(Clement Lee/Managing Editor)

Emory University students, Atlanta cinephiles and literature lovers all waited in a sprawling line outside The Tara Theatre, anticipating a screening of “Wildcat” (2023) on May 10. The film, which is based on the life and work of writer Flannery O’Connor, was followed by a Q&A conversation with director Ethan Hawke and his daughter, actress Maya Hawke. The Department of Film and Media and the Stuart A. Rose Manuscript, Archives and Rare Book Library co-hosted the screening, which complements the Rose Library’s current exhibit, “At the Crossroads with Benny Andrews, Flannery O’Connor and Alice Walker.” The exhibit is located on the third floor of the Robert W. Woodruff Library until July 12.  

A Georgia native, O’Connor was a fiction writer best known for her Southern Gothic style, blending grotesque elements with hallmarks of the United States Southern region. O’Connor was also a devout Catholic — a belief that shaped many of her stories, which frequently explored themes of religion and morality. While renowned for her striking, evocative body of work, O’Connor also received heavy criticism for her use of racist slurs in the titles of her stories and racial epithets in private correspondence.

“Wildcat” sheds light on O’Connor’s complex legacy. The film opens in 1950, depicting O’Connor’s struggle to publish her first novel, “Wise Blood” (1952) and her impending lupus diagnosis. Ethan Hawke strays from other chronological biopic films by blurring the lines between life and art. In the film, O’Connor (Maya Hawke) appears as both herself and as characters from her short stories such as “A Good Man is Hard to Find” (1953), “Good Country People” (1955),  “Everything That Rises Must Converge” (1965)  and “Parker’s Back” (1965). Although Hawke’s dual portrayal highlights the ability of writing to transcend the mundane, this filmmaking decision can also be disorienting for viewers unfamiliar with O’Connor’s short stories. 

Amid these narrative shifts, O’Connor reconciles with her desire to write within the constraints of her Catholic beliefs while battling lupus. In a scene featuring actor Liam Neeson as a priest, O’Connor laments, “My writing’s scandalous! Can it still serve God?” Delivered with acrimony, Maya Hawke’s compelling performance captures the often intricate, intertwined relationship between art and faith. O’Connor eventually realizes that theology can guide her stories instead of limiting them. 

In addition to exploring religion and race, O’Connor’s literary canon also features disabled and marginalized characters. “Wildcat” explores the theme of disability as well. However, the movie struggles to detail how O’Connor’s diagnosis led to the inclusion of disabled characters in her work.

In one fictional sequence, Maya Hawke transforms into a young woman named Hulga with a wooden leg, a character from “Good Country People.” A deceitful Bible salesman eventually takes Hulga’s leg from her, catalyzing a crude spiritual reckoning. In another scene adapted from “The Life You Save May Be Your Own” (1955), Tom T. Shiftlet (Steve Zahn), a one-armed carpenter, evokes a multifaceted Christ figure, prompting a reflection on the intersection of gender identity and disability. Still, O’Connor’s works often conflate disabled characters with the grotesque, making these portrayals a difficult watch for modern audiences.

The screening was followed by a live conversation with Ethan Hawke, Maya Hawke, author of “The Strange Birds of Flannery O’Connor: A Life” (2020) Amy Alznauer and Director Emerita, Stuart A. Rose Manuscript, Archives, and Rare Books Library Rosemary Magee (82G). During the conversation, Maya Hawke credited her father with the idea to interweave aspects of O’Connor’s personal life and stories.

“One of the challenges with making this film was that Flannery didn’t do a lot of cinematic stuff in her life,” Maya Hawke said. “Didn’t have a grand love affair or climb a giant mountain, or even fight off a vampire or anything like that. And so figuring out how to create plot within her life that didn’t have much was a difficulty until my dad had this incredible idea to tell her story, through her investigation of her own inner life and her reflections on herself and on her world.”

Ethan Hawke shared that he was introduced to O’Connor’s work when he first moved to Atlanta in 1980, where his mother sold textbooks to local universities and grew to love O’Connor’s writing. However, the director’s inspiration to create “Wildcat” ultimately came from Maya Hawke’s interest in required school readings.

“She started bringing me Flannery O’Connor too, and this film was born out of that,” Ethan Hawke said. 

Maya Hawke added that O’Connor’s ability to use imagination to create art drew her to the author. She explained that this sentiment is expressed during the film’s denouement when O’Connor moves her desk away from the window to the outside world and directly in front of her bedroom wall.

“This idea that is projected in ‘A Prayer Journal’ that art is the device to which you connect to something greater than yourself, to which you can travel the world even when your freedom is stunted — in Flannery’s case by lupus — and end with which you can connect it to a higher power and deeper within yourself,” Maya Hawke said. “It reverberated within me, and it was really powerful.”

Toward the end of the conversation, Alznauer brought attention to O’Connor’s complicated reputation for using racist language in her stories and personal correspondences. Ethan Hawke said that he became aware of O’Connor’s controversies after he started working on the film. Although Ethan Hawke acknowledged that it was important to dissect O’Connor’s language in her fiction, he did not believe the criticisms should be a reason to “stop talking about her.” 

“We decided that we do not believe, and some people disagree, that making a movie about somebody is an inherent celebration,” Maya Hawke said. “It is an exploration, inherently, and that the conversations that we had about race in the decision to make this film were the most interesting conversations we’d ever had about race as a family.” 

Correction (5/20/2024 at 12:48 a.m.): A previous version of this article stated that Rosemary Magee (82G) was the former Assistant Dean and Director of Summer Programs. This is outdated. Rosemary Magee (82G) currently serves as Director Emerita, Stuart A. Rose Manuscript, Archives, and Rare Book Library.

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Clement Lee (he/him) (24Ox) is from Virginia Beach, Virginia, and is on the pre-BBA track. Outside the Wheel, Clement can be found reading new books or going on long runs in the woods.

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Safa Wahidi (she/her) (23Ox) is from Sugar Hill, GA, majoring in English and political science. She is an active member of the Emory Muslim Student Association and serves as Co-President of the Young Democrats of Oxford College. Outside of the Wheel, Wahidi enjoys writing fiction, watching rom-coms and anticipating the next Taylor Swift album. You can find her wandering around the nearest Barnes & Noble, tea and Jane Austen novel in hand.