The Revenant: from Novel to Film

unknownRevenant: a person who has returned especially, supposedly, from the dead (Oxford Dictionary)

Hugh Glass, does not die, but comes close, when he is brutally mauled by a mother grizzly on a bank of the Grand River in 1823. A fur trapper with the Rocky Mountain Fur Company, his wit and skills and some strong Sioux medicine enable him to survive the fall and winter. Glass is abandoned by  two company men, Fitzgerald and Bridger, charged with making sure he’s given a proper burial. The thing is: they don’t just leave him to die, they take the only things that might enable him to live: his rifle, his knife, his flint and steel. But live he does; if only to pursue them and get his stuff back.

Written with plenty of detail and historical authority, Michael Punke leads us through the plains and river valleys east of the Rocky Mountains: the land of the Sioux, Arikara,  and Mandan people. The Sioux and the trappers have been allies in a war with the Arikara, and it is an old Sioux medicine man who really saves Glass’s life by killing the maggots that have burrowed inside his festering back wounds.

This is a historical novel that reads like non-fiction. The author, Michael Punke, explains in his Historical Notes that the main events are true to history. I haven’t read an omniscient viewpoint for a long time–agents and editors stress that scenes by narrated by one character in limited omniscient–so I notice when we pass through several minds within a chapter. It’s not distracting; just different. The writing is almost objective–written like a journal article. We never go deep inside this man, who suffers agonizing wounds to body, mind, and spirit. And I ask myself: what is Glass thinking besides how to find his next meal?

Michael Punke is a D.C. lawyer and deputy U.S. trade representative and ambassador to the World Trade Organization in Switzerland. He wrote this novel in his spare time, ten years before it was adapted for film. I read the novel first.

The award-winning film is “based in part on the novel” and a small part it is. The main characters, Hugh Glass (Leonardo Dicaprio), Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy), Jim Bridger, and Captain Henry are here, as is the main theme of revenge. But everything else is  bolder, much more complex, and visceral. By adding other key characters and subplots, the screenwriters dramatize what falls fairly flat on the page. This is where we begin to understand what Glass is thinking as he rises from the dead to pursue Fitzgerald through spectacularly perilous country.

Besides incredible directing by Alejandro González Iñárritu and brilliant acting, what’s memorable is the cinematography by Emmanuel Lubezki. Filmed near the Rocky Mountains in Alberta and Argentina, the film presents what we can only imagine frontier life might have been like in the 1820s. (To view stills and read more on the locations click here.) This is no romance, thought heart-wrenching spiritual moments lead us to the abyss more than once.

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