Books, I Read It First

I Read It First: The Revenant

Leonardo DiCaprio is going after that elusive Oscar win again, taking on the role of beleaguered but resourceful frontiersman Hugh Glass just before the 2015 film season closes. This has “Oscar-bait” written all over it. I see what you are doing, DiCaprio, but you may have torn off more than you can chew with this one.

The Book: the Revenant: A Novel of Revenge by Michael Punke

Genre: Historical Fiction, survival

First impressions: Despite my initial reservations, I actually really liked this book! It doesn’t hit any of my usual favorite tropes, which is perhaps what I enjoyed about it. The Revenant tells the story of Hugh Glass, a frontiersman in the mid 1800s, who is trekking west with the Rocky Mountain Trapping Company’s initial expedition when he is attacked and brutally wounded by a grizzly bear. Unable to take the injured man along, the captain of the expedition leaves two men behind to tend to him and bury him after his inevitable death, but they decide to abandon him and steal all of his gear instead, including a rather nice rifle. Defenseless and horrifically injured, Hugh Glass makes his way down the river Grand alone, all the while bent on vengeance against the men who left him for dead.

Ultimately this is a survival tale, based on a true story. Glass is resourceful in the way that action heroes often are, except smarter, and more realistically so since he actually did these things. Basically Glass is a badass, and his exploits are a ton of fun to watch, even if his personal motivations and behaviors are sometimes questionable. He’s like the ultimate taciturn hero before we had taciturn heroes. I can see why we’d decide to make a movie out of this dude’s story–we’re basically already making this movie on a regular basis, but with less badass protagonists.

In addition to the fascinating survival storyline, this is a gorgeously written story. Set in the pristine wilderness of the midwest and Yellowstone long before the advent of railroads, the book abounds in breathtakingly described landscapes and treacherously beautiful terrain. It even manages to portray native tribes sympathetically, despite the fact that they are pretty hostile to our protagonist, and goes to great lengths to highlight the differences between tribes and the tough situation that white settlements have put those people in. Of course, it’s still primarily a story about White Men being White Men (there are two named female characters, both of whom die in the mens’ backstories, and one un-named female character in the story itself, who also dies), but as such historically glorifying narratives go, The Revenant is carefully done, with as much attention to the detailed politics of the push west as to the shooting/hunting/adventuring.

Will it adapt?: Yes, it will, although I have my reservations about DiCaprio’s ability to play Glass. For one thing, half the point of the story is that Glass is horrifically disfigured, and his disfigurement features heavily in his interactions with others, and I very much doubt that they are going to disfigure DiCaprio for the role. Glass is also incredibly taciturn even before he gets his throat ripped out–a huge departure from the vivacious, talkative roles for which DiCaprio is known. In fact, I’d venture to say that the role of Glass would have been much better cast with Tom Hardy, who is instead playing one of Glass’ betrayers, John Fitzgerald. But, then, I’ve never been much a fan of DiCaprio’s work, so maybe he’ll surprise me. At the very least, the film has a gorgeous setting to work with, though set pictures have me skeptical of the costume and props department.

Should I read it?: Yes. There’s a lot of internal monologing going on that won’t come across on screen, although the movie won’t suffer much for it I don’t think. Glass’ decision-making process is a lot of fun to follow, and you’ll lose that in the movie. Plus, despite a ponderously vast setting and slow pace, the elegant prose of this book manages to carry you through with startling eagerness. It really is a well-written novel.

Glassily yours,
M.M. Jordahl

“Happy new year, you dirty sons of bitches.”

This post is part of my I Read It First series.

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