I wouldn’t know a thing of Will Weaver or his rather charming story, “A Gravestone Made of Wheat,” had the story not been adapted into the movie Sweet Land. I find myself rather disappointed that the most memorable line from the film, “Banking and farming do not mix,” is nowhere near appearing in the story.
The story revolves around a pair of resisting moves made by Olaf, a Norwegian immigrant farmer, and Inge, his German immigrant wife. First, in the years following the First World War, the pair is denied permission to marry by government officials who assume, apparently, that German subversion will come first to the northern prairies and in the form of a twenty-something girl. Eventually, the couple simply assume their married state and live it out for nearly half a century. Then, when Inge dies, the sheriff insists that she cannot be buried on the farm. Again, Olaf, this time aided by his sons, resists, burying Inge and then re-plowing the entire field to make locating her grave nearly impossible.
I find myself wondering if Weaver might have been inspired by Wendell Berry’s story “Fidelity,” which involves another “illegal” burial. Certainly both stories deal with the all-too-real issue of intrusive government attempting to regulate all aspects of our lives and our deaths.
What I find truly intriguing in the film adaptation, however, is the attempt that the filmmakers made to create complicity in this intrusion. The local minister, played as well as the unintentionally bipolar character could be by John Heard, seems to move between welcoming and ostracizing Inge as easily as the average American man moves between channels on TV. Religious folk, the movie reminds us, are almost uniformly bigots and legalists. Happily, the minister does come around to behave like a decent fellow, but not before practically casting the couple into the outer darkness for the unforgivable trespass of dancing on their front porch in broad daylight.
Similarly, director Ali Selim manages to take shots at bankers in the form of a bloated Ned Beatty. Beatty’s character takes a certain amount of perverse glee in foreclosing on his brother-in-law. This brother-in-law has clearly spent recklessly, buying a tractor and a car, luxuries that the more productive and sensible Olaf has foregone. The film places no real blame on the prodigal behavior of a bad farmer, but pulls no punches when it comes to the greed and heartlessness of the banker.
Neither of these issues, the anti-Christian or the anti-banker, appears in Weaver’s story. He seems to hold his irritation for the forces of bureaucracy that intrude into decent people’s lives. By cluttering the film up with these two additional themes, Selim creates a world of “everybody’s crummy but you and me.” That’s a shame. A lovely film, it didn’t need a trio of villains to be effective. On the other hand, the film is more enduring than Weaver’s story.