On missing the essence of a story: The Revenant

The producers of Hollywood films apparently think revenge is a much more compelling movie subject than is forgiveness.  I just finished reading The Revenant by Michael Punke, the book on which the Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu movie, starring Leonardo Di Caprio, was based.

While Punke has no problem admitting  that he used a great deal of poetic license in his telling of the story, his book fails to come to terms with the fact that though Glass may have initially been compelled by revenge after being abandoned and left to die after his mauling by a grizzly bear in 1823, in the end, he did not choose to exact revenge when reunited with the two men who left him to die.

Frederick Manfred’s novel Lord Grizzly, on the other hand, written in 1954, did not shy away from Glass’s ultimate forgiveness.  But that theme did not attract the attention of a director who was the recipient of multiple Academy (and other) Awards.  In Hollywood, revenge is apparently considered much more riveting.

When the movie first came out, the Argus Leader interviewed Frederick Manfred’s son Fred. “Fred, who lives in Luverne, says that he has no plans to see the movie, which he sees as a lost opportunity. In embracing the notion of bloodthirsty revenge for DiCaprio’s character rather than forgiveness, as Manfred espoused in his work, he believes the filmmakers missed the essence of what makes Lord Grizzly so special.

‘We’re a little more enamored with Hugh Glass out here because he did the right thing in the long run,’ says Fred, 61.  ‘Whether it was a spiritual awakening or the way we grew up, we admire him for going through that crawl, finding the guys who left him behind and then ultimately deciding to let it go.'”

Maybe being mauled by a Grizzly and left with what should have been mortal wounds, being abandoned by one’s companions, crawling hundreds of miles to the nearest fort through what is now South Dakota, only to be subsequently attacked by hostile Indians, nearly frozen to death, and narrowly escaping starvation, has more of an impact on those who grew up in the northern plains.  Fredrick Manfred, from Luverne, MN, perhaps understood the transformative impact of putting oneself through even more trauma in order to exact revenge than does Punke.  Perhaps he was more aware of the kinds of decisions that a violent, relentlessly difficult environment demands of all who are at its mercy, even those who make a choice to survive at the expense of others.

What would Hugh Glass have done if he had had to make that choice?   What if he had been the one in imminent mortal danger, having to choose whether to save his own life or the life a man who, by any rational estimation, would die anyway. We don’t know.  But maybe that’s the conclusion he came to in the end.  To forgive an act he well might have chosen himself had the roles been reversed.

The Revenant, $8.00 at The Book Shop.

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The Homesman is great, until it isn’t

This fall there will be a new motion picture released based on The Homesman, by Glendon Swarthout (author of The Shootist, among others). The film stars Tommy Lee Jones as George Briggs, a claim jumper, who agrees to help Mary Bee Cuddy (Hilary Swank) with the task of transporting a group of insane women from Nebraska to Iowa. Its US release is scheduled for November 7, 2014.

In addition to Jones and Swank, “The Homesman” also stars Meryl Streep, Grace Gummer, Miranda Otto, Hailee Steinfeld, William Fichtner, James Spader, John Lithgow, and Tim Blake Nelson.

The novel is a great story, giving us a look into the lives of men and women who during the 1850s, left their homes and moved west to the Nebraska and Dakota territories. Our history books didn’t tell us about the women who lost their minds on the plains, enduring dead children, poverty, isolation, predators, abusive husbands, and unbearable winters.

One spring the circuit riding preacher finds that during the most recent, and not quite over, winter, four women on his large and circuitous route have gone insane. He has a plan to have them taken to Hebron, Iowa, where a church group will pay to transport them back to their families further east. But who will take them?  The 4 husbands are to draw lots to see which one of them is destined to be “the homesman,” the one who takes them on the long, dangerous, five week journey to Iowa. One husband refuses to be a part of the lottery. His lot is taken up by a single woman, Mary Bee Cuddy, who after having taught school for a year on the frontier, came into an inheritance and purchased her own farm. She is known to all as a hard working, wise, strong, helpful woman who can do “anything a man can do.” She is thirty-one, tall, and “plain as an old bucket.” (Hilary Swank does not come to mind.) She loses the lottery, and as their contribution, the other husbands pay to equip her with a wagon, team, and provisions for the trip.

As the time nears to leave, Mary Bee begins to doubt that she can make the trip without help. The day she picks up the wagon and mule team, she happens across a claim jumper, sitting on his horse under a tree with a noose around his neck. We have been told the story of how he comes to be in this precarious situation, but to Mary Bee, the sight of him is astonishing. She approaches and asks how he happened to end up waiting to be hung when his horse steps away. After a discussion Briggs agrees to “do anything” for her if she cuts him loose and saves his life. You can imagine what she asks of him. The next day they pick up the women and set out.

Mary feels it is her responsibility to get these women to Iowa. She is determined to do it because nobody else would  (or could, for that matter, after meeting the husbands), and feels honor-bound to accomplish the task. She is strong, forthright, determined, and capable. The journey is difficult, dangerous, the weather nearly kills them, they run out of food, but together, Mary Bee and Briggs come to a workable relationship (though she believes him to be “a cull”.)

What happens next I will not tell you, so as not to spoil the entire story, but I will tell you that it is wholly unbelievable.    Given Mary Bee’s personality, her experience, her honorable nature, her character would never have done what Swarthout has her do.  Apparently, he feels this completely out of character plot device is necessary in order to have his story turn out the way he wants it to, his already well drawn characters notwithstanding.

The rest of the story, therefore, is a disappointment, or at least it was to me.  Given such a fascinating premise, great fully developed characters, and writing that is moving without being overblown, Swarthout betrays his beautifully written novel by selling out its best character.