In this corner – The Revenant. 2015 motion picture, written and directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu. Stars Leonardo DiCaprio and Tom Hardy. Recent recipient of 12 Academy Award Nominations.
In the other corner – The Revenant : A Novel of Revenge. 2002 novel by Michael Punke. 270-something pages of fiction inspired by real life, though with embellishments.
In the… other… corner – The actual Life of Hugh Glass, which most people will ignore entirely. This corner isn’t really that important; I suppose it’s where the water boys sits? Something like that. It’s only here to remind me, and you, and whoever else that “Based on a True Story” doesn’t always mean a whole lot, and that just because it’s on screen doesn’t mean it’s true. Or vice-versa for that matter. A shocking number of people don’t think the Titanic sinking was a real historical event. I wish I was kidding.
Anyway, I have both seen the movie and read the novel in question, and my feelings on both encompass more than one of my 50 word film reviews could handle.
I wasn’t a massive fan of the book; it was alright, but not a masterpiece. A bit anti-climactic? Which makes me feel strange in saying that I actually preferred the book to the movie. Yes, you’ve read that correctly. I liked a thoroughly “meh,” book more than a movie that just got 12 Oscar Nominations. This is one of the few times were I really, really wanted the film to be better, but I was just underwhelmed.
I didn’t like the movie’s motivations for Hugh Glass. In fact, if this completely broken boxing match metaphor rested solely on my liking of the revenge plot, then the book wins by knockout in about 15 seconds.
In the novel, Glass is on a quest for revenge because Fitzgerald and Bridger left him for dead and stole his precious (and expensive) Anstadt rifle, along with any supplies he would need to actually get by should he survive his bear-mauling injuries. In the movie he is motivated because Fitzgerald killed his son before leaving him for dead, his last connection to his Pawnee wife and previous idyllic life.
I was not a fan of this change, at all. Call me a cold-hearted curmudgeon but why do we have this trope that revenge can only be prompted by the loss of a loved one? Leaving someone to die and then stealing a his hunting rifle, his very livelihood, is not motivation enough for revenge? I’m sure it was meant to give some sort of deeper connection to the audience, but for me it just led to cliche dialog and unnecessary dream sequences. Nope. The gun should’ve been enough. Why wasn’t it enough?
(Corner three water boy will step in at this point and argue that Glass may have actually had a Pawnee wife. But it’s speculation, wasn’t in the book, and doesn’t make slow dream sequences any more necessary.)
At any rate, that’s a solid punch from the book, who then follows it up with another blow to head resting on the illustrated background of Hugh Glass.
In the novel his life before his stint as a fur-trapper is explored, and it is absolutely bonkers. His origins in Pennsylvania, his life as a pirate, his short time with the Pawnee. He was an ambitious and driven man who saw some incredible things. Granted, Punke speculated quite a bit on this, as gruff river men aren’t exactly known for their habitual honesty and journaling habits.
Now in the film everything is much tighter and related to the present situation… mostly. You see, we have those pesky visions and dreams that did nothing for me aside from continue to highlight how good Lubezki is as a cinematographer, but he was doing a great job with that already. Cut those out, along with the dead child, and you have more focused film that is still incredibly beautiful!
The novel doles out another swift punch when you look at some of the other motivations on display in the film- the comically evil Frenchmen, the Arikara who are only raiding because of a chief’s kidnapped daughter. It seemed far too oversimplified, too black and white for a real life situation that was undeniably complex and tragic and which is already reduced to caricature so often. This is a lesser gripe, but was another change I found odd and not particularly effective within the narrative.
Don’t count the film out of this match though, because it retaliates with a shot of its own, a powerful right hook called “the ending was better.” Because yes, the movie ended far better. Water boy is cautious to point out that the book was truer to life, but he can shut up. True life was boring. In the movie you get an awesome showdown, some blood on the snow, and a culmination of the story’s message on the nature of revenge. It was a satisfying ending, so judges points for that.
The movie also has the benefit of some gorgeous natural-light-only camerawork (which is 100% deserved of any and all awards it gets) and great performances by its cast. I’m not sure if this is Leo’s best role ever though; his character spends half the film with his neck ripped open so he doesn’t talk much. I thought Hardy gave a better acting performance (though they are nominated in different categories regardless), but the Academy loves awarding people based on bodies of work, so I would not be shocked to see DiCaprio up there in February.
Anyway, this was the rare situation were I really wanted the movie to be better. The book was well-researched but slow, and ultimately unsatisfying at the journey’s end (which was actually much longer of a journey than what was on film). The movie, however, made some changes that slowed down the pace and added no real depth to an already straight-forward, surface level story. It was the first movie of my annual awards-season-binge-fest that I was disappointed with, aside from the stunning visuals and Tom Hardy basically being Mad Max : Asshole Fur Trapper.
Oh, and the part with the bear looked really cool.
By judges ruling, the book wins, but barely. (Bear-ly?)
What did you think? Have you read the book and seen the film?