Consider yourself fortunate if you have a favourite novel. Sharply-drawn, fascinating characters people its pages. They face challenges that intrigue you, and time and again you revisit the novel simply to savour its poetry or to ponder its weighty themes. If your favourite offers all this, we may both be thinking of Robert Penn Warren’s 1946 novel, All the King’s Men.

Superficially, All the King’s Men is a roman à clef, a fictionalised rendition of the career of Depression-era Louisiana governor, Huey Long. Long was a demagogue in the process of challenging Franklin D. Roosevelt for the Democratic presidential nomination when he, like Willie Stark, the fictional governor, was assassinated.
The novel is about much more, however. It tells a much deeper story about an idealistic, low-level office-holder from a rural county seat in an unnamed state, who wants to do the right thing for his hick electorate. When Willie learns that he has been duped by backroom machine politicians into running for governor, an unstoppable fury erupts within him. He barnstorms across the state, promising in stump speeches to throw out the corrupt insiders and to serve the people. Once in office, Willie resorts to bribery and blackmail, at first in the name of his early idealism and later simply to bolster his own ambitions.

We see all this through the detached, cynical eyes of Jack Burden, a newspaper reporter who covers Willie’s transformation from honest county official to fire-breathing reformer to corrupt demagogue. Unlike Willie, Jack was raised in wealth and privilege. He goes to work for Stark, researching for dirt on Stark’s political opponents and using the information to bribe and blackmail for the governor.

There is a vortex-like quality to the writing in All the King’s Men. From the first page, the reader is immediately dropped into the back seat of Governor Willie Stark’s black Cadillac and hurtled through the night, down back roads on missions of politics and blackmail. Warren’s haunting, lyrical prose evokes a time and place that, poisoned as it was, you would want to visit. The novel is also a meditation on the many themes that wind sinuously through the narrative: the corrupting influence of power, responsibility for one’s own actions, ends and means, fate and destiny, all wrapped in the classic structure of a tragedy. All the King’s Men resonates long after the last page has been turned.

That literature of this calibre would attract Hollywood film makers was a given. Two years after the book won the 1947 Pulitzer prize, a film adaptation by director and script writer Robert Rossen hit the screen. By today’s standards, this version is a little choppy, but it was very well cast. Actor Broderick Crawford was the perfect incarnation of Willie Stark; John Ireland was a passable Jack Burden; and Mercedes Cambridge was virtually flawless as Stark’s secretary and sometime lover Sadie Burke. But Rossen’s version of All the King’s Men also had flaws. While it captured the basic storyline, the movie took extensive liberties with the plot.

Most notable of these were the “blending” of characters to simplify the story line and the disappearance of sub-plots. Although there are allusions to the Deep South, there are no Southern accents and the action might as well have happened in California. Still, the film did well—it won the Academy Award in 1949 for Best Picture and Broderick Crawford took home an Oscar for his burly portrayal of Willie Stark.

This year, after more than half a century, Columbia Pictures (which produced the Robert Rossen version) tried again. Steven Zaillian was chosen as the screenwriter and director, and an A-list of box-office talent was tapped to fill the roles, including Sean Penn as Governor Willie Stark, Jude Law as Jack Burden, and Anthony Hopkins as Judge Monty Irwin. This version is far more literal than Rossen’s 1949 version, with all the perils that attend that choice.

Sean Penn is a talented actor, but he fails to bring Willie Stark to this movie. There’s the simple matter of physiology: a mesomorph like Sean Penn might sport a pot belly, but it’s no substitute for the bulk of Willie Stark (something Broderick Crawford had no problem with). The unnatural arm flailing with which Penn punctuates his political harangues looks amateurish and like what it is—an actor mimicking something and not quite getting it right. Penn must have spent more time studying film clips of Huey Long than reading about Willie Stark.

Since this version of All the King’s Men is conspicuously set in Louisiana, the botched Southern accents are a serious problem. The garbled patois that spills from Sean Penn’s lips is genuinely difficult to understand. Jude Law’s accent sounds like an audition for Gone With The Wind, and in the case of Anthony Hopkins as Judge Irwin, there is simply, unexplainably, no Southern accent whatsoever.

Why the movie was set in the 1950s instead of the Great Depression is unfathomable, since virtually nothing is gained, and the unique circumstances of the Great Depression that enabled Willie Stark to become a demagogue are lost.

The denouement is particularly important in All the King’s Men. In the novel, Jack Burden accepts responsibility for the role he played in the deaths of Willie Stark, Judge Irwin, and Adam Stanton. He tries to make restitution. He marries Anne Stanton and he’s a changed man. Neither movie version of the novel offers any post-climactic decompression, no sifting through the rubble in the wake of the blast, trying to decide if it’s worth it to rebuild.

There are a few bright points about this year’s version. The cinematography is beautiful, if a little dark. Jude Law is a very passable Jack Burden, the cynical child of privilege visiting the moral slums of politics. And Jackie Earl Haley delivers a terrifying, spot-on performance as Willie Stark’s diminutive, sugar cube-munching, and very lethal bodyguard.

But overall, in watching some of Hollywood’s most talented actors deliver the exact dialogue that glides so smoothly in the novel, something still does not work. What ails this movie?

Robert Rossen’s 1949 version of All the King’s Men took great liberties with the novel in order to adapt it to the screen. Virtually all of the sub-plots were abandoned, characters were blended to improve the story line, and very little in the film anchored it to the South. Despite the changes, the basic story survived, and with some great acting performances, it was still an Oscar-quality movie. Steven Zaillian’s version is a much more faithful adaptation, complete with Southern accents, dialogue lifted straight from the book, and cinematography to match Robert Penn Warren’s poetry. But it is this very verisimilitude—not the miscast actors or the abysmal accents—that is the film’s undoing.

The root problem lies in translation. Every translator has had to grapple with the thorny issue of how to remain true to the spirit without departing from the letter. For a screenwriter, the challenge lies in choosing the right events, characters, and character traits to convey the same feel as the novel. All the King’s Men has layers of plotting, reflections, and flashbacks—all things that are difficult to write, let alone translate. The 2006 movie translates too l

As well, Zaillian and Penn obviously were working at cross purposes. Penn wanted to bring Huey Long to life, reproducing the dictatorial demagoguery of the real-life Louisiana Governor. Zaillian, by contrast, wanted to re-create Willie Stark and to capture the elusive strains of Warren’s masterpiece.

High expectations were another problem. All the King’s Men has a long and impeccable pedigree: a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, a poet laureate author, and an Oscar-winning previous version. When the idea of remaking this movie emerged, no doubt someone winced and whispered be careful. It’s as if someone attempted to remake To Kill A Mockingbird, another classic Southern novel that also won a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel and whose film adaptation scored an Oscar. When one adaptation has already reached the apex of excellence, it’s a tall order to surmount that and not wise unless you have a better vision.

If this movie were simply a stand-alone production, it might be easier to accept its shortcomings. Unfortunately, the 2006 version fails to transport Willie Stark and his henchmen across the great divide that seems forever likely to separate Robert Penn Warren’s fine novel from directors’ attempts to capture it on film.

O’Bannon Cook writes from Tallahassee, Florida.