Wednesday, September 6, 2017


My Summer of Western Research™ has provided me a couple of opportunities to read books in conjunction with their film interpretations. Both examples were worthy adaptations. We’ll start with Hombre. (Novel by Elmore Leonard. Screenwriters Irving Ravetch and Harriet Frank, Jr. Director Martin Ritt.) I wrote about both the book and the movie individually over the past few weeks. Today I’ll do the compare and contrast.

As I’ve said before, Hombre may be Leonard’s best novel. The story is tight and the
characters are a diverse mix. He also shows the dialog traits that would serve him so well in his crime fiction, with undertones of smart-assery throughout. The movie does well to keep all those and uses them to good effect.

There are two key differences that may have had more to do with the facts of moviemaking in 1967 than any artistic choices. In the movie, John Russell (Paul Newman) visits the boarding house he has inherited and meets Jessie Brown, the woman who runs it. (Diane Cilento.) She learns Russell plans to sell the house and decides to make her exit on the same mud wagon he’s leaving on.

None of this is in the book, including her. Instead of both Jessie and Doris Lee Blake, the book has a woman referred to throughout as “The McLaren Girl.” She’s apparently a teenager taken by the Apaches and later rescued by the Army, on her way back to her parents. She serves the role of conscience played by Jessie in the movie. All Doris Lee did was whine and stand in to show what a bastard Cicero Grimes (Richard Boone) is. (In another interesting change, the heavy in the book is named Frank Braden, which is the name of the lawman gone bad in the movie, who also does not appear in the book.)

This is all frosting on a delicious cake compared to the core change made for the film. In the climactic scene, Newman’s Russell gives everyone a chance to carry the bag of money down the hill, which is what Grimes says it will take to save Mrs. Favor from dying of dehydration. Everyone passes until it comes Jessie’s turn. When she says she’ll go, Russell decides he will. The strong implication is that he just wanted to see if anyone else would do it.

In the book, everyone passes and Russell goes anyway, pretty much throwing it in their faces that for all the shit they talked about him, he’s the only stand-up one in the bunch. He and the McLaren girl bond a little before he leave, which shows a little more of his humanity.

I have to wonder if the reason for this key change might have been a perception that the audience wasn’t ready to see everyone bail on a woman in need, redeeming Russell’s sometimes questionable character when he won’t allow Jessie to go to her death. In the book, he makes them all understand they’re nothing but talk. They can plead all they want that the Favor woman can’t be left there to die, but no one will do anything about it but him. Either way, Russell gets his pound of flesh for the shabby treatment he’s been afforded. Only he, who freely admits he doesn’t care about the woman one way or the other after what she said about “those dirty Indians eat dogs,” has the humanity to save her. That’s quite a difference.

That’s not to say it makes the movie any less wonderful; its interpretation of Russell’s character is just as valid. If any of my film student friends has any thoughts on why these changes were made, I’d love to hear them.


Jack Getze said...

I've always had trouble with Russell's final actions in the book. Why the hell would he risk his life for these jerks? Just to show them he's a better man? To save a racist woman who deserves her fate? I thought that move was too heroic, not in keeping with his willingness to leave them all alone without water. The movie's version was more believable to me.

Still, the set up, the Russell character -- I agree it may be Elmore's best story. I love it.

Thanks for the discussion. Anything about Elmore, I'm in.

Dana King said...


I see your point but had a different take on it. To me, Russell based all of his decisions on letting people who were capable of it take care of themselves. The soldier in the Sweetmary stage station didn’t have to give up his ticket. He chose to. The other passengers could come with him or not. Up to them. Mrs. Favor was in a situation where she couldn’t help herself. He never would have let her die, but he was sick of everyone else telling him what a prick he was, so he gave them every chance to do what they said was the right thing themselves, while letting things play out with Grimes/Braden to see how things developed so Russell could come up with a plan that wouldn’t get him killed. I’m also sure he left the woman out there long enough that she’d be willing to eat dog, but he wouldn’t have left her to die. (Her husband was a different situation.)

To me, that’s what makes it not just a good story, but a great one. No one would go out for her but him, no matter what they said. The narrator sums it up with a comment along the lines of how it’s a lot easier to talk about risking one’s life until you actually have to do it. Add to that the irony of Russell coming up with a plan that would have worked, only to have it ruined (albeit inadvertently) by the woman he went down there to save.

Then there’s the writing, which I know you and I agree on.