I first saw the TV miniseries adaptation of “Lonesome Dove” in the early 90s, about four years after it premiered. I didn’t read the novel until this summer. The movie was and probably always will be one of my favorites, but after reading the novel I’m finding some important differences between the two, that I’d like to lay out in this post.
We’ll start out with the biggest differences and work outward to trivia.
Nothing but spoilers from here on out!
In both book and movie, Gus says that Call can’t admit that Newt is his son because the whole episode with Maggie would remind him that he’s like everybody else, and he can’t admit that. Gus is explaining all this to Newt, who replies that Call “ain’t human like everybody else” (five minutes into Part 4 of the movie; ch. 93 of the book). But in the movie I was not quite sold on that explanation. It left me confused. Is it that the mere presence of Newt reminds Call that he visited a whore once out of human need? The bad taste of one memory alone is keeping him from embracing his son?
Reading the book many years later, I learned something else about Call: he feels himself bound to certain principles, especially hard work; the memory of his visits to Maggie seems to offend that principle for him as well. For him, to be “like everybody else” doesn’t just mean human need, or merely visiting whores; it also means slacking off from the only important thing in his mind, which is work. In the movie I just took him to be introverted, and proud in some way of not needing people the way others do; and that’s part of it, but in the book he also feels shamed by anything that looks to him like laziness or shirking.
Maybe even more importantly, it turns out that Call in the book is haunted by the memory of failing someone. Yes he’s ashamed of going to see a whore, against his main principles, but it’s the memory of failing Maggie that really haunts him; he turns the memory over in his mind repeatedly. And Newt is a living reminder of all that.
In both book and movie Gus argues that Maggie was Woodrow’s one chance to be like everyone else and that Call doesn’t want to admit that he made the wrong choice in passing it up. But Gus is talking about the chance to be human, to be like everyone else. There’s more to it than that, something more bitter:
Call got his rifle out of the scabbard and cleaned it, though it was in perfect order. Sometimes the mere act of cleaning a gun, an act he had performed thousands of times, would empty his mind of jarring thoughts and memories—but this time it didn’t work. Gus had jarred him with mention of Maggie, the bitterest memory of his life. She had died in Lonesome Dove some years before, but the memory had lost none of its salt and sting, for what had happened with her had been unnecessary and was now uncorrectable. He had made mistakes in battle and led men to their deaths, but his mind didn’t linger on those mistakes; at least the battles had been necessary, and the men soldiers. He could feel that he had done as well as any man could have, given the raw conditions of the frontier.
But Maggie had not been a fighting man—just a needful young whore, who had for some reason fixed on him as the man who could save her from her own mistakes.ch. 46
All this makes it more convincing, why Call would be keeping his son at a distance. It’s still a main failing of Call’s – he’s failing his own son now, which is worse than the first failure – but the book makes it intelligible.
In the movie, when Call is against the idea of Lorena joining them on the drive, I thought that was just his introversion again: pure discomfort with women, and a dose of old-fashioned sexism. In the book he’s also concerned, justifiably, that his men will start fighting over a woman; he’s obsessed, again, with getting work done and running a successful enterprise.
Lorena is more independent-minded in the book, not attached to Jake emotionally; she’s using him. In the movie she’s entirely a passive figure, but in the book she’s more in line with the independent Lorena you see in the sequel, “Streets of Laredo”. Lorena still cries in both book and movie, but with some differences. In the book, she feels there is no use in crying, and McMurtry emphasizes this point. Lorie in the book retreats into a protective silence during her captivity and even after Gus and July ride in shooting — but McMurtry does have her crying many weeks later, at the idea of losing Gus to another woman. The movie has her crying, instead, in the earlier rescue scenes. One of those is the card-playing scene at Adobe Walls, where Gus and Lorena have taken refuge on their way back to camp. That scene ends the second episode of the miniseries, and it’s the one place where I think the movie is clearly superior to the book. Crying at this moment makes perfect sense and takes nothing away from Lorie. This, and Gus’ words encouraging her to live and to know that “you’re safe now,” are faithful elements of the novel — not invented, not changed, but distilled into an unforgettable moment.
On the other hand, the movie keeps it ambiguous whether Lorena is raped by her captors. But such are the requirements of television. Many of the things done in the book to innocent victims like Lorie, or July’s companions, are sanitized onscreen, and though you may gain a wider audience this way, you lose something else. This is one way in which I think “Lonesome Dove” the book loses, not by being translated into a movie as such, but by being adapted for television specifically. Certainly you can capture more of the novel in a six-hour miniseries than in a feature-length film, but something was nevertheless lost.
For me the best chapter of the book, which happens also to be the longest, is the one that introduces Clara and her life with Bob (ch. 75). We get her whole backstory, which the movie can’t fit in. The movie shows us Bob dying and comatose, but a television movie, again, can’t show us what it’s like to care for a comatose patient who, among other things, needs to be stripped naked and cleaned. Bob can’t eat and is slowly starving, but the fact that he can still get an erection – and the feelings that this brings up in Clara – is funny, unique, and unforgettable in the book. The movie can’t even touch this.
The first raid into Mexico is one of the best parts of the book (chs. 10-11), and it’s totally ruined in the movie. McMurtry shows us the raid in its confusion, risks and moral ambiguity, all as seen through the eyes of Newt. The movie gives us only a simple joyride where the poor Mexicans are just overmatched, and it ends with a triumphalist note that came off as retro even when it first aired.
The music of the movie is sometimes sad but generally euphoric; I could not get the main theme out of my head while reading the novel.
Some ways that specific scenes differ in book and movie:
- In the movie it was always odd to me that Captain Weaver would let Call beat up his scout and that Gus would order Weaver’s men to leave. In the book all this makes sense because Weaver is not there, and the soldiers are traveling only with the scout.
- In the movie I was surprised when Clara asks Cholo, who is obviously Mexican, what he thinks happens when people die, and he responds, “Not too much. You’re just dead.” As a Mexican he would presumably have some Christian background, Roman Catholic in particular. But in the book, though he’s Mexican, he’s lived among Indians and whites since early childhood – though he still prefers to speak Spanish.
- Gus being ambushed by Indians toward the end makes more sense in the book, because he had chased buffalo some time earlier and the animals are not there during the ambush. In the movie Gus chases a herd of buffalo over a ridge and runs right then into Indians, but if the Indians had been there, I don’t know why they would chase Gus instead of the buffalo. In the book they chase Gus but give him up later, in fact, when they encounter a buffalo herd, since winter is coming on and they need to hunt.
- The movie foreshadows Deets’ death in an obvious way: he gets a gift from Po Campo and waves goodbye. However, the book, though less obviously, does foreshadow many of the characters’ deaths: Wanz’s death in chs. 4 and 21; Gus’ death in ch. 25; Jake’s hanging in chs. 6 and 40.
- In the book Blue Duck never attacks Newt at Lorena’s camp and manages to steal her by starting a herd stampede, which makes more sense than in the movie, where Newt is just a lovestruck bumbler who doesn’t even sense Blue Duck near him.
- In the movie Roscoe actually catches up with a very slow-traveling July and tells him about Ellie, a creative choice that brings July down without enhancing Roscoe at all.
- In the movie Roscoe remains on guard when Blue Duck attacks; in the book you cannot help but despair that he has once again fallen asleep, at the one moment when he should have kept awake at all costs.
Totally missing from the movie:
- Deets’ meditative love of the moon (ch. 15)
- Roscoe’s one-night stand with the widow Louisa Brooks (ch. 37), which is the closest that this earthy-but-restrained book gets to straight-up raunch!
- Mary Cole, the widow in Lonesome Dove who has humorous scenes with Pea Eye (ch. 12)
- Gus trying to buy conversation from Lorena (ch. 3)
- Everyone from Lorena’s past (Mosby; John Tinkersley) (ch. 3)
- July’s encounter with a whore, Jennie, an old friend of Ellie’s (ch. 69)
- Sherriff Tobe Walker, the ex-ranger, who joins Gus and Call after the bartender is whacked (ch. 42)
- Gus’ brief encounter in Ogallala with the whore, Nellie (ch. 94)
- the locust storm (ch. 67)
- bear vs. bull (ch. 91) – this is better than Godzilla vs. Kong
- the death march through the Wyoming desert, trying to get to water (ch. 89)
- Jake’s encounter in Dodge with the young girl and her husband, whom he kills (ch. 68)
- Aus Frank, the bone collector encountered by Gus on the plains (ch. 54)
- July surviving a snakebite (ch. 77)
- Call shooting/hanging a pair of horse-thieves, father and son, in Montana (ch. 100)
- Call’s encounter with the famous cattleman, Charles Goodnight (ch. 102)
- Newt being helped by Indians to find his way back to the herd after a storm (ch. 67)
- the hungry Indians to whom Call gives some cattle (ch. 67)
- Call riding back south with Crow Indians (ch. 101), and being shot by other Indians farther south (ch. 102)
- Call’s visits to the Indian tribes in Montana, including some of those who killed Gus (ch. 98)
One more thing is totally missing from the movie but was filmed eventually and put into the made-for-tv sequel, “Return To Lonesome Dove”: July falling in love with Clara and proposing to her (chs. 92, 99).
Nice to find out that there’s more than one movie in which you can find scenes from “Lonesome Dove” the novel!