Greatest Book-to-Film Adaptation Ever! (Pt. 2)

About those hints from Part 1

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…for those of you who guessed Lonesome Dove, congratulations, you are correct.* Lonesome Dove, the epic 6.5-hour miniseries is indeed my pick for the greatest book-to-film adaptation ever.

The Book

LarryMcMurtry_LonesomeDoveDemonstrating a knack for narratives set in contemporary Texas with such novels as Horseman, Pass By (1961), The Last Picture Show (1966) and Terms of Endearment (1975), it was with great anticipation that author Larry McMurtry took on the old West with his 1985’s Lonesome Dove. Winner of the 1986 Pulitzer Prize for fiction, the sprawling novel (843 pages hardcover, 945 paperback) tells the story of a cattle drive from Texas to Montana in 1876. At once hopeful and hopeless, funny and unbearably tragic, violent and pastoral, and bursting with dozens of vivid characterizations, McMurtry’s magnum opus easily earns its place in the pantheon of great American novels. If you haven’t already read it, The Conflicted Film Snob humbly entreats you to do so. And don’t give me any of that “it’s too long” crap. First off, you don’t read enough. So this’ll be good for your brain. Second, you’re going to have to trust me when I say that, from the first line (“When Augustus came out on the porch the blue pigs were eating a rattlesnake–not a very big one.”) to the very last (“The woman,” Dillard whispered. “The woman. They say he missed that whore.”), the pages fly by. And if for some reason you don’t like it (i.e., you have crappy taste), you can always use it as a stepladder in the kitchen. Or something to prop up that rusted-out chassis you’ve had laying around the front lawn for a decade now:

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The Film

How this 384-minute adaptation (broadcast over four nights on CBS in February 1989) succeeded so brilliantly is a bit of a mystery. Not only was its source novel as long as the King James’ Bible, not only was it produced for television, that boxy, odiously low-definition medium totally inappropriate to visualize McMurtry’s wide vistas, but the man put in charge of the whole production, Simon Wincer, had little in his directing CV (Phar LapD.A.R.Y.L.?) to convince anyone that he was going to do anything but butcher a classic. Somehow, though, Mr. Wincer found a way to keep his worst directorial instincts at bay. Of course, it didn’t hurt that he was working with a script adapted from a very cinematic novel. Or that his cast was uniformly terrific. Or that he was wise enough to hire Douglas Milsome, the well-regarded British cinematography who cut his teeth with Kubrick:

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But credit where credit is due: Wincer really did some great work here, for which he rightly was awarded a best-director Emmy. (If only he’d announced his retirement while accepting the award, gone out on top like Barry Sanders. Alas, no such luck, which paved the way for future Wincer projects, including Quigley Down Under, Free Willy, Operation Dumbo Drop and what may well be the worst movie ever made, 1991’s Harley Davidson and the Marlboro Man).

As in the book, the film opens relatively small, on a south-Texas backwater known as Lonesome Dove, where a couple of retired Texas Rangers, Captain Augustus “Gus” McCrae (Robert Duvall) and Captain Woodrow F. Call (Tommy Lee Jones), now co-own the Hat Creek Cattle Company & Livery Emporium:

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Despite their lifelong friendship and intense loyalty to each other, Gus and Call have something of a prickly relationship, due in no small part to Gus being an inveterate a drinker, womanizer and motormouth, whereas Call is bull-headed, unemotional and nearly silent.

Gus and Call

The plot of Lonesome Dove kicks into gear when a former comrade, Jake Spoon (Robert Urich), on the lam for accidentally killing a dentist in Fort Smith, AK, and chock full of tales of the pristine big-sky beauty of Montana, convinces Gus and Call to pull up stakes in Texas and drive a herd of cattle north to establish a new working ranch. Says Gus at one point, ”I’d like to see one more place that ain’t settled before I get decrepit and have to take up the rocking chair.”

Jake Spoon oozing his particular brand of charm

Recruited to accompany them are, among others: Pea Eye Parker (Tim Scott), Newt Hobbs (Rick Schroder), “Dish” Boggett (D.B. Sweeney), Josh Deets (Danny Glover) and Lorena Wood (Diane Lane), the latter a local hooker-with-a-heart-of-gold, the rest loyal employees of the Hat Creek Cattle Company:

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The scope of the film (and the book) soon expands as the Hat Creek crew, under the cover of darkness, cross from Texas into Mexico to fortify their endeavor with 2,500 head of stolen cattle and horses and subsequently hit the trail for points north. It’s also here that Wincer begins to weave in a variety of far-flung subplots, including those of July Johnson (Chris Cooper)…

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…the sheriff of Fort Smith who’s been bullied into pursuing the fugitive Jake Spoon; Sheriff Johnson’s no-good pregnant wife Elmira (Glenne Headly), who sneaks from Fort Smith right after her husband to be with her lover, Dee Boot; Sheriff Johnson’s in-over-his-head deputy, Roscoe (Barry Corbin)…

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…who heads out to warn July of his wife’s treachery; the notorious Mexican/Indian bandit Blue Duck (Frederic Forrest)…

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…who sadistically tortures, murders or sells into slavery anyone unlucky enough to cross his path; Clara (Anjelica Huston)…

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…Gus’ one true love and, because of an invalid husband (he was kicked in the head by a horse), now sole provider/protector of a family near the Platte River in Nebraska; and, finally, a psychopathic gang of robbers Jake Spoon falls in with who’ve developed a taste for hanging and burning their victims.

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Just like McMurtry’s novel, Wincer and his crew deftly handle these disparate storylines until, inevitably and artfully, they converge with consequence in what was called the “lonely, ignorant, violent West” by writer and critic Nicholas Lemann in his June 9, 1985, review of McMurtry’s novel.

“He gives us conversationless cowboys whose greatest fear is that they will have to speak to a woman,” continues Lemann in the same review, his words just as appropriate to Wincer’s film adaptation as to McMurtry’s novel. “Beastly buffalo hunters, murderous Indians, destitute Indians, prairie pioneers, river boat men, gamblers, scouts, cavalry officers, prostitutes, backwoodsmen; open plains and cow towns; the Nueces River and the Platte and the Yellowstone. Everything about the book feels true.

“Mr. McMurtry plows right into the big themes. The lack of a good reason for Call and McCrae’s epic trail drive–‘Here you’ve brought these cattle all this way, with all this inconvenience to me and everybody else, and you don’t have no reason in this world to be doing it,’ McCrae says to Call at one point–makes the drive seem oddly profound.

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It becomes a way of exploring whether what gives our lives meaning is the way we live (as Call and McCrae believe, though in different ways), or what we accomplish, or nothing at all. The trail drive and the turns of plot provide many loves and deaths by which to measure the degree of meaning in the frontier’s codes and imperatives.”

As with the novel, the film version of Lonesome Dove is storytelling on a grand scale, its powerful narrative superseding any visual limitations imposed on the production by television’s low-fi technology of the day. Sure, in a perfect world The Conflicted Film Snob would’ve loved to witness Lonesome Dove‘s take on the American frontier, replete with whoring, gunfights, stampedes, river fordings, hangings, horse-stealing and murderous rattlesnake dens, on the big screen and in proper  ‘scope aspect ratio to showcase the West’s vast open spaces.

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Then again, he must remember that some of the finest studio Westerns released before the widescreen revolution of the 1950s were filmed in the same television-like 4:3 ratio, classics such as The Naked Spur (1953), Stagecoach (1939), High Noon (1952), Red River (1948), My Darling Clementine (1946) and Winchester ’73 (1950). So maybe The Conflicted Film Snob needs to get over himself.

The Cast

What can one say other than Lonesome Dove features a veritable murderers row of accomplished and up-and-coming talent, all doing incredible work. Robert Duvall, Tommy Lee Jones, Angelica Huston, Chris Cooper, Diane Lane. And the roster goes on and on.

As covered in Part One of this post, anyone who’s read a book comes away with an image of who the characters should look like.  This unfortunate baggage is no doubt a plague to casting directors. However, despite the impossibility of pleasing everyone’s expectations, they can at least come close by staying true to the author’s description. Which is why there’s no excuse for the film adaptation of The Bonfire of the Vanities to cast Bruce Willis over someone like Michael Caine as Peter Fallow, a British [emphasis mine] character who’s described by Tom Wolfe as “head on, he looked a young and handsome thirty-six…his widow’s peak and the longish wavy blonde hair that flowed back from it still looked…well, Byronic…” WTF?

Thankfully, Lonesome Dove suffers from no such idiotic casting decisions (which, admittedly, often come from pressure from the studio suits). Every actor here is pitch-perfect. I truly can’t think of two actors more appropriate for Gus and Call than Robert Duvall and Tommy Lee Jones. They were literally put on this earth to play those characters.

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Final Thoughts

Wincer, aided in no small part by the great performances he coaxed from his actors, a script respectful but not slavish to its source novel and great outdoor cinematography, accomplished something seemingly impossible back in those dark days of SD television. He created an indelible cinematic experience. 

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Lonesome Dove is available on Blu-ray, The Conflicted Film Snob’s preferred format in–bonus!–a high-definition widescreen version (long story short: they were able to widen the image via a soft matte when remastering for home video). Which is why all the images shown throughout this post are in a 16:9 aspect ratio rather than 4:3, which was how the film was originally presented in CBS in 1989. So basically what you’re getting looks and sounds better by a factor of 10 than what aired on TV all those years ago.

*How does one arrive at Lonesome Dove from those images all the way at the beginning of this post?

  • Alan Rickman co-starred in 1990’s Quigley Down Under, a mediocrity directed by Lonesome Dove-helmer Simon Wincer about a sharpshooter (Tom Selleck) traveling to Australia t0 shoot dingos for Rickman’s rancher.
  • Australia is Wincer’s birthplace.
  • Don Johnson starred with Mickey Rourke in 1991’s Harley Davidson and the Marlboro Man, another Wincer-helmed project, one so bad the Directors Guild of America should’ve revoked Wincer’s membership immediately after the film’s premiere.
  • Willy the orca was the featured fish in 1993’s Free Willy, yet another Wincer-directed mediocrity.
  • Lonesome Dove was made for television, broadcast on CBS in February 1990.
  • Jason Bateman played the insufferable Derek Taylor on the TV series Silver Spoons, which starred a pre-pubescent Ricky Schroeder, the very one who went on to have a breakthrough adult role in Lonesome Dove.

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