Early in Ethan Hawke’s new film, Wildcat, a young Flannery O’Connor (Maya Hawke, Hawke’s daughter) tells a skeptical editor that she’s “amenable to criticism—but only within the sphere of what [she’s] trying to do.” That editor doesn’t end up publishing the work in question, perhaps illustrating that the gulf between what a piece of art attempts and what it achieves can be hard to bridge, no matter the affection the artist might have for the material.

As O’Connor once admitted herself, a biopic about the author is a tall order. An epigraph of one biography quotes her: “There won’t be any biographies of me because, for only one reason, lives spent between the house and the chicken yard do not make exciting copy.” Indeed, she spent most of her adult life at her mother’s home, in Georgia, constricted by the management of her symptoms of lupus, the disease that killed her father and would eventually kill her, at the age of 39. Deeply Catholic, she passed her days at mass and at her writing desk. These are not the most cinematic of circumstances, but a dark Southern universe expanded from the keys of her typewriter.

Director Ethan Hawke (he also cowrote the screenplay, with Shelby Gaines) weaves scenes from O’Connor’s short stories into the drama of her life in the years before she became an established force in American literature. In juxtaposing her life and her fiction, he takes a similar approach to that of Paul Schrader’s Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters, a 1985 film that intersperses scenes from a mercurial Japanese author’s life with sequences from some of his most famous novels. Hawke’s twist has the main players in the film’s biographical sections doubling as the characters in the stories. It allows for a range of performances from, among others, Maya Hawke, Laura Linney (who plays O’Connor’s mother), and Cooper Hoffman, to varying degrees of success.

O’Connor was known for her singular Southern voice; her unflinching use of violence; her memorable characters, in all their wretchedness; and her obsession with the difficulties and contradictions of faith, and her stories contain more multitudes than many films made today. The transition from page to screen has yielded mixed results in previous adaptations of O’Connor’s work. A version of “The Life You Save May Be Your Own,” for one, featured a miscast Gene Kelly playing a nefarious drifter. Instead of guiltlessly abandoning his new wife at a diner, he returns to her after brief contemplation, completely changing the meaning of the story. This film doesn’t escape similar difficulties.   

The biographical action in Wildcat takes place mostly around the time O’Connor was diagnosed with lupus. The diagnosis predated the publication of her first novel and her first collection of stories, so some of the drama of the film comes from her desire to write something that will endure in the face of the debilitating realities of her disease. In a series of voice-overs, sometimes in the form of letters to the poet Robert Lowell (a lifelong friend and perhaps unrequited object of her affection), sometimes in the form of direct prayers to God—both drawn from actual letters and from a journal of O’Connor’s collected prayers—we are exposed to O’Connor’s lifetime contemplation of faith and the earnestness with which she approached her work.

There’s a care given to O’Connor’s desperation to understand the role of God’s grace (one of the central themes of her fiction) in her life while still heeding her writerly ambition. Maya Hawke gets to show off her range here and elsewhere: with the delicate balance of confidence and insecurity O’Connor displays as an outsider graduate student at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop; in a poignant scene in which she lies in bed, riddled with pain from swollen joints, tormented by the conviction that her writing is keeping her from God. Liam Neeson, in a welcome cameo as an Irish priest who’s never read Joyce (the writer’s works were banned in Ireland, he says) assures her that she should feel no despair if her writing is honest and her conscience is clear.

The seriousness with which the film handles O’Connor’s desire to write meaningful stories—not to mention the care with which Hawke seems to have approached this project—makes the film’s hollow adaptations of the O’Connor stories all the more disappointing. The film offers a murderers’ row of short fiction—“The Life You Save May Be Your Own,” “Revelation,” “Parker’s Back,” “Everything That Rises Must Converge,” and “Good Country People,” all given copious screen time—but none of Hawke’s reimaginings approach the power of O’Connor’s prose.

The best O’Connor stories perform a sort of magic trick. They simultaneously horrify and amuse. They feel deeply specific and true, and yet they somehow read as universal allegories. That’s a lot to squeeze into any one adaptation, much less a series of them within a biopic. Still, despite the wealth of characters Hawke has to draw from—a one-armed grifter with a dastardly scheme to wed and then abandon a young, disabled woman; an atheist who tattoos the image of Jesus onto his back to woo his violently religious wife; a smooth-talking Bible salesman who steals glass eyes and prosthetic legs—none are alive on-screen the way they jump from O’Connor’s pages.

Some of this has to do with the performances. Linney’s Southern accent, acceptable as Regina O’Connor’s, becomes exaggerated and cartoonish when the actress portrays less savory fictional characters. Steve Zahn’s turn as the one-armed drifter gestures toward the character’s comic overtones but doesn’t portray the simmering darkness beneath the charade of his con. Maya Hawke mostly doesn’t have much to do in the stories, and she doesn’t always make sense as the character she’s meant to play. Genders are changed while appearances are left unaltered, creating more alignment between biography and fiction than is perhaps fair.

A word always associated with O’Connor’s creations is “grotesque.” She once said, “Anything that comes out of the South is going to be called grotesque by the Northern reader, unless it is grotesque, in which case it is going to be called realistic.” Ethan Hawke doesn’t quite miss the mark as much as O’Connor’s adversary, “the Northern reader,” but these adaptations are missing something fundamental. O’Connor’s characters often have terrible, ignorant, racist views. They can be irredeemable or pathetic or comic. But in O’Connor’s fiction, they are always offered the possibility of grace, even if it can only be delivered through violence. O’Connor’s fixation on the elusive possibilities of grace is contemplated at great length in the sections of the movie that deal with her life, but grace’s integral function in her stories is missing.

Without grace, the stories feel more like comic vignettes loosely connected to the biographical realities of O’Connor’s life, and less like the powerful works that still captivate readers today. If I had gone into the film not knowing the stories, I don’t know if I would have pursued them. Because I do know the stories, the film made me return to them.