News & Commentary

‘Wildcat’ a reminder of Flannery O’Connor’s enduring attraction

Catholic writer Flannery O'Connor is seen in an undated photo. (OSV News photo/courtesy 11th Street Lot)

(OSV News) — Ethan Hawke knows “Wildcat,” his film about the life and imagination of Southern writer Flannery O’Connor released May 3, is unlikely to attract general audiences.

“It’s a difficult subject matter for a lot of people. They don’t know what to make out of it,” he said in a Q&A with media April 30.

The film weaves the narrative of the 20-something Catholic writer (portrayed by Hawke’s daughter, actress and singer Maya Hawke) coming home to Georgia and to grips with having lupus — a debilitating disease that killed her father and would kill her, too, at age 39 — with scenes from her always strange and often unsettling short stories, whose characters are disfigured, uncouth and immoral. Like O’Connor herself, her stories grapple with the nature of God’s grace and fallen people’s reception to it.

Although the film contains overtly religious themes, it neither proselytizes nor sensationalizes faith, unlike most religion-focused films on the market, said Hawke, its co-writer and director. Instead, he aimed to capture the mystery in faith, suffering and creativity.

“I wanted to make a movie that I wanted to see,” he said. “I am a very spiritually minded person. It’s the most important thing in my life. And I don’t see much about it (in film).”

“Wildcat” — named for one of O’Connor’s early short stories — is the latest in several recent contributions honoring O’Connor’s legacy and promoting her writing, suggesting an enduring and even growing fascination with her work, despite renewed controversy about O’Connor herself.

In January, O’Connor scholar Jessica Hooten Wilson published “Flannery O’Connor’s Why Do the Heathen Rage?”, a look at O’Connor’s unfinished novel through the lens of her other work and influences. Wilson told OSV News she hopes the culture is experiencing “a Flannery moment” beyond Catholic literary circles as next year’s centennial of the writer’s birth approaches.

She lamented that O’Connor, who produced two novels and 31 short stories, couldn’t have lived as long as her cousin Louise Florencourt, co-trustee of the Mary Flannery O’Connor Trust, who died at age 97 in July.

“We could have seen so many amazing O’Connor novels and stories, so many essays and letters from the devout genius about how to understand what it means to faithfully follow Christ in our time and place,” Wilson said. “We are all hungry for wisdom — wisdom we can see lived out in story so we can imitate it in how we too live — which is why we look back to O’Connor’s work and bring her forward into 2024.”

Wilson, the Fletcher Jones Endowed Chair of Great Books at Pepperdine University in California, plans to release lectures in the fall for “The Great Courses” on Audible “to share more about how to understand Flannery O’Connor and her scandalous faith,” she said.

In 2015, the U.S. Postal Service issued a Flannery O’Conner stamp for its “Literary Arts” series, and 2019 saw the publication of “Good Things Out of Nazareth,” a compilation of O’Connor’s correspondence with friends. That same year, “Flannery” — the first feature-length documentary about her life, co-directed by Jesuit Father Mark Bosco of Georgetown University and Elizabeth Coffman, director of the film and digital media program at Loyola University Chicago — won the first Library of Congress Lavine/Ken Burns Prize for Film.

“She’s so unique because she brings so many things together,” Father Bosco told OSV News of O’Connor. “I’m just fascinated that artists find in her a kind of muse, almost. These artists read her work, they experience her work, and they’re taken on a journey as artists.”

Angela Alaimo O’Donnell, a professor at Fordham University in New York who has taught O’Connor’s work for four decades, said she “really is a writer who we keep coming back to.”

“Even though she’s writing about a very specific place and time, her native South in the 1950s and 1960s, there is a timeless quality to O’Connor stories, so that she always is relevant, always has application to the time when people are reading her,” she said. “With all great writers, we’re constantly in the process of reassessing, ‘Well, what does this writer have to say to us now?'”

O’Connor’s frequent use of afflicted, disfigured and disabled characters “are indicators of brokenness in the person themselves,” O’Donnell told OSV News. “In O’Connor, everyone is broken, it’s just more obvious in some people than others, but it’s part of the human condition. It’s the inheritance of original sin. We’re all broken and we’re all in need of grace and mercy. So, I think people find that very compelling, even if they wouldn’t necessarily use that theological language.”

After writing a biography of O’Connor published in 2015, O’Donnell addressed, in her 2020 book “Radical Ambivalence,” O’Connor’s complex and contradictory attitudes toward race as a writer in Georgia during the Civil Rights Movement, in light of some of O’Connor’s previously unpublished letters. In The New Yorker, Paul Elie, a senior fellow at Georgetown University, criticized O’Donnell’s work and other efforts to elevate O’Connor while downplaying her racist remarks. O’Donnell, who disagrees with Elie’s view, said his criticism played a role in Loyola University Maryland removing O’Connor’s name from a residence hall in 2020, a decision which O’Donnell publicly opposed.

“Wildcat” includes some of O’Connor’s short stories that center on race and racism, and Hawke addressed the controversy in the April 30 Q&A. “One of the challenges for Flannery in her personal life and one of the challenges to a contemporary audience is the fact that she grew up in a Jim Crow South,” he said. “She was fed on the water and soil of a country that was rife with racism and she saw all of that. She never wrote about what it was like to be oppressed, because she didn’t know anything about that. But she wrote a lot about white hypocrisy, and she wrote about it very beautifully and with a sharp razor’s edge.”

Hawke’s inspiration came from his mother’s admiration for O’Connor’s writing. “In our house, Flannery O’Connor was the most important Southern writer in American literature, because that’s what my mother thought,” he said.

Then, as a teenager, Maya fell in love with O’Connor’s writing. Her fascination led her to O’Connor’s prayer journal from the writer’s time at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and the question of whether creative endeavors, such as writing and other arts can also be acts of worship, and if personal ambition can rise above self-centeredness to serve the greater good.

“I was so grateful as a father to have that conversational door opened,” Ethan Hawke said. “You could take a story like ‘Parker’s Back’ and talk about what does that mean? Why is it so upsetting? But I was so grateful to those stories and the writing because it just provoked real family discussion in a way that I wasn’t able to do on my own.”

When Maya approached her father about producing the film, he said it “seemed like a dream come to me, that your daughter would reach out to you about a subject matter that you care about.” He said that he made the film for literary audiences and O’Connor devotees, devout Catholics and spiritual seekers, and fans of his daughter’s work, which includes Netflix’s science-fiction horror drama “Stranger Things.”

In the final scene of “Wildcat,” O’Connor drags the furniture away from the wall of a room in her mother’s house, rearranging it into what Ethan Hawke described as “kind-of shrine,” to write in the middle of her room. She sits at her typewriter, her back to the window where she used to work.

For Hawke, that scene illustrates “a level of acceptance that … she was trapped in this home, that she couldn’t have the life she imagined, that she wanted.”

“But once she accepted that, she realized it was OK,” he said. “She could bring the world to her, and not only did she not need to go to any fancy place, she didn’t even need to look out the window.”

Coffman, the “Flannery” documentary co-director, was among the film’s co-executive producers. After the September premiere of “Wildcat” at Colorado’s Telluride Film Festival, she told OSV News the connection between creativity and faith was a central theme in the actors’ discussions. While Coffman knows evangelization was not the Hawkes’ intent, she thinks the film may have a powerful impact on viewers.

“I think,” she said, “the storytelling they accomplished, with her (O’Connor’s) commitment to both her faith and writing, will end up converting people.”

By Maria Wiering | OSV News