Mudbound is Hillary Jordan’s debut novel, published in 2008. It won the Bellwether Prize for fiction, an award founded by author Barbara Kingsolver to promote literature of social justice and responsibility.
The setting is WWII and its ending, as two American soldiers return from Europe to their families in Mississippi. One of them is Jamie, white, a flying ace whose co-pilot was shot dead right beside him in a fierce dogfight. The other, Ronsel, black, a decorated war hero who had fought in the tank battalion under General Patton. Both had experienced the war, seen the atrocity, now back home having to deal with the demons of the aftermath: for Jamie, traumatic shocks and survivor’s guilt; for Ronsel, another barbaric battlefront, racism in the Deep South.
Jamie comes back to a cotton farm owned by his older brother Henry McAllan and stays in the lean-to adjacent to the main house, itself but a shack with no running water or electricity. “Mudbound” is the proper name for it. When the rain pours and the wind blows, the mud drowns and pulls everything down, dirtying all from head to toe. A gloomy place to start anew as a farmer.
They weren’t all like that to start with. Henry has an engineering degree. Laura, Henry’s wife from Memphis, is also college educated. She learns of Henry’s intention to move to rural Mississippi and be a cotton farmer only weeks after her marriage. What’s worse, Henry’s obnoxious father, Pappy, will be coming to live with them.
Ronsel’s father Hap Jackson is the sharecropper working in the cotton fields owned by Henry. Fate brought the two families together. Hap and his wife Florence and all his children have been praying for Ronsel’s safe return from the war. Now their prayers are answered, but only pit Ronsel into another battlefront when he meets Jamie and the two strike up friendship, a despicable taboo.
Written in chapters that reveal the point of view of the various characters, the book is a sort of a literary ‘Rashomon’, how different people see the same event in their own light, or the lack of it. Such a writing structure evokes empathy as Jordan leads the reader to delve into the mind of the characters. And as the final climatic chapters come, we as readers get to know a crucial fact, an essential plot point we are privy to but which even other characters are not aware. We have Jordan to thank for such an insightful way to present the omniscient viewpoint in her storytelling.
The trajectory of the friendship between Jamie and Ronsel is tragically predictable. But what’s not predictable is Jordan’s incisive writing. Sometimes adding a short little phrase at the end of a sentence could make it speak much more. It’s writing like this that makes the book enjoyable despite its subject matter. Take this as an example, simple and subtle, but revealing effectively Laura’s inner turmoil after a tumultuous night:
“… I got up and checked on the children. They were sleeping, with an untroubled abandon I envied.”
Or this line to wrap up a climactic chapter. Such descriptions are perfect cues for nuanced performance on screen:
“What we can’t speak, we say in silence.”
No spoiler here. But this is the kind of writing that conveys powerfully the emotions and events that sweep the reader up while allowing space to mull things over.
The cinematography (Rachel Morrison) is the most distinguished feature from the beginning. As the title suggests, the colour palette is a spectrum of browns, reminiscence of the paintings of Jean Francois Millet’s farmers toiling in the fields, or this Van Gogh’s Potatoes Farmers:
But before the mud swallows up life, there is the colourful, urbane, Memphis party scene, or the courtship under golden leaves. The contrast is heartbreaking. Laura (Carey Mulligan), who seems to have no say about her life and fate, has to follow her husband Henry McAllan (Jason Clarke) from the city to move to a shack with no running water or electricity on a cotton field in rural Mississippi. Being a landowner is the sole ambition for him.
But of course, not just Laura, but everyone is drawn into the muddy swamp. Hap Jackson (Rob Morgan) is the sharecropper on the McAllan fields. His wife Florence–absorbing performance from “the Queen of Hip-Hop Soul” Mary J. Blige–is soon asked to help Laura with caring for her two girls and household chores. The return of their son Ronsel (Jason Mitchell) and Henry’s younger brother Jamie (Garrett Hedlund) from Europe after the war will eventually link the two families down an inescapable path.
Turning the chapters of internal worlds into visuals on screen is a tall order. Director Dee Rees, who co-wrote the screenplay with Virgil Williams, had done an effective job by voiceovers, which is sometimes frowned upon as they could mean an easy-way out. But here, the voiceovers are intimate and personal. The few simple lines in the voice of the characters draw the viewers closer in. With Carey Mulligan, I admit I’m totally partial. Her alto voice is moving and poignant.
Picking the right events from the book is crucial. Director Rees has followed closely to the plot lines using many of Jordan’s words, but also taken the liberty to switch around and combine them in the movie adaptation. Juxtaposing Ronsel and Jamie’s traumatic battle scenes with accidents and illness at home are effective and emotionally engaging; all have to fight their battles, big and small, at home or the frontline.
The most moving juxtaposition comes at the intense, climactic scene where the singing of a hymn replaces dialogues. It’s a juxtaposition of the visual with sound and silence. Jordan’s impressive line from the book is aptly adapted onto screen:
“What we can’t speak, we say in silence.” Or here, in song.
The ending of the movie is altered, and I’m glad, for they who have suffered so much, so long, deserve a cathartic ending. This is a good example of a fine adaptation. It’s not a page by page transposition from book to screen, ‘faithful’ to the dot. But Rees has taken the liberty to unleash the dramatic, or maybe, melodramatic. It’s always cathartic to see love triumph after all. Mary J. Blige’s “Mighty River” is an appropriate wrap as the end credits roll.
~ ~ ~ ~ Ripples
Book and Movie