Discovered unfinished among James Agee's papers after his heart attack in 1955, A Death in the Family can't have been an easy novel to film. Nothing much happens except language. And most of that language celebrates domesticity, marital love, local color, and other hard-to-picture virtues. To be sure, Jay Follet dies in an automobile accident, leaving behind his true-blue wife, Mary, his distraught 7-year-old son, Rufus, an alcoholic brother, and an officious priest in Knoxville, Tennessee, in 1915. But this violence is off-page and offstage. The real action is inside the head of Rufus, who will grow up of course to be Agee himself, after Exeter and Harvard and writing for such Henry Luce magazines as Fortune and Time and such Hollywood directors as John Huston (The African Queen) and Charles Laughton (The Night of the Hunter), a movie critic who spent his entire professional life using words to explain pictures.
There's a moment early on in Gil Cates's Masterpiece Theatre American Collection rendition of the novel when this difficulty thumps us on the head. Jay (John Slattery as the sort of father all of us wish for and none of us ever had) has taken Rufus (a rather-too-cherubic Austin Wolff) to see the new Charlie Chaplin movie. It's an occasion in the novel for a couple of descriptive pages so full of feeling, even of reverence, for art and kinship and darkness and memory that they would be redeployed four decades later to lead off the lavish Norton anthology Roger Ebert's Book of Film. But on the television screen, we can't see Chaplin and we can't read minds. We look instead at laughing faces. It's not good enough.
On the other hand, Annabeth Gish as Jay's wife and Rufus's mother improves on the novel. (As she has also been the only reason to watch the last season of The X-Files.) Mary must be prissy but also sexy; pious but also almost wanton, even at the piano. On the page, seen mostly through Rufus's innocent eyes, much of her erotic charge had to be inferred. But on the screen we never for a minute doubt that she is everything to her husband -- his reasons and his world -- even when she'd rather he didn't go to movies or stop in bars. This is the middle-class trade-off, the bargain the wanderer strikes for sanctuary against the storm.
From James Cromwell as Mary's father and Kathleen Chalfant as her aunt Hannah, we get the stalwart performances we have come to expect. With more baggage from the novel, David Alford as her brother Andrew has a harder role. He is the artist who has painted "men of property" like Jay, watering their lawns as if they were rain gods; who envies his brother-in-law the life he has made with his sister; who will tell Rufus about the benediction of the butterfly on his father's coffin. But he is also the renegade who hates both the Catholic Church (for the trouble it causes an unbaptized corpse) and those members of his own family who allow the church to bully them (including his sister). Some of these complicated feelings don't make it to the screen, although they tormented the author of the novel his whole excessive life.
Agee's admirers seem to divvy up into those who regret that he didn't write more novels like A Death in the Family and those who regret that he didn't write another book of social anthropology like Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, his account of tenant farming in the Great Depression. Regret, though, is the note most often struck, whether in Dwight Macdonald's Against the American Grain or Alfred Kazin's New York Jew. It's not that Agee's movie criticism for Time and The Nation is considered hack work -- on the contrary, it has set the standard ever since -- but that, you know, writers only achieve stature by standing on their Big Books. Macdonald even goes so far as to blame himself for helping Agee get a job at Time, Inc.: "What a waste, what pathetic docility, what illusions!" But he might as well shrive everybody else, including himself, who ever stayed too long and got too comfortable at any of the word factories, who drank and smoked too much in any of the taverns across the friendly street, who pissed away all those grand ambitions, or whose heart was attacked at the movies.
A Death in the Family
Masterpiece Theatre adaptation of the James Agee novel, directed by Gil Cates. Starring John Slattery, Annabeth Gish, and Austin Wolff. Monday, March 25; 9 to 10:30 p.m.; Channel 13.