Howard Frank Mosher
Film history is littered with failed adaptations of novels. Oftentimes a film adaptation falls prey to the commercial time constraints of movies, and the necessity of wholesale excising of text. Sometimes it’s just a matter of poor casting decisions. Then there are authors like James Joyce and William Faulkner, whose stream-of-consciousness styles are for the most part unfilmable.
But occasionally, a writer and director’s artistic sensibilities coalesce with such kinship that their paths seemed destined to cross. Such was the case with director Jay Craven and celebrated Northeast Kingdom novelist Howard Frank Mosher
, who died from cancer on January 29 at the age of 74.
Jay Craven and Howard Frank Mosher
Mosher wrote 12 novels during his lifetime, including Points North,
which is set for posthumous publication this winter. Craven has directed four features and one short film based on Mosher’s stories, including his 1993 feature debut, Where the Rivers Flow North
Craven will commence an 11-town Mosher tribute tour on Thursday, July 27, at Next Stage Arts
in Putney. The program features a screening of Where the Rivers Flow North
and reflections by Craven on his collaborations with Mosher. One anecdote will detail the author’s role as a go-between on the Rivers
set between the director and the film’s troublesome star, the notoriously difficult Method actor Rip Torn.
“For me, personally, in ways that I didn’t necessarily anticipate, [Mosher’s death] affected me pretty deeply. In making the movies for years on end, these characters inhabit your imagination and they really become part of your DNA, in a way,” Craven says. “I just felt a sense of loss, and also a sense that it was important that Howard’s work — both in terms of our collaboration on the films, but also his books — continue to be encouraged for people to know, and especially for young people to read.”
Craven, now 66, settled in the Northeast Kingdom in 1974. It would be more than a decade before the aspiring filmmaker sat in the director’s chair. In the meantime, he founded Catamount Arts
in 1975 and began hosting arts workshops and a traveling film series that screened American classics and foreign films on 16mm. The series gained the attention of Mosher, who wrote an article for the Washington Post
in the mid-’80s praising Craven’s work as an advocate of the arts.
Craven, in turn, took notice of Mosher’s Post
piece. He called the writer and said he was interested in adapting his 1977 novel Disappearances
for the screen. The film rights were at the time owned by another producer, but the conversation eventually led to Craven’s short-film debut, “High Water” (1989), based on a 1973 Mosher short story that pits a 21-year-old farmer’s son and aspiring stock-car racer against his stubborn father and a Faulkneresque rainstorm.
Craven would later direct a 2006 adaptation of Disappearances
, starring Kris Kristofferson as a Prohibition-era whiskey runner on the Vermont-Québec border.
Craven grew up watching Western movies with his Texan grandmother. He likens the frontier morality of the Wild West to Mosher’s themes of a vanishing way of life and characters that are both heroic and self-destructive. Yet he also sees the influences of Shakespeare, Dickens and Paradise Lost
poet John Milton in Mosher’s distinctly regional prose.
“He had these multiple influences that blended into a kind of ‘Eastern,’ which would be the Eastern version of the Western,” Craven says. “There were differences from the Westerns, because there was always a pretty deep cultural sensibility in Howard’s characters, in the sense that there have been multiple generations in place. Whereas, in the Western, it tended to be that places were being settled and discovered for the first time.”
Mosher never shared a screenwriting credit, though Craven says he was always willing to provide advice on character development or plotting. He also wasn’t averse to playing the role of critic. Notably, Craven recalls, he had a quibble with the final scene of the Where the Rivers Flow North
adaptation, which wasn’t part of the book.
Craven says he’s surprised that Mosher’s novels aren’t more widely taught in Vermont schools. He notes that any proceeds from the tribute tour will be used to preserve the film adaptations, digitize the movies that haven’t already been converted from film, and prepare study materials for use in classrooms.
In terms of Mosher’s broader literary legacy, Craven believes that his friend and collaborator’s fiction, set in the American past, will continue to resonate during an era of climate change and shifting conceptions of nature.
“I think that a lot of Howard’s work — especially in a time of environmental crisis — gives us things to think about that make nature more than simply a backdrop, but something that provides meaning to our lives,” Craven says. “The effort to find meaning is ever present in our lives. I think we’re trying to make sense of who we are and where we are. I think, like any good fiction, Howard helps to stimulate those considerations.”
Tour dates and details are available here
. Tickets $5-12.