Larry McMurtry

I was very saddened to learn yesterday of the death of Larry McMurtry, the prolific Texan who wrote many great books, as well as screenplays. His works were a favorite of Hollywood and were turned into a number of great films, like Hud, The Last Picture Show, and Terms of Endearment.

In my view, McMurtry’s greatest work was Lonesome Dove, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1986. I think Lonesome Dove is one of the greatest works of fiction by an American writer, ever. It is a huge, sprawling novel that was later made into the masterpiece television TV mini-series of the same name, starring Robert Duvall and Tommy Lee Jones as Gus McCrae and Woodrow Call. The book follows those two legendary former Texas Rangers who lead their band of ranch hands and a herd of stolen cattle on a long drive up to Montana and encounter adventure, death, and a host of memorable and often terrifying characters along the way. Every character in that book, from Call to McCrae to Newt, Deets, Lorena, Pea Eye, Jake Spoon, Clara, Blue Duck, and many others, was so finely drawn that you felt as if their personalities were etched into the pages of the novel.

I remember reading Lonesome Dove on a beach vacation shortly after it was published in paperback. Reading that book defined the vacation, because I could not put it down and, when I did, I looked forward to picking it up again and reading on to find out what happened next. As I continued with my reading, I remember feeling horribly conflicted, I desperately wanted to know what happened to all of these extraordinary people moving through this extraordinary landscape, but I also didn’t want the book to end, ever. Of course, it did, and the ending had an enormous impact. I’ve reread it at least once since then, and also have read many of the McMurtry books that looked at the Lonesome Dove characters at different times in their lives.

Reading Lonesome Dove made me chase down the meaning of the motto Gus McCrae adopted for the Hat Creek Cattle Company: “Uva uvam vivendo varia fit.” It was pretty clear in the book that Gus didn’t know precisely what it meant, but he liked the classy association of their dusty Texas ranch with Latin. Finding out the meaning of a Latin phrase was a challenge back in those days, before the internet allowed us to discover stuff like that with a few taps of the keyboard. It turned out that the phrase is bastardized Latin–which seems about right for old Gus–and it means something like “a grape changes color and ripens when it is around another grape.”

In other words, we affect the lives of those around us. That seems like a pretty good epitaph for Larry McMurtry, who managed to affect the lives of grapes like me that he didn’t even know.

Godless

Most of our video watching these days relies on recommendations from family and friends. Godless, a 2017 Netflix mini-series, was an exception. We hadn’t heard anything about it, but flipping through the Netflix offerings it looked interesting, so we gave it a gander. Boy, are we glad we did!

Godless is set in the American West of the 1880s. Frank Griffin leads a notorious outlaw gang of more than 30 men that has been terrorizing the territory, and he is searching for a former member of the gang that has betrayed him. The former member of the gang, Roy Goode, finds shelter with a widow and her family who live on a ranch on the outskirts of the off-the-map town of LaBelle, New Mexico. LaBelle has its own interesting back story: a devastating mine disaster has killed every able-bodied man in the town, leaving the women of LaBelle to fill the void. When Griffin’s search brings his army to LaBelle, fireworks ensue.

Godless is a powerhouse of a drama that grabs you by the throat from the get-go. It reminded me of Lonesome Dove in that its presentation of the old west is unadorned, random, and dangerous, with people coming in and going out and violence, death, and disaster seemingly around every corner. And the show is full of carefully sketched characters–from Mary Agnes, one of the LaBelle widows who finds that she likes wearing the pants in the family, to Bill McNue, the sheriff of LaBelle who is battling self-doubt caused by his declining eyesight, to Truckee, a boy who is trying to overcome his fear of horses, to Callie Dunne, the former LaBelle prostitute who becomes the town schoolteacher because she can read and write. Two of our favorite characters were Iyovi, the Native American grandmother of Truckee who can heal a bullet wound and shoot and dress a deer without blinking an eye, and Whitey Winn, the sweet, skinny deputy sheriff who has developed impressive quick-draw skills but can’t play the violin to save his life.

There’s a lot to this show, and any description can only scratch the surface of a dense plotline. The focus of Godless, though, is strong women on one hand and Frank Griffin on the other. Jeff Daniels, who won an Emmy for the role, is fantastic as Griffin, the sociopathic, quasi-religious leader of a ruthless band of killers who can be sensitive and willing to help strangers dying of a disease in one instant and then slaughtering an entire town the next. Griffin believes he has seen his own death, and therefore faces every deadly scenario that doesn’t match his vision with supreme confidence that he will survive and the statement: “This ain’t my death.”

This is a great show that is well worth a watch. The only bad thing about it is that it is a one-season wonder. When Godless ended, it left us wanting more Godlessness in our lives.

Lonesome Dove

I don’t watch much TV anymore.  I’ve heard there are good shows out there, but few of them really capture my interest.  And, one of the TV genres that I enjoyed the most — the mini-series — seems to have fallen completely out of fashion.

You can argue about the best TV show ever, but in my view there is no question about the best TV mini-series ever.  It’s Lonesome Dove, hands down.  It was much anticipated because the book of the same name was extremely popular and the cast — which featured, among others, Robert Duvall, Tommy Lee Jones, and Danny Glover — was fantastic.  When the show finally aired, it was even better than people expected.  The production was fabulous, and you simply could not wait until the next episode, to see what happened with Captain McCrae, Captain Call, Clara, Deets, Dish, Newt, Pea Eye, Jake Spoon, Blue Duck, and the other characters.

My favorite part of the mini-series came near the end, when the resolute Captain Call, fulfilling a deathbed promise, hauled his friend’s body hundreds of miles to be buried next to a stream where he had courted the love of his life.  I always thought that series of scenes, performed against the backdrop of some terrific, stirring music, totally captured the deep, largely non-verbal attachment between Call and McCrae.

There were many great scenes in Lonesome Dove, however — and the scene below, which features Gus in all his glory, is a pretty good one, too.

The Forever War On Screen

I’ve written before about The Forever War, which is one of my all-time favorite books.

The book is the story of William Mandella, a brainy but essentially non-martial physicist drafted to fight in a never-ending war that combines time dilation, terror, and pointlessness.  Because Earth’s battleships and soldiers reach the faraway planets to fight the Taurans through “collapsar jumps” that invoke Einstein’s theory of relativity, Mandella keeps returning from battles to a society that has changed by decades and then by hundreds of years.

Richard sent me a link to this story, which reports that Ridley Scott — the director of Blade Runner and other classic films — has acquired the rights to bring The Forever War to the big screen and is working with the screenwriter for Blade Runner on the effort.

I’m holding my breath.  I would love to see The Forever War made into a movie.  It is a great story from a visual standpoint, and I think Ridley Scott is well-suited to bringing out the weirdness, humor, and sense of utter dislocation that Mandella experienced.  At the same time, when I see that the screenplay is in its fourth draft, I think:  please don’t change the story too much!  Sometimes movie versions absolutely nail the book and capture the characters perfectly — the epic TV series Lonesome Dove is a great example of that.  In other cases, however, the movie version will change characters in fundamental and unwanted ways, or modify the plot to the point of being unrecognizable.  I don’t want that to happen to Mandella, Marygay Potter, and other beloved characters.

As I said, I’m holding my breath.

Harry Potter And The Half-Blood Prince

I’ve been seeing previews for Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, and I have to admit that I am looking forward to the movie. I really enjoyed all of the Harry Potter books — they are great summer reads — and, so far at least, I think the movies have done a good job of presenting the Harry Potter saga in an entertaining way that is true to the story. The Half-Blood Prince will be a real challenge for the filmmakers because the story is so dark and distressing, and any realistic depiction of some of the events in the book could fighten the snot out of the littler Harry Potter fans.

Alan Rickman as Severus Snape

Alan Rickman as Severus Snape

Unlike some readers, I don’t mind when my favorite books are made into movies or TV series. I enjoy seeing whether the filmmaker’s vision matches my vision of the characters, the settings, and so forth. When the truly excellent TV adaptation of Lonesome Dove was aired, I initially found the appearance of Robert Duvall, as Gus McCrae, especially jarring, because I had formed a strong mental image of McCrae as looking like Wilford Brimley. Duvall was so stunningly good as McCrae, however, that the image of Wilford Brimley was quickly dislodged and forgotten. So it has been with the Harry Potter books and movies. Alan Rickman is my mental image of Severus Snape, whether I like it or not. (And I do like it, incidentally. One reason I’m looking forward to The Half-Blood Prince, by the way, is that it should give Rickman a chance to shine that he really hasn’t had so far in the series.)

To prepare for The Half-Blood Prince, I’ll be doing what I normally do when a book I like makes it to the big screen — I’ll reread it, to get reacquainted with the story, the characters, and the various nuances and subtleties that are found in full-length books but that can’t possibly all make it into the movie. I’ve located the tattered family copy of the book, and it will be a good way to spend some leisure time until the movie opens.