Georgia Bulletin

The Newspaper of the Catholic Archdiocese of Atlanta

‘Wildcat’ brilliantly Captures O’Connor’s vocation and vision

By DAVID KING, Ph.D. | Published June 26, 2024

Three weeks ago, I had the pleasure of attending the Atlanta premiere of Ethan and Maya Hawke’s film about Flannery O’Connor, “Wildcat.” A blend of biography and literary adaptation, the film is the best attempt yet at depicting O’Connor’s unique vocation and vision on screen. 

As the 60 years since O’Connor’s death have passed, she has been exhaustively scrutinized from the perspective of the expressive theory of art, which at its most extreme tends to ignore the creation in favor of an obsession with the creator. 

Context is useful, but the obsession with O’Connor’s attitudes and beliefs too often detracts from her achievement as arguably the greatest writer of short fiction in modern American literature. 

O’Connor was a follower of the New Criticism, a literary theory that eschewed biographical and historical contexts to focus solely on the work. I am not a New Critic; I think that context is essential to a full understanding of any work of art, but I also think that context must never overshadow the work itself. 

In the case of Flannery O’Connor, that is exactly what has happened. The persona—as Catholic, as Southerner, as suffering ill young woman, even as a Gothic artist—informs too much of our approach to her work. Paul Elie’s damning New Yorker essay of a few years ago was the harshest portrayal of all. His condemnation of O’Connor as a racist led to Catholic colleges re-naming buildings. It led to a momentary halt of meaningful O’Connor scholarship. It led middle-aged, Southern men like me—scholars who built a career upon O’Connor and other great Southern writers—to retreat into the shadows, afraid of uttering another word lest we be cast out.   

Gradually, other voices that needed to be heard came forward. One of them is Amy Alznauer, who was among the first to rebuke Elie. Along with Alznauer, Rosemary Magee and the outstanding staff at Emory Libraries have curated an exhibition on O’Connor, Alice Walker and Benny Andrews that will run through July at Emory. And thanks to Alznauer and Magee, Ethan and Maya Hawke screened their recent film about O’Connor at the Tara Theatre, followed by an enlightening and sincere facilitated discussion of their film. 

A fresh perspective 

By keeping quiet about O’Connor for four years, I think I was allowed to see her from a fresh perspective. As eloquent and sincere as they are, the Hawkes aren’t perhaps held to the same scrutiny and risk as a college professor whose career can hinge upon the slightest misspoken or misconstrued comment. Yet their empathy and their obvious dilemma about O’Connor’s background in the segregated Deep South did embolden me to at last feel better about sharing my perspective within a broader context. 

In their discussion following the film, the Hawkes remarked that yes, O’Connor was the product of “her time,” the segregated and then newly integrated Deep South. But they also argued the important point that she was young and afflicted not just by a physical illness but by a systemic, ingrained racism from which she as a Catholic and artist wished to heal. Anyone who has read and thought about O’Connor carefully will see that as she leaned into the philosophy of Teilhard de Chardin, she clearly was trying to “recover,” as Ethan Hawke puts it, from her racist upbringing. Anyone called so deeply to love God and their fellow human beings cannot ever fully be racist. 

Director Ethan Hawke, at left, considers a scene in the small-budget film “Wildcat,” a portrait of Georgia writer Flannery O’Connor’s inner vision. Photo by Oscilloscope

The Hawkes’ film is wonderful. It does what any good adaptation of a literary work must do: it makes the primary source an entirely new text yet retains the intent of the original. It trusts that the viewer either knows O’Connor’s work, or will want to know it, and never dumbs anything down. It treats the viewer with respect. 

Maya Hawke as Flannery O’Connor is entirely convincing and brilliant. She captures O’Connor as young, gifted, and vulnerable. She and Laura Linney each play multiple roles in the film, which is remarkable. In addition to playing Flannery O’Connor, Maya Hawke also plays all the female, and one male, leads from the stories she adapts. She even appears in a mock trailer that precedes the film, a smart device that lets the viewer know what the Hawkes think about sensationalism and exploitation while also demonstrating appreciation for O’Connor’s sense of humor. 

To ‘make the reader see’ 

The film respects and reflects Catholicism. I think this is one reason why I really loved it. The movie acknowledges that if you don’t understand Flannery’s devotion to the faith, you will never fully understand her fiction. The Hawkes know that O’Connor had no stomach for piety, and that as a serious artist she entirely avoided didacticism. We see O’Connor praying—the film utilizes her Prayer Journal—we see her with the rosary, at Mass, in spiritual direction and confession with a priest, and in defense of the Eucharist in an explicit reference to her famous insight about the Sacrament: “If it’s only a symbol, to hell with it.” The Hawkes include a scene in which her professor jokingly canonizes O’Connor as “St. Flannery,” but the honor owes more to the teacher’s awe at her talent than her faith. 

In fact, refreshingly, the film depicts O’Connor’s faith as both simple and serious. In church, she prays much like a child might—“Lord give me a story.” Yet her faith becomes profound in her acceptance of suffering and her realization that her writing may become a kind of vocation. 

The movie opens with an allusion, or prequel, to “A Good Man is Hard to Find.” If you know that story, you will be both delighted and horrified in seeing what the Grandmother wants Bailey to see on the newspaper page: “You read here what it says he did to these people. Just you read it.” The film then adapts “The Life You Save May be Your Own,” “Revelation,” “Parker’s Back,” “Everything That Rises Must Converge” and “Good Country People.” I’ll avoid describing each adaptation; you need to see each as I did, with only the original stories in mind. 

The film weaves events in O’Connor’s life at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop and in Georgia with the adaptations. Ethan Hawke’s camera-eye captures the essence of O’Connor’s own visual style—long takes force the viewer to look at characters who seem frozen in epiphanous moments in which none but they seem alive. In one great scene at a cocktail party, where O’Connor defends the Eucharist, Ethan Hawke shoots a series of literal freeze frames from the perspective of O’Connor’s imagination. That the film dares to depict O’Connor’s inner vision rather than focusing on obsessive attention to superficial detail is the key reason it is so strikingly original. It also reinforces O’Connor’s great aim as a writer: “make the reader see.” 

I was thrilled that the film alludes often to Thomas Merton. We see Flannery receive a copy of “The Seven Storey Mountain,” and near the end of the film a portion of the “Fourth and Walnut” passage is heard on voiceover. Merton and O’Connor shared a publisher, Bob Giroux, and both had wanted to meet. Merton was enamored with O’Connor and wrote a perceptive and touching tribute to her when she died. 

It is truly a remarkable film, an art-house yet unpretentious small-budget love letter to an artist who is clearly adored and understood by the father and daughter who at last bring a faithful portrait of Flannery O’Connor to the screen without treating her as either unbelievably good or bad. 

I saw the movie with my 16-year-old son, his friend and his English teacher—a former student of mine. That all of us enjoyed and appreciated it speaks to its wide appeal. That it made my son want to read more Flannery O’Connor is testament to its mission. 

In a lifetime of reading and writing about Flannery O’Connor, even assisting Bridget Kurt in making the first documentary feature film about her, one thing has become clear to me: people will never stop trying to stake a claim on her. From the 1970s until now, each generation of O’Connor scholars has tried to assert their interpretation of her work and life as “it,” as if her entire oeuvre were a puzzle to be solved. From Sally Fitzgerald, Carter Martin, Ted Spivey, and Sarah Gordon and Bruce Gentry; from Lorraine Murray, Jean Cash and Brad Gooch; from Paul Elie, Daniel Moran, Amy Alznauer and Jessica Hooten Wilson and now the Hawkes, each generation seems to assert a definitive interpretation of Flannery O’Connor. 

I think my teacher and godfather Bill Sessions—“Billy “in The Habit of Being—who was O’Connor’s friend, understood her best. Bill once recounted to me that he went to the Museum of Modern Art to see a retrospective of Monet’s Waterlilies canvases. He sat looking at one massive painting, trying to figure it out, and as he put it, “It occurred to me that rather than looking at the painting, I should let the painting look at me.” That, to me, sums up how we should read and understand the work and life of an amazing talent. And the Hawkes’ film, more than any other recent secondary work on O’Connor, embodies that approach.

David A. King, Ph.D., is professor of English and film studies at Kennesaw State University and director of OCIA at Holy Spirit Church, Atlanta.