In the case of novel-to-film adaptations, I’ve always felt an obsessive compulsion to read the source material before watching the big screen counterpart. If it doesn’t suck, the text can prime the experience with a greater richness of character and detail. And since I’m a giant nerd, that’s exactly what I did with Donald Ray Pollock’s 2011 novel and director Antonio Campos’ film adaptation of the same name, THE DEVIL ALL THE TIME, which dropped on Netflix this past week.
I wasn’t aware of the book—or its author, for that matter—until now, which is criminal, because it’s hard-hitting, uncomfortable, and excellent. Like some kind of strange, literary sponge, I sucked up every word in under 24 hours. I couldn’t get enough of Pollock’s dark vision of the 50’s and 60’s American south. The stink of his characters wafts off the page as he wallows in their corruption, depravity and misery. Everyone is either troubled, immensely flawed, or downright reprehensible. Pollock doesn’t paint a pretty picture.
Both book and film first introduce us to Willard Russel (Bill Skarsgård), a serviceman returning from war in the Pacific. He meets Charlotte (Haley Bennett), a waitress at the local diner, whom he falls in love with, and she later gives birth to their son, Arvin (Tom Holland). They plan for a bright future, hoping to buy the home they’re renting until Charlotte suddenly falls ill with cancer. Willard forces Arvin to pray with him day and night at a shrine in the woods, convinced that if they appeal strongly enough to God, Charlotte will be cured. Damaged by his time at war, Willard becomes increasingly unhinged, resorting to more extreme religious rituals in an attempt to save his wife.
Later, when Arvin is entering adulthood, we’re introduced to a larger cast of characters that cross his path. His adopted 17 year old sister Lenora (Eliza Scanlen) becomes carnally involved with the new preacher in town, Reverend Preston Teagardin (Robert Pattinson). Corrupt sheriff Lee Bodecker (Sebastian Stan) is aiming at re-election, while his younger sister, Sandy (Riley Keough) roams the highways with serial killing photographer Carl (Jason Clarke) on the lookout for unsuspecting victims.
The book’s narrative weaves between characters and time periods with ease, however its structure obviously poses a challenge to Campos in transferring the story to screen. Events that take place over years in the book are jammed together on film, losing the feeling of years slipping by, condensing characters, and removing some arcs entirely. To aid the story’s structural transition, author Donald Ray Pollock provides a voiceover to stitch it together in a cohesive way.
And while the movie literally captures the voice of the author, how well does it capture the voice of the book? One of the things that made me most curious about Campos’ retelling, is just how much of Pollock’s lurid descriptions would make the cut. It’s not much of a surprise that while the characters are still deeply unpleasant, this feels like a PG version of what was on the page. The book is so grim and explicit that Campos probably had little choice but to shave off the sharp edges.
In losing the more twisted elements, the story loses its metaphorical impact. Pollock’s brutal frankness shows a nation that’s sick; America—the real America—has turned its back on God. It still puts up a hypocritically pious front, hiding its unseemly underbelly with the illusion of Christian morality. This is the country for which real life blood sacrifices were made in Vietnam. Pollock seems to suggest it wasn’t worth it, despite a small ray of light at the end.
Campos’ movie is less misanthropic. The air is clearer and hope shines a little brighter. The actors are better looking, and smell cleaner than their text counterparts. One look at the cast list will tell you this film lives on the strength of its actors. I mean, you’ve got Batman, Spiderman and the Winter Soldier packaged in there. Pattinson probably gets the best opportunity to work the material as the scandalous reverend, and the irony is not lost seeing the former Twilight alum in a role where he manipulates teenage girls into enjoying horrible things. While Campos struggles to give enough time to everyone else, he manages to craft a decently satisfying character-driven piece in a time when mid-budgeted dramas are riskier propositions than they used to be. However, this could have easily been given more room to breathe, and benefitted as a miniseries.
On an aesthetic level, THE DEVIL ALL THE TIME certainly looks the part. The set design, costumes and music choices evoke the era in an authentic way. It’s even shot on 35mm, and it’s a shame it couldn’t make it to the big screen. While not carrying the visceral strength of the book, THE DEVIL ALL THE TIME brings Pollock’s vision to life handsomely, if only acceptably, and is worth your time for the ensemble cast alone.
THE DEVIL ALL THE TIME is now available to stream exclusively on Netflix.