The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter

To say that the 1968 cinematic adaptation of Carson McCullers’s 1940 debut novel betrays and misinterprets this seedy, existentially troubled and troubling southern gothic is merely to reconfirm Hollywood’s standard modus operandi, levied against one classic novel after another. McCullers’s novel lies in direct line of descent from Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio and Thomas Wolfe’s Look Homeward, Angel — a coeval of Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County tales, it points toward the work of Flannery O’Connor and Ray Bradbury. Mick Kelly, a young girl with dreams of becoming a composer, and John Singer, a deaf-mute engraver, represent two strains of innocence forced to contend with cruel circumstance. One collapses, and one is strengthened, in a tale that recognizes nobility but never cringes from sordidness or despair. Thomas C. Ryan’s script sacrifices much of the rich interiority accompanying their trials — Sondra Locke’s Mick has been reduced in this conception to a more sensitive Gidget — along with the substance of several key supporting characters. While a quarter-century shift in the era of the story makes a hash of plot points, the most problematic decision was to privilege the role of Singer (Alan Arkin). Elevated from a slender if thematically important role in McCullers’s original, Singer is onscreen almost continually as a whimsical free spirit who liberates all whom he touches — and who suffers a fate that seems baffling in its new context. But, judged on its own merits, Ellis’s film has much to recommend it. At age 20, Locke still radiates a teenager’s exuberance and gawky physicality, especially in the party scenes. Arkin meets the great challenge of his wordless role with a bold confidence; he is so convincing that when he bursts into wild grunts at a moment of crisis, shock ensues in both the characters and audience. Deft direction and slick camerawork reward the eye, leaving us with a film that deserves to be seen, if only to drive viewers back to McCullers’s masterpiece. –