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OMD's Pop-culture corner: Hud, Larry McMurtry, and film adaptations

A look at Horseman, Pass By, Hud, and when adaptations are better than the source material.

McMurtry winning the Oscar for Brokeback Mountain, which he adapted for the screen with Diana Ossana
McMurtry winning the Oscar for Brokeback Mountain, which he adapted for the screen with Diana Ossana
Kevin Winter/Getty Images

I just finished reading Horseman, Pass By, Larry McMurtry's debut novel upon which the Paul Newman vehicle Hud was based. As the film was one that I rather liked the couple of times I saw it but was not so etched into my memory as to have rendered reading the source material an exercise in futility, it seemed that Horseman, Pass By would make perfect sense as an entry point into the oeuvre of Larry McMurtry and, further, could help to determine whether or not leaping into the daunting 1986 Pulitzer Prize-winner, Lonesome Dove or the likewise adapted into classic films The Last Picture Show or Terms of Endearment.

While I would hardly judge a writer with such an acclaimed catalog of works by his debut novel, it hardly made me want to continue deeper into his body of work. The novel itself was a brief one. There were moments early on that bemused me, passages that drove me to share them with my wife, whose reaction was not nearly as warm. But those moments were isolated to the early goings of the novel.

There were many factors that sort of soured me on the novel. Some were related to the differences between the novel and the film adaptation that came just a couple years later. Some were not.

In the film, Hud was a character that loomed large over the ranch and the story, an anti-hero to contrast the cowboy of old with the post-war cowboy. While he was the antagonist in the novel, he basically disappeared for 50 pages and is drawn more simply black-and-white. The screenwriters (and presumably Paul Newman's new production company, Salem Productions) elected to basically turn Hud into an amalgamation of Hud in the novel and the brooding ranch hand Jesse, and the decision is one that definitely benefits the story, as Hud is no longer a cut-and-dry bastard and shares more time with the book's teen narrator with whom the audience is to empathize, Lonnie.

The filmmakers also saw fit to basically excise the casual and more overt racism of the time and place which were present in the book by turning Halmea, their black housekeeper, into Alma, her white filmic counterpart. It sure didn't hurt that Patricia Neal ended up winning an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for her efforts, but the narrator casually drops N-bombs in narration in the novel, and the dark thing that almost happens to Alma in the film happens to Halmea in the novel while Lonnie and Jesse's attempts to help her are insufficient.

The kernel for a great film are clearly in Horseman, Pass By, but it seems like Hud is one of the rare instances in which the film is actually better than the novel from which it was adapted.

What writers/works didn't live up to your expectations? What adaptations are better than the novels upon which they were based? Should I give Larry McMurtry another chance?