The 1989 novel Affliction, by Russell Banks, is about severe psychological damage done to a man, Wade Whitehouse, and its violent consequences, damage done by years of physical abuse from his father, Glen—thus, affliction. How, I wondered, can a movie possibly convey Wade’s psyche?
A couple things come to mind right away.
The movie version of Affliction (1997) brings together an ensemble of skilled actors. Of this ensemble, Nick Nolte and James Coburn, as abused son and abusive father, are the focus of our attention. And both Nolte and Coburn excellently portray insane and vicious behavior. From said behavior, the viewer is left to deduce damaged psyches. As Glen’s son Wade, Nolte must show a gradual progression from seeming reasonableness to out-of-control viciousness. At the start, Wade tells his younger brother Rolfe (Willem Dafoe), “I’ve growled a little, but I haven’t bit.” In the end, he bites—he more than bites—but in the meantime, Wade is restrained, to the point of resignation. Nolte evokes this well. Although he sports a ready grin, it is little and short-lived; it fades fast. He hunches in his clothes, which look sloppily put together—especially in contrast to the composed, formally dressed lawyer for his custody case. Often, he whispers, or mumbles. His eyes—like his posture—look sunken and sad. Nolte thoroughly personifies the quiet before the storm. Although the storm is shocking, it has been effectively foreshadowed.
In the movie of Affliction, repeated images of lone trucks on snowy roads create a bleak atmosphere. It seems there is little light and less warmth in this northern New Hampshire town. While in the book, Banks informs us that there is a longer winter than summer in the town, in the movie the fact of it is presented to us over and over.
Other images also create a bleak atmosphere. Most of the houses in town, such as Nick Wickham’s restaurant or the Whitehouse home, look rundown, announcing the poverty of the area—an announcement from the photos that open the movie, and throughout. Wickham’s restaurant is cramped and dimly lit; outside, a forest of fir trees encroaches. Toward movie’s end, a conflagration is seen through a kitchen window. Then, at the very end, the skeletal remains of the conflagration. Altogether, the movie’s imagery conveys the miserableness of Wade Whitehouse’s existence.
This movie of Affliction even features Rolfe Whitehouse’s narration of events. Rolfe is Wade’s younger brother, who has distanced himself, geographically and emotionally, from his family of origin. Nevertheless, he has stayed in close touch with Wade. He has a significant presence. The movie, however, seems not to know where to place Rolfe, who ends up mostly on the sidelines. It does skillfully excerpt from Rolfe’s narration in the book to create an enlightening voice-over. But, apart from his voice-over narration, Rolfe has oddly little to do or say; rather, what is most memorable about the Rolfe of the movie is his carefully styled hair. The movie can show Rolfe’s citified attentiveness to his looks.
The stumbling block for this movie is its inability to film Russell Banks’s poetic prose. Affliction is not, say, Murder on the Orient Express, in which the puzzle is the point. Its style is its substance. Take Wade’s toothache—about it, Banks writes that “marijuana had a positively soothing effect on him, erasing toothache, anxieties, and anger in one swipe, leaving him to drift a short distance outside and behind time…” (Banks, p. 38). From that segment, it’s apparent that this toothache is not merely a nuisance but a metaphor for the psychic pain afflicting Wade. Though a picture may be worth a thousand words, Banks’s “thousand words” have impact that a picture can hardly produce. Fortunately for this version of Affliction, there is still much else that a movie can do to immerse us in Wade Whitehouse’s woeful world.
Thomas Gagnon has published essays and reviews in Wilderness House Literary Review and alternative literary blog, The Boston Area Small Press and Poetry Scene. He has published articles about art exhibits in South End News and poetry in cross-disability literary journal Breath and Shadow.