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Joe Wright Tackles the Great American Novel With Casey Affleck

The director and actor certainly make a surprising pair.
By  · Published on September 6th, 2017

The director and actor certainly make a surprising pair.

As per Deadline, Joe Wright is set to make yet another post-Pan career pivot with the movie adaptation of “Stoner,” a recently re-discovered and critically acclaimed 1965 novel by “writer’s writer” John Williams. The screenplay will be written by Andrew Bovell (A Most Wanted Man), while in more characteristic move, Casey Affleck will augment his list of understated turns as William Stoner, the book’s self-effacing hero.

A fair warning: despite its suggestive title and the fact that it was penned during the age of hippies, the movie’s source material is not about a pot-smoker, so don’t expect a stoner bro comedy from the Atonement director (would you ever go into a Casey Affleck movie anticipating light entertainment, though?). Instead, it is, ostensibly, a concise tale of one man’s life and the many disappointments that fill it, from his failed marriage and aloof father-daughter relationship to a foiled love affair and a promising academic career spoilt by professional rivalry.

Born at the tail end of the 19th century, William Stoner is the quiet, unassuming only child of a struggling Missouri farming family. When he comes of age, someone suggests he might study agriculture at college to breathe new life into the family farm, and so he is duly loaded up with expectation and shipped off to learn the riveting science of soil.

But before his parents’ dreary dream can come true, a bolt from the blue hits William, dramatically changing the course of his life. Forced to take a survey class on English literature, the otherwise poorly read young man discovers a dormant passion for the subject, and swiftly (and without word to his parents) changes his major. This is, the book suggests, the first thing William has ever truly done for himself.

A middling academic career and domestic disappointment follow. Not for lack of bravery, William stays at university throughout both World Wars and the Great Depression, remaining unscathed from their horrors and therefore depriving readers of the dramatic spectacles and tragic literary power of war and poverty.

The New Yorker called it “the greatest American novel you’ve never heard of.” But if nothing especially of note happens, where does it draw its prestige from? Not from dramatic flair or counterculture credentials. It’s the sort of quietly brilliant book that was bound to get lost amongst the more obviously revolutionary output of its time, but thanks to its persistent, stirring power, it has recently been unearthed from relative obscurity to be exalted as a literary treasure.

Like its protagonist, “Stoner”  is humble and unassuming, a quietly brilliant, affecting book that conveys the story of William’s life (by all accounts, full of failure) with a true-to-life realism that doesn’t insist on pity for its oft-frustrated protagonist. Instead, William is something of a hero, albeit a passive one. In under 300 pages, we witness him trudge along and receive life’s many blows without so much as a complaint. This is why the novel is so highly acclaimed: its protagonist is the type of everyman conspicuously absent in so much art — one who suffers and endures without ever being soothed by the sense that he’s not alone. He is alone, as so many are, making this novel oddly comforting in its full, compassionate acknowledgement of a life that would otherwise be confined to the footnotes.

While Joe Wright is no stranger to producing cinematic magic from legendary literary sources, this project isn’t exactly a natural fit at first glance. There is a muted-ness about the book that doesn’t automatically connect with his oeuvre. Wright’s films Pride & Prejudice, Atonement, and Anna Karenina all boast celebrated novels as their basis and have earned critical respect and audience esteem in their own regard, too. But these works offer obvious drama and allure, ample theatrics out of which Wright could fashion stunning visual tableaus. “Stoner,” however, is completely devoid of romantic Dunkirk moments and opportunities for highly choreographed meet-cutes (see this or this).

Of course, this doesn’t mean Wright isn’t the right choice. It just makes him an intriguing one. Deprived of flowery prose and spectacle, “Stoner” should require the director to draw on a set of skills we’ve rarely seen from him before, since we can expect some faithfulness to the novel’s sedate style, as this is what chiefly defines Williams’s book.

But Wright has never been one for by-the-letter adaptations: his work “acknowledges and embraces the inherent differences between cinema and literature,” putting to bed the “adage that ‘the book is always better than the movie’.” So, while capturing the unsentimental, even-temperedness of the novel’s narrative style should place high on the director’s to-do list, it’s unlikely he’ll feel beholden to replicating its other qualities (like its placid pacing, for example), leaving plenty of material for his singular directorial vision to play with.

Affleck, meanwhile, seems like a much more obvioulsy apt choice for the film. Although William Stoner is less self-consciously tragic than Manchester By The Sea’s Lee Chandler, the two aren’t a world apart: both suffer heavily, and both endure. Affleck’s more recent performance as the “broken” spectre-in-a-sheet in David Lowery’s A Ghost Story could equally be an emotional ancestor of William’s, cementing his status as a sad-faced actor and adding weight to the idea that he is the most logical casting choice here.

This particular pairing is not one I’d have expected for either the actor or the director, but I think the major intrigue for Stoner predominantly lies in how Affleck’s subdued style will influence Wright’s theatrical-leaning disposition, given that the former is, on the face of it, a much more natural fit for this project than Wright.

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Farah Cheded is a Senior Contributor at Film School Rejects. Outside of FSR, she can be found having epiphanies about Martin Scorsese movies here @AttractionF and reviewing Columbo episodes here.