All the Way Home: James Agee’s Novel Death in the Family on Screen

James Agee’s novel “A Death in the Family” was first adapted to the stage by Tad Mosel, who changed its title to “All the Way Home,” the title of the screen version.

Like “Dark at the Top,” made in the same year, it is a family drama about the effects of a beloved father’s sudden death on his wife and son.

The narrative is divided into two parts: the first chronicles the family’s life, the second records the impact of his accidental death. The calmness and stability of everyday life is shattered abruptly by the tragic news that the father was killed in a car accident on his way to visit his ill father.

There are explorations into the 1916 Tennessee town, the story’s locale. The sounds of arriving and departing trains provide the natural music in town. Fascinated by trains, Rufus likes to stand at a special spot overlooking the railroad tracks and the train station. A lonely kid, with no friends of his
age, he is surrounded by adults: parents, uncles, and aunts. Rufus does not like his name because he believes “it’s a nigger’s name.”

In the first scene, father and son are watching a Chaplin movie, then take a meandering walk home, stopping to watch shop windows and have a drink at the saloon. The parents’ major concern is how to explain to Rufus his mother’s pregnancy. “You don’t need a minister to tell you how to raise your boy,” says the father, when his wife is concerned over “suppose he starts making connection between one thing and another.” At the end, following her husband’s advice, she simply puts her son’s hand on her belly.

An emotionally felt film, “All the Way Home,” lacks melodrama or overt conflicts, instead unfolding as a tactful, reverential ode to the family as a sacred institution.

In the first scene, set outdoors, the father tells his son, “It’s time to go home.” And in the last one, coming to terms with their loss, it’s the mother who says, “it’s time to go home.” The father represents an average man, lacking any special or radiant qualities. He is tender but strong, devoted to his family and yet independent.

The screen version lacks Agee’s powerful poetry and subjective style, which probed family life from a child’s point of view, stressing the anguish and bereavement of a loss of an idol.

Lacking a sharp or distinctive point of view, the passive camera records, instead of illuminating, events. Understated and restrained, the film is too bland, but it pays attention to detail, documenting the era through brass radiatored Model-T Fords, Buster Brown suits, long dresses, Tin Lizzies, and chewing tobacco ads.