Russell Bank’s Affliction: The Book and the Film

Russell Banks’ novel, Affliction is a skillfully crafted story of degeneration of humanity told through the eyes of its narrator, Rolfe. The bleak winter setting of the novel is symbolic of the isolation that constitutes the life of its protagonist, Wade.

Wade is a man capable of good and evil, a man who is as easily liked as he is hated. Caught in the grips of his past and driven by anger, Wade is reminiscent of a tragic hero in the Greek dramas, a man fated to be doomed from the moment he was born.

Marinating in a position where his masculine authority is being undermined by his daughter, his ex-wife, his boss and the residents of his town, stressed by the close interaction his mother’s death initiates between him and his father, his frustrations directed inward, Wade begins to create elaborate fantasies about Twombley’s murder, fantasies involving conspiracies that would make him look like a fool and further challenge his authority.

The “murder” and Wade’s paranoia stemming from it, become the sub-plot of the novel (as well as the film) and give us a way to better understand Wade’s mental state as he makes an effort to assert his authority through delusional thinking. As Wade’s fantasy blooms, he slips further and further into his anger and away from the people who surround him.

Until finally, Wade’s fated, self-destructive impulses destroy all notions of him ever being able to lead a productive content life. His anger fuels him over and turns him into a man he had long despised, a man he had tried his best not to become – his father. The vicious cycle of an abused son turning into an abusing father comes full circle.

The film version of the novel does not stray far from the text although it is understandably not 100% accurate. For the film, Schrader was left with the difficult task of evoking the same intense emotional response the novel entices without the use of internal monologues to rely upon. The framing of the film remained the same as it was in the novel, opening with Rolfe’s narration of his brother’s “strange criminal behavior and his disappearance,” and leading into Rolfe’s explanations of what he thinks Wade had done; but the visual aspect of cinema rattles the frame, the viewer can see Wade and thus the framing is not as fixed as it was in the novel.

The film opens up with a shot of a fence the end of which is not seen in the frame of the camera lens. The fence seemingly stretches from here all the way to infinity, its full length unseen by the viewer, its symbolism reminding the viewer of Wade’s (Nick Nolte) path in life. Because the film version of Affliction does not include the internal monologues that are often used in the novel to give the reader an in-depth look into Wade’s thoughts, the film relies on both action and exaggerated symbolic representations as means of translating the literary structure into its cinematic counterpart. For example, Wade’s toothache from which he is shown suffering throughout the film, is a perfect metaphor for his cankerous relationship with father. His subsequent removal of the tooth without anesthesia or other aids mimics perfectly his murder of his father.

The flashback to Wade’s childhood bear a blue grainy quality, the images of his father (James Coburn) are mostly shot from low-angles to capture the over-bearing menacing presence he imposes. Schrader often focuses on the characters’ body language and the expressions on their faces to express the inner working of their minds. Beginning with the scene at the house gathering after Wade’s mother’s funeral (arguably the best scene in the film) and in nearly every scene thereafter, Coburn is a padded to create the illusion of heaviness and weight, his huge jaw always somewhere in the frame, his sagging facial muscles creating an image similar to a rabid dog.

Schrader also does a fantastic job of using the bleakness of the snowy setting to his full advantage; the novel’s thick charged atmosphere is toned out by the sometimes desolate but often majestic winter landscapes. The snow is at once beautiful, menacing, isolating, and domineering. The last image we see of Wade would not carry the same presence without the barren winter landscape to set it off.

Neither the film nor the novel rely fully on the strength of the plot, in fact, the plot seems to be only a necessary device used to color the story. The development of the characters and the intimate look into their minds is the driving force behind both texts.

Despite their subtle differences and the different techniques used to get their point across, both the film and the novel are a brutally honest look into the psyche of man desperate to change his fated plight without any real means of doing so. Both the film and the novel do a magnificent job of showing how the sins of the father are not only suffered upon the son, but are passed on to him, ingrained into his psyche to be used, at first subconsciously, to afflict those around him as well.

Rolfe explains this best in the film’s narrative epilogue which is also found, nearly word for word, at the end of Bank’s novel: “Our stories – Wade’s and mine – describe the lives of boys and men for thousands of years. Boys who were beaten by their fathers; whose capacity for love and trust was crippled almost at birth; whose best hope for connection with other human beings lay in detachment as if life were already over. It is how we keep from destroying in our turn our own children and terrorizing the women who have the misfortune to love us, how we absent ourselves from the tradition of male violence that we decline the seduction of revenge.”

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