Moviegeek5: From Page to Saddle
Much like the the Western film, the Western as a literary genre had its heyday in the early and middle 20th century. Apart from the early frontier stories that go back to the early 19th century, the true Western novel is actually no older than the film genre, as Western were among the very first stories to the brought to screen. Just think of the silent Western short The Great Train Robbery (1903). The earliest true Western novels appeared around the same time with titles such as Owen Wister’s The Virginian (1902) and Zane Grey’s Riders of the Purple Sage (1912). Naturally it did not long before filmmakers look to the popular novels for inspiration and over the decades, there have been many great adaptations of Western novels. Sadly, for fans of the Western both movies and novels are far between now, although gems still appear. Perhaps this reading (and watch) list can inspire writers to write another great entry in the genre’s history.
We have assambled a list of five Western novels and six adaptations based on them. Check out the list below and leave your recommendations of films as well as books in the comments below.
The Searchers (1956)
We start the list with this classic “golden age” Western, adapted from the 1954 novel written by Alan Le May, who on top of being a novelist was also a Hollywood screenwriter. The story is about a Civil War veteran whose niece is abducted by Comanchee inidians. He then spends years searchig for her accompanied by his nephew. The movie adaptation, released just two years later was directed by John Ford and starred John Wayne in one of his most iconic roles. The film was a commercial success and has since then only grown in estimation. It is widely considered on of the greatest American Western. It has long since eclipsed its literary source.
Next on our list is Charles Portis’s great and surprisingly funny Western novel True Grit, which has spawned not one but two adaptations more than worthy of mention. The novel is told by Mattie Ross and is an account of events thaat took place when she was 14. After her father is murdered, she enlists the help of drunken bounty hunter Rooster Cogburn, a man of true grit, to help bring the murderer to justice. Both adaptation are very good, and which one you prefer is perhaps mostly a matter of taste. The 1969 adaption, directed by Henry Hathaway (How the West Was Won, 1962), has the legendary John Wayne as Rooster Cogburn, a performance tht won him an Oscar. The 2010 adaptation, directed by the Coen Brothers (The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, 2018), has the overall better cast, especially the young Hailee Steinfeld in a spectacular cinematic début, and this version is closer to the novel. It also has the dubious honour of receiving 10 Oscar nominations without winning a single one. But why not watch both? And read Portis’s wonderful novel while you’re at it.
The Shootist (1976)
The third and final entry on the list featuring John Wayne was also the old Hollywood gunslinger’s final film. The film is adapted by Glendon Swarthout’s 1975 novel, which is a rather melancholic tale of an old dying man of the West witnessing and lamenting the passing away of the Old West and the advent of a new age on the cusp of the 20th century. Wayne is wonderful is what is probably as good and suitable a final part as he could have wanted. Not only that, the film reunites Wayne and James Stewart, who had co-starred 14 years earlier in the great Western The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962). The film was released to moderate financial success and critical acclaim. The film’s strongest asset is a weak and dying Wayne who in his personal life mirrored his character on screen and added something to the final result that noone else could have.
Open Range (2003)
This critically acclaimed Kevin Costner movie revolves follows a group of free-grazing cattle men, the so-called open rangers, who takes a stand against a local land baron. The film was adapted from a novel by Lauran Paine published in 1990. Directed, produced, and starring Kevin Costner, the film was a passion-project for him, as he grew up reading Western romances. The film was praised for its beauty, its great gunfight, and strong performanes, particularly from veteran actor Robert Duvall. Here is another Western novel kept in print by its well-known movie adaptation.
The Homesman (2014)
The final entry is another Glendon Swarthout adaptation, this time based on the final novel published by the author before his death. The Homesman is set in the unforgiving landscape of 1850s Midwest. Tommy Lee Jones directs and stars as George Briggs, a “Homesman”, meaning someone who is tasked with bringing immigrants back from the frontier. We follow him as he sheperd a group of women broken by the frontier; some to such a degree that they have become dangerous to themselves and their surroundings. Among the women is a spinster going back east and who builds a relationship with Briggs on the perilous journey. The novel and thus the film is very unusual in that it depicts the hard side of frontier life and focusses on the plight of women. It is bleak and hard and a good antidote to the otherwise entertaining Westerns that sometimes idealize frontier life.