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Lonesome Dove book vs movie

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:

Totally missing from the movie:

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!

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