Wise Blood was adapted into a feature film in 1979, directed by John Huston with screenplay by Benedict and Michael Fitzgerald. Brad Dourif plays Hazel Motes, Dan Shor plays Enoch Emery, Ned Beatty plays Hoover Shoats, Harry Dean Stanton plays Asa Hawks and Amy Wright plays Sabbath Lily Hawks. The director makes a cameo in the film, playing Hazel's fiery preacher grandfather. Michael Fitzgerald's father was a dear friend to O'Connor, and the executor of her estate. Like O'Connor, the Fitzgeralds were devout Catholics. The script, written by Michael and his brother Benedict, preserves the religious core of the film - among the comic moments Huston emphasizes with its banjo-laden score.
In an essay written for the Criterion Collection's release of the film, author and critic Francine Prose recounts a detail from the making of the movie that is crucial for considering it not only in and of itself but also, inevitably, alongside the original novel: "Huston had been under the impression that he was shooting a picture about the semi-ridiculous religious manias prevalent throughout the South," until Brad Dourif and the Fitzgeralds question him about the meaning of Hazel's incredible transformation in the end of the novel, which is unavoidably religious.
It might not be too ridiculous to hazard a speculation that had Huston tried to direct the movie with its religious meaning at the forefront of his mind from the very beginning that we would have ended up watching a film with a very different emotional tenor than that of the novel. Ironically, by focusing on the craziness and the antics, Huston preserved the subterranean religious space that would burst up when Hazel blinds himself in the end.
Of course, what makes the movie not only so faithful to the book but gripping as a movie itself is Dourif's spot-on performance of Hazel in all his restless, head-bent-forward intensity. To see Dourif's face concentrated in his vicious, piercing stare and to hear his inner torment and spite in a fine Georgian accent is like reading the novel again for the first time. The other characters - Asa Hawks, Sabbath Hawks, Hoover Shoats, et al - are also cast perfectly in their exaggerated, caricatured roles.
However, unavoidably, there are some points of the film that do not sync up perfectly with the novel. Enoch does not transform into the gorilla when he dons the stolen Gonga costume - as the prose is largely an attempt to get into Enoch's head; he may feel transformed, but he is still a man. In the film, Enoch approaches an old couple on a bench rather than on an overlook of the city. The pathos and connection to the theme of urban alienation are lessened in the film, but Enoch's sadness remains a poignant moment. Even if some filmic choices, like the score or the exaggerated comedy, may obscure the manic intensity just below the surface, nevertheless, for the film is successful in bringing the imagination of O'Connor onto the screen.