The Curious History of End of the Road

By Pellow, Ken; Hug, Rita | Literature/Film Quarterly, January 1, 1999 | Go to article overview

The Curious History of End of the Road

Pellow, Ken, Hug, Rita, Literature/Film Quarterly

Almost no one has written anything about Aram Avakian's 1969 film, End of the Road. Very seldom can anyone be located who has ever seen-or recalls having seen-the film. (Occasionally, someone will say "I do remember seeing that it was being made. What ever happened to it?") Nor is it readily or inexpensively available. Facets does not have it; it cannot, it appears, be rented anywhere. It can be purchased on videocasette-for $65.

Yet the film's release came with great hype and ballyhoo. Life magazine gave it a nearlyunprecedented eight-page spread and announced it as "More than a movie . . . a two-hour paroxysm . . . against pervasive violence in America [and] a cry to the American people" (64). Its producers clearly thought it would be an event. Aram Avakian, chosen to direct. had become one of the industry's most respected and sought-after film-editors, and he seemed to be a hot prospect as a director. Two of its stars, Stacy Keach and James Earl Jones. had just begun to cultivate huge reputations, mostly on Broadway. Moreover, it was based upon a popular and critically acclaimed novel by John Barth, the only film based on any of that respected author's intriguing works. So how could it have been so quickly and completely forgotten? The answer probably comes in several parts: this was a bad choice of a novel to adapt to film; the film sticks to the novel closely at times, then wanders curiously; there were too many cooks stewing up a screenplay. But the greatest single cause of disaster may lie in the inability of Avakian and his co-scenarists, Terry Southern and Dennis McGuire, to make up their minds whether they were doing a political, psychological, or philosophical film, a satire or documentary, comedy or tragedy. This essay will examine that indecisiveness and its consequents.

Philosophical novels are difficult for anyone to transform into good films. For adaptational purposes, film-makers would do better to seek a novel that is historical, psychological, or even political. Crime novels, court novels, social-problem novels, and horror novels all have a more respectable record of transformation than do those that want to wage a philosophy. And a novel that wants to be playful with various philosophies. submit them to humorous linguistic analysis, to trot them out to be parodied or dealt with satirically: such a novel has virtually no chance to be adapted into a film that will succeed artistically or commercially. Barth's End of the Road is a novel that does all of the above. In its fauxMelvillean opening line, its narrator announces: "In a sense, I am Jacob Horner."1 Instantly, Barth instigates several suggestions about Homer's personality and character: his multiple perspectives on everything, his indecisiveness, questions about his identity and his security. Simultaneously, the author wants us to recognize the silly symbolism of the name, its closeness to the subjectively self-examining "Little Jack Horner" of Mother Goose fame. But this early, too, there are problems of how (or if) a film will replicate any of this, except perhaps by the probably self-defeating device of having Horner talk to the audience. No more than two paragraphs later, the problems have intensified, as Barth commences to weave theme and character via metaphors that are almost sheerly "literary," dependent as they are on verbal perception. Horner describes the impossibility of being at his ease in the "Progress and Advice Room" of the strange "therapist" who, as we shall see, treats him:

Your position, then (which has the appearance of choice. because you are not ordered to sit thus, but which is chosen only in a very limited sense, since there are no alternatives), is as follows: you sit rather rigidly in your white chair, your back and thighs describing the same right angle described by the structure of the chair, and keep your legs together, your thighs and lower legs describing another right angle.

Next, in a manner we will soon learn is typical of him, Jake expands the image to include cause:

. …

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