Deliverance from Novel to Film: Where Is Our Hero?
Robert F Willson, Jr., Literature/Film Quarterly
In translating his powerful novel Deliverance into film, James Dickey obviously faced a practical dilemma. Anyone who has read the book is aware of its thorough exploration of Ed Gentry's point of view as narrator and actor of the soul-rending events on the Cahulawassee. From his opening ambivalence about the week-end adventure to his discovery that he can kill and justify murder with all the guile of a seasoned criminal, Ed's perception of the ethical significance of his thoughts and actions is much deeper than that of any of his companions. As a result Ed is the hero of the novel, the typical hero of American fiction who. like Huck Finn or Nick Adams, finds his fate is tied to a river, who is wounded in spirit and flesh, and who conquers adversity only after he has conquered himself. What makes this test of will and spirit more than just a True magazine pulp thriller is Ed's nagging conscience, which forces him to realize by the end of the novel that his deliverance from the jaws of death and punishment is only partial salvation. The reservoir may inundate the bodies of the dead, but it will never cover up those moral uncertainties incumbent on his and the party's deeds. The perplexing questions will always be there: would they have received a fair trial for the first man's murder? was Drew really shot? did Ed bag the right man after his tortuous climb up the cliff? will he ever be the same?
Dickey's solution to this dilemma of characterization was to ignore it. Instead he and John Boorman have opted to narrate on film a gruesome but hardly thought-provoking adventure story in which Ed's anxieties are lost in the scenery, in the gore, and, unfortunately, in Jon Voight's uninspired performance. Admittedly, the mechanics of presenting point of view in film are awkward. One way it can be accomplished is through a voice-over, during which the hero relates his complex thoughts about the meaning of depicted incidents. A point in the plot where this oould be effective is in Ed's arduous climb up the side of the cliff. Certainly at this stage we need to know how he reacts to the encounter with an inanimate, monolithic force in nature. Flashback would have been useful here, too, not just to allow Ed the luxury of seeing his life flash before him, but to establish in the audience's mind his feelings about his family, his professional life, and his pre-river associations with Drew, Bobby, and Lewis. The full impact of the climb must be felt (in the film it takes up a short segment of time, and there is never any doubt that Ed will make it) in order to distinguish Ed's struggle for survival from Lewis
Medford's. Lewis believes that victory consists in destroying one's opponent in an impersonal way: training the body as a weapon in order to conquer anything, man, beast, or river, which challenges him. Though he claims he wants to traverse the river for one last thrill before the land developers destroy it. Lewis really wishes to prove that he has not gone soft from middle-class blandishments; and, believing in the imminence of cataclysm, he aims at demonstrating to his flabby companions that they must depend on him in a moment of crisis. It is one of the book's fine ironies that when the moment comes for true survival tactics. Lewis lies helpless in the canoe, hobbled by a broken leg. Flashback here would have shown that Lewis has a history of failing in the clutch: once in another forest he lost a companion, then had to sit by with another leg injury while someone else saved his friend (pp. 47-48, Dell edition).
Ed is soft, but sensitive; unlike Lewis, he cannot reject completely the easy existence of civilized man. His profession keys us to his philosophy of life. As a photographer he is fascinated by images which impress themselves on his consciousness in vivid ways. Seeking to find the right composition for each "shot," whether in the studio or along the river bank, Ed can see more than Lewis ever will. He is also altered by experience, becoming not simply Lewis' superman but a hunter after the meaning and not just the thrill of experience. …