May 8, 2024 // National

‘Wildcat’ A Reminder of O’Connor’s Enduring Attraction

(OSV News) – Ethan Hawke knows “Wildcat,” his film about the life and imagination of Southern writer Flannery O’Connor, which was released on Friday, 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 on Tuesday, April 30.

Maya Hawke portrays Flannery O’Connor in the movie “Wildcat.” The OSV News classification is A-III — adults. Not rated by the Motion Picture Association. (OSV News photo/Oscilloscope)

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.

Had she lived longer, Wilson said, “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.”

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 led her to ponder 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 true 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, 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.”

Maria Wiering is Senior Writer for OSV NewS.

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