Skip to content

Lonesome Dove Book Vs Movie Essay

he practice of trail-driving herds of beef cattle over long distances from ranch to railhead flourished for just a moment after the Civil War and before the widespread use of barbed wire. It was the tiniest fraction of our national experience and did not directly involve more than a few thousand people. But maybe more than anything else - more than wars, more than slavery, more than urbanization or immigration - it has animated a part of our imagination out of which flows a vital branch of popular culture. Cowboyana in the form of dime fiction and stage shows flourished even before the short era of the trail drives ended. It nourished movies and television when they were young. Even today, it seems to be everywhere: in clothing, in advertising, in political rhetoric.

Unlike other themes that have obsessed us, though, the trail drive has not made the transition from low art to high art very well. The South has ''Gone With the Wind'' but also Faulkner; the cowboy has ''Red River'' and J. Frank Dobie. It seems mysterious that so rich a subject has not produced a great novel - perhaps it has become so stylized that there is no juice left in it.

Readers who held out hope have been getting sustenance for years from the rumors that Larry McMurtry was writing a big trail-driving novel. As much as anyone, he knows the subject: he comes from a large west Texas family that he has described as ''cowboys first and last,'' and his essays show that he has done considerable digging around in obscure first-hand accounts of trail drives. Also, if the myth-making machine has expropriated the subject, well, Mr. McMurtry knows about that too. It is hard to think of an American novelist who has been so lucky in Hollywood for so long (''Hud,'' ''The Last Picture Show,'' ''Terms of Endearment'') without becoming a part of it. By now a cowboy novel probably would have to show some underlying awareness of the movies. Mr. McMurtry seems ideally equipped for that.

At its beginning, ''Lonesome Dove'' seems to be an antiwestern, the literary equivalent of movies like ''Cat Ballou'' and ''McCabe and Mrs. Miller.'' The novel's title comes from the name of a Godforsaken one-saloon town on the dusty south Texas plain near the Rio Grande. Two former captains in the Texas Rangers have retired from the long wars against Indians and Mexicans to run the Hat Creek Cattle Company - when a customer wants horses or cattle, the former lawmen drop into Mexico at night and steal them. One of the captains, Augustus McCrae, is a lazy, hard-drinking, falsely erudite old coot; the other, W. F. Call, is strong and silent in circumstances that don't call for strength or silence. Surrounded by a motley crew of cowboys, Mexicans, old Rangers and flea-bitten animals, they have been living this funky life for nearly 15 years.

Then an old Ranger comrade of theirs rides into town, on the lam because he accidentally killed a man in Arkansas. He suggests they drive a herd of cattle to the unsettled country in Montana, where he has been on his wanderings. In no hurry to stop the picaresque fun, Mr. McMurtry lets the idea of a cattle drive gradually take hold among his characters. Call steals some horses and a herd of cattle and lines up some cowhands; grumbling and wisecracking and pulling on his jug, McCrae ambles along; the old friend brings the town prostitute as his guest.

As they get under way, the novel's scope begins to become clear. Mr. McMurtry weaves a dense web of subplots involving secondary characters and out-of-the-way places, with the idea of using the form of a long, old-fashioned realistic novel to create an accurate picture of life on the American frontier, from Mexico to Canada, during the late 1870's. He gives us conversationless cowboys whose greatest fear is that they will have to speak to a woman, 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; being anti-mythic is a great aid to accuracy about the lonely, ignorant, violent West.

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. 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. Even Call and McCrae's ages - just at the far edge of middle age - are conducive to mellow, sad tallyings-up.

The characters in ''Lonesome Dove'' seems always to be putting their horses into easy lopes that could be sustained all day, and this is the way Mr. McMurtry writes. His writing is almost always offhand and laconic, with barely any sustained passages intended to be beautiful or fervent. He always has time for another funny minor character to pirouette on stage, or for McCrae to produce a new bon mot. And he leisurely pursues familiar themes - two friends in love with the same woman (''Leaving Cheyenne''), a 17-year-old coming of age (''The Last Picture Show''), a formidable middle-aged woman surrounded by terrified men who love her (''Terms of Endearment''). During the last decade or so, the idea that eccentricity is the best way to deal with life has permeated Mr. McMurtry's work, and he makes an awfully good case for it again here. The question is whether it is possible to be eccentric and ''major'' in the same novel.

The scenes that best put the matter to rest are the most traditionally Western ones - the gunfights, stampedes, hangings and horse-stealings. Every one of these is thrilling and almost perfectly realized. In describing violence, Mr. McMurtry does not need to raise the stakes with labored prose - they are already high. When a young boy rides into a nest of poisonous snakes in a river and dies of the bites, or when McCrae single-handedly fights off a band of Indians on an open plain with only a dead horse for shelter, it is unforgettable. S UCH moments give ''Lonesome Dove'' its power. They demonstrate what underlies all the banter, and they transform Call and McCrae from burnt-out cases into - there is no other word - heroes. They are absolutely courageous, tough, strong, cool, loyal, fabulously good fighters. They and their men live through incredible travails, and, once they get to Montana, it is a paradise, worth everything. When McCrae explains the journey to the woman he loves by saying ''I'd like to see one more place that ain't settled before I get decrepit and have to take up the rocking chair,'' it is moving, not silly. Whether this response is justified by the grandeur of their mission to tame the frontier, or conditioned by popular culture, it is there and cannot be denied.

All of Mr. McMurtry's antimythic groundwork -his refusal to glorify the West - works to reinforce the strength of the traditionally mythic parts of ''Lonesome Dove,'' by making it far more credible than the old familiar horse operas. These are real people, and they are still larger than life. The aspects of cowboying that we have found stirring for so long are, inevitably, the aspects that are stirring when given full-dress treatment by a first-rate novelist. Toward the end, through a complicated series of plot twists, Mr. McMurtry tries to show how pathetically inadequate the frontier ethos is when confronted with any facet of life but the frontier; but by that time the reader's emotional response is it does not matter - these men drove cattle to Montana!

The potential of the open range as material for fiction seems unavoidably tied to presenting it as fundamentally heroic and mythic, even though not to any real purpose. If there is a novel to be written about trail-driving that will be lasting and deep without being about brave men - and about an endless, harsh, lovely country where life is short but rich - it is still to be written. For now, for the Great Cowboy Novel, ''Lonesome Dove'' will do.

Nicholas Lemann is a national correspondent for The Atlantic.


For ''Lonesome Dove,'' his latest Texas novel, Larry McMurtry reached back to the stories he had heard of that vanished era when cattle were driven from his native Texas to railheads in Missouri and Kansas. ''It grew out of my sense of having heard my uncles talk about the extraordinary days when the range was open,'' he said by phone from Washington. ''In my boyhood I could talk to men who touched this experience and knew it, even if they only saw the tag end of it. I wanted to see if I could make that real, make that work fictionally.''

Since his reputation has been fashioned on portraying the degeneration of those myths in today's West, in novels like ''The Last Picture Show'' and ''Horseman, Pass By'' (on which the movie ''Hud'' was based), his latest book was something of a departure. But this time he was intrigued by the myths themselves, by how they endured so powerfully even though the trail-drive era lasted 20 years.

''I don't know,'' he said, ''except most of the men who participated in it were young men and the country they were going into was young country.

Almost everyone who participated felt that it was about the finest experience of their lives.'' Mr. McMurtry, who is 49 years old, once observed that Texans have retained something of the frontier spirit even though the frontier is lost, and he is a wry example of that notion. Like cowboys of yore, he too migrates - from Washington, where he is part-owner of a rare-book shop, to north central Texas, where he has a ranch near his boyhood home, to Hollywood, where he writes screenplays.

''I grew up in a herding tradition and that's determined everything I've done. I was never good at herding cattle, but writing is a way of herding words and rare books a way of herding books, and I suspect by my constant driving around the country I'm practicing a form of trail-driving, driving whatever happens to be ahead of me, the cars and the trucks, rather than cattle. There's a grain of truth in that.''

-- Joseph Berger

Return to the Books Home Page

As a general rule, movie adaptations of books are at worst horrible, and at best somewhere hovering above mediocre. It’s difficult to shoehorn a book’s numerous plot points, and beloved characters, into 90-120 minutes of running time. Heck, just look at the complaints about the inconsequential details left out of the various Harry Potter books.

Of course, there are exceptions to every rule. These are the top ten movies that are even better than the book.

10. LA Confidential

No one writes Los Angeles quite like James Ellroy, who knows the tone required for high quality noir about as well as anyone since Raymond Chandler. But if you try diving into an Ellroy book without ever having read one before, you may be a bit thrown by his very unique voice and storytelling style. His LA Confidential tells the intertwining stories of three very different cops, after a brutal murder that may or may not have been drug-related, and it quickly gets a lot more complex than that. When the movie version was released, it saw instant critical success and, over the years, has gained traction as one of the finest films of the 1990s. It’s flawlessly acted, exceptionally paced and plotted, and ends with a thrilling climax at an abandoned motel between the good guys and the bad guys.

9. Stand By Me

Normally when you think of Stephen King adaptations, you cringe and try to forget ever seeing stuff like The Langoliers or The Stand. Typically, King books that get turned into movies are cheesy made-for-TV schlock but, in the case of Stand By Me, based on the novella The Body, a terrific young cast was assembled to create one of the greatest coming-of-age movies ever filmed. The simple fact that they managed to assemble a group of child actors who weren’t just adequate, but really good – and yes, we’re including Corey Feldman here – is an incredible feat. The novella was well written, but nowhere near as memorable as the film.

8. Die Hard

First things first: yes, Die Hard was actually based on a book. In fact, the now-iconic protagonist (named John Leland in the books) was not originally portrayed on screen by Bruce Willis, but instead by Frank Sinatra in 1968’s The Detective. Die Hard is based on the novel Nothing Lasts Forever by Roderick Thorp, which in turn was written simply because Thorp had a dream about a guy being chased through a building by men with guns. Yes, that’s the entire inspiration for the book. The movie, on the other hand, is an incredible action film, and helped give birth to the modern action hero. It remains one of the greatest action films of all time.

7. Silence of the Lambs

Thomas Harris’s novel The Silence of the Lambs was a wildly popular book that continued his series featuring Hannibal Lecter, and introduced Clarice Starling. It was later adapted into a movie (obviously) that helped turn Anthony Hopkins, who had struggled to gain any footing in Hollywood, into a legitimate box office star and won Best Picture. One of the key differences between the book and the movie are that the book spends a lot more time pondering the sexual relationship and chemistry between Starling and her boss, Jack Crawford. Like, a lot of time. Hardly a conversation takes place between Lecter and Starling in which he doesn’t bring up the bubbling sexual tension between the young girl and her boss.

That’s fine for a book when you’ve got hundreds of pages to fill, but was thankfully mostly removed in the movie, because someone realized it would get a little creepy if Hopkins kept reciting entire passages of dialogue relating to Starling’s sex life. The book is great, but the tightened pace and terrific performances gives the movie a slight edge.

6. The Shining

Hey, look, another Stephen King book that was adapted into a movie! And hint: it won’t be the last one on this list. Who said King’s books can’t make good movies? Someone remind Hollywood of that so that we can finally get a Dark Tower adaptation.

Anyway, The Shining has become an all-time classic horror film. Directed by Stanley Kubrick and starring Jack Nicholson, it tells the story of a man’s slow descent into madness in an isolated and snowed-in hotel. It’s hard to imagine Jack Nicholson playing crazy, we know, but just go with it. Believe it or not, the movie and book are wildly different, and we believe Kubrick’s many changes only enhanced the story. The most stark change is probably the ending, of course, as the book has Jack temporarily regain his sanity in order to try to save his son, before being blown up by the hotel’s boiler. Meanwhile, the movie concludes with Jack chasing his kid through a hedge maze, never gaining respite from his madness, and ultimately freezing to death with a really freaking creepy look on his face.

5. Jaws

Let’s get this out of the way first: Jaws managed to both create the summer event movie and launch the career of Steven Spielberg, while giving Robert Shaw, Roy Scheider, and Richard Dreyfuss arguably their most iconic roles in their very distinguished acting careers. It was based on a novel by Peter Benchley, which was also a great success but featured some very different elements than the book. For example, the shark doesn’t die via awesome one-liner and explosion like he does in the movie, but instead just sort of peters out after getting some harpoons stuck in him. Oh, and Hooper (the Dreyfuss character) nails Chief Brody’s wife in the book, which is completely unnecessary and was rightfully deleted for the film. Hooper, probably due to karma, bites the dust in the book, which we’re glad was changed for the movie as well, because Richard Dreyfuss was just so adorable back then, wasn’t he?

4. The Shawshank Redemption

Originally titled Rita Heyworth and the Shawshank Redemption, this story was one of four novellas contained within the Stephen King book Different Seasons, along with The Body and Apt Pupil. The novella was well-written, and the movie followed basically the same plot but, as with Stand By Me, it was enhanced tremendously by being fully realized by an impeccable cast. The movie was not a particularly rousing success upon its release (in fact, it kind of bombed), but has gained incredible success and acclaim over the years. It was a Best Picture nominee, and it could be argued should have won, thanks largely to the tremendous central performances by Tim Robbins and Morgan Freeman. Actually, forget that “arguably” thing. Any movie featuring Morgan Freeman’s narration should win every award ever.

3. The Lord of the Rings

If you want to go down to the comments and curse us out for including Lord of the Rings right now, go ahead. We’ll wait for you to get it out of your system.

…there, feel better now? Look, we love Lord of the Rings. There’s a reason it was collectively named the greatest book of the 20th century. And while The Two Towers is superior on the page than on the screen, it could be argued that Fellowship suffers from so many tangents (including the whole ordeal with Tom Bombadil, for instance), and Return of the King’s book form was more or less an afterthought, while the movie is one of the most epic pieces of cinema ever filmed. Return of the King, the book, was relatively short and uneventful, apart from the whole Mount Doom thing. And the people who complain about the extended ending sequence of the movie would probably go crazy over the scouring of the Shire which, while one of the most beloved sequences of the books, goes on for far too long and seems anticlimactic, after everything that’s come before it.

2. The Princess Bride

Hey, so you know that book that Peter Falk reads to a young, adorable Fred Savage in The Princess Bride? Yeah, that was actually a real book. It was written by William Goldman, who would later go on to adapt the book into the movie of the same name. Goldman is a legendary Hollywood writer, so it should come as little surprise that he was able to so brilliantly translate his novel to the big screen. The Princess Bride is one of those rare films that managed to transcend the romantic comedy, thanks in large part to its quirky dialogue, fantastical elements, and legitimately rousing adventure. It should come as no surprise that sword fights work better on screen than on the page, after all.

1. Forrest Gump

Forrest Gump is a strange story about a simple man who finds himself in many bizarre situations throughout modern American history. But, while the movie maintained some of the odd quirkiness and unbelievable adventures of our titular hero, the book included many, many more, and they just got weirder and weirder as the plot progressed. The movie won Best Picture over another film on this list, Shawshank Redemption and, while it could be argued it wasn’t the actual best film of the year, it was certainly a milestone picture that deserved every bit of critical acclaim that it received upon its release.

And come on, Tom Hanks and Gary Sinise absolutely knocked this one out of the park in their respective roles. Of course, while we’re getting on the book about being too weird, it might have actually been cool to watch Forrest dealing with cannibals, or traveling to a far-off planet.