response to his own, and as Candy arrives, Charlie has gone from the yard, leaving Mathu with a shotgun in hand and a body in his yard. Candy begins to question Mathu, commanding him to answer her (6:43). In their exchange, Mathu communicates through silence and glances, largely ignoring Candy’s pleas. It is based on this implied communication that Candy decides to gather as many old men together as possible.
In this moment, like in the novel, we can hear Candy’s screams as she gathers the people living on the plantation. Candy’s role in both the novel and the film is as a catalyst and centrifugal force of the forward momentum in the story, but in perhaps the most distinct difference between the two portrayals is in Candy’s centering. In national reporting of the film’s release, Holly Hunter’s Candy takes on responsibility as a leader of these men. (See the description of the film in People above.) Echo Bridge Home Entertainment, the distribution company that currently owns the rights to the film, describes Candy as “the young plantation owner (who) stands alone in her daring defense of this group of men” (IMDB). In the transition from written to visual medium, Candy’s role shifts from complex secondary character to a sympathetic protagonist.
We might consider this a softening of the edge walked in the novel, a looming doom that is removed in the film. This shift happens too with the final scene’s edited violence: instead of lingering in Charlie and Luke Will’s death, the gang of intruders run off while the old men celebrate their victory. Charlie isn’t dead, so he will be taken to jail. But we don’t see any of the courtroom drama in the novel’s conclusion.
The goal of a film adaptation, if we return to Gaines’s perspective, is to bring readers to the book. Part of the delight in that dynamic lies in the difference between the two versions. In taking A Gathering of Old Men to a television audience, it’s certain that some of the nuance in how each character is crafted can be painted with a broader brush. Maybe, too, there needed to be less tragedy in the end of a made-for-television feature. The most valuable trait in each of these renderings, though, remains the shared voices of elderly Black men. At the time, the film was recognized for the rare space it created by the actors involved. In the era of the reboot, perhaps A Gathering of Old Men will find another life and audience.