We watched Lonesome Dove as part of this summer’s Western research and loved it just as much as ever. I know everything that’s going to happen and most of the lines and it still moves me just as much. Lonesome Dove also serves as a valuable tool for keeping awards in perspective. The Emmy for mini-series that year went to War and Remembrance. Which do people remember now?
The re-viewing resonated so well with me I re-read the book. William Wittliff did as fine a job adapting Larry McMurtry’s Pulitzer-winning novel as any screen- or teleplay I’ve ever seen,creating a program that surpasses the source material. (More on that later.) The casting was spot on and the performances are true to the characters. Reading the book, I hear words attributed to Gus or Woodrow or Clara in the voices of Robert Duvall, Tommy Lee Jones, and Anjelica Houston more often than not. Dish’s mustache is exactly as described.
Virtually all of the dialog comes verbatim from the book and most of Wittliff’s additions come from internal monologs McMurtry wrote. Wittliff also knew not to do too slavish an adaptation. The character of Wilbarger does not appear, though he plays a small yet key role in the novel. Some of Jake’s experiences with the Suggs brothers and Frog Lip are condensed. (Editor’s Note: It occurs to me those who have not read the book or seen the TV show will not know who those people are. Sucks to be you. It’s your own fault. They’ve only been available 30 years now. Get busy.)
Simon Wincer was also an inspired choice for director. An Australian who’d never done a Western (he went on to do Quigley Down Under and three episodes of Comanche Moon), Wincer took an outsider’s look at America’s most unique and beloved genre. Some of the stereotypical camera shots are missing (some had to be thanks to shooting locations that required angles calculated to make things look appropriate, such as having New Mexico fill in for Nebraska), Wincer also appreciated how to show scopes of size, most notably when Gus trails through the Llano Estacado in search or Lori and Blue Duck, and when pursued by the Kiowas Blue Duck sends back to kill him.
Few, if any, television shows or films have attempted to show such a breadth and depth of any period, from human relationships that transcend time to the hardships unique to the American frontier and the types of people it attracted and spawned. In that it also emulates the book, which shows how an epic story need deal with only a year and a relative handful of people to be successful. The catch is, though the book won its big award and the series did not, the series is better.
To some this will seem like apostasy, but the book has significant flaws. Not in the most important elements of story and characters but in the writing itself. Lonesome Dove, for all its brilliance, badly needed an editor.
First, it’s too long; judicious cuts would take nothing away. About a quarter of the book is backstory. McMurtry works it in as he goes, but at times becomes so enthralled with the past lives of characters he seems to forget shit is happening right now in the reader’s experience and it would be nice to get back to it. He invests four pages examining Pea Eye’s thoughts on women, which would be okay except that Pea Eye doesn’t really have any. Worse, Pea Eye is a spear-carrier for much of the book. He’s needed, and Gus and Call depend on him as a reliable hand, but he’s there to perform functions, not to enhance the experience. This is not an isolated example. At some point just about every character has at least one extended reminiscence—in the case of Dish’s feelings for Lorena more than one—that does little or nothing other than slow things down.
I hear you. “But it’s such beautiful writing.” Much of the time it is. There are also too frequent examples of amateurish mistakes that would get a lesser-known writer tossed before an agent finished the first page. Repeated words in sentences. (“’A ladies man like me can hardly be expected to resist such a passel of ladies.” In the teleplay the line is, “A ladies man like me can hardly be expected to resist such a passel of beauties.” Much better.) Unclear speech attributions. Word order in sentences. (“’Newt Dobbs,’ Augustus said, after a pause.” Why not, “After a pause Augustus said, “Newt Dobbs?” Or an action to describe the pause. Something before he speaks though, so we don’t have to go back and add the pause retroactively.)
Point of view flits from character to character like a bee through a field of clover. McMurtry’s good enough to pull this off the overwhelming majority of the time, but there are still occasions when one wonders whose head we’re in, and why? I’m not here to question his talent nor the magnitude of the accomplishment, but that’s sloppy work. The book and his readers deserved better.
So, on balance, this is the rare situation where I prefer the visual medium to the book. Wittliff and Wincer knew what to keep, what to get rid of, and what to change to create a masterpiece from a brilliant book with significant flaws. If you’re among the handful referred to above who have experienced neither, get the DVDs. You’ll never be sorry.