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Book Report: The Shootist

The spine of The Shootist caught YHB's eye on the library shelf, mostly because of the movie, of which I had fond memory. For those Gentle Readers who don't remember or didn't see the movie, and don't mind the plot being given away (those Gentle Readers who object to spoilers should (a) probably not be reading these Book Reports unless you have read the book, and (2) stop reading this Book Report at the end of this parenthesis, just after the bit where I mention that both the book and the movie are very good), the Shootist is John Bernard Books, an aging gunslinger who discovers he is dying of cancer in 1901. At the end of the first chapter, not only had Glendon Swarthout informed us that the Shootist is John Bernard Books, an aging gunslinger who discovers he is dying of cancer in 1901, but had given us a gunbattle and some kick-ass dialogue into the bargain. I figured it was a book I wanted to read.

Digression: One of YHB's narrative-fiend habits is to note how much we know at the end of the first chapter (and how long that first chapter is), and then to note when the author is finished setting up the plot and started telling it. There's a way of thinking about storytelling that divides the story into before and after the phrase and then one day... comes up. There were three little pigs who lived with their mother and then one day... There was a hobbit who lived a comfortable life under a hill, and then one day... Now, you could tell the same sequence of events, with that part in a different part, but it wouldn't be the same story. There were three little pigs who left their mother's house to build their own houses. The first little pig made his house of straw, the second little pig made his house of sticks, and the third little pig made his house of bricks. And then one day...

I want and then one day... to make its appearance in the first chapter, preferably in the first 25 pages. Unless I'm reading Dickens of course. End Digression.

Having zipped through the wonderful novel, I went back to watch the wonderful movie. It's the sort of movie called a minor classic. Books is played by John Wayne, in his last movie, not long before his own death from cancer. Lauren Bacall plays Bond Rogers, the tough lady whose boarding house becomes his last home. Gillom Rogers is none other than Little Ronnie Howard, big now, and nearly ready to give up acting altogether. The doctor is Jimmy Stewart, memorable and comfortable. If all that sounds good (and it does to me), its a movie to make sure to see.

On the other hand, watching it again just after reading the novel, I was expecting it to be about John Wayne, not John Books. That, too, could have been a powerful thing—Books is famous, and famous for something that is old-fashioned and now frowned-upon. People thought it was a perfect merging of actor and role. Not so much a merging as the book being submerged under the persona. The opening of the movie uses clips of John Wayne from old movies (was that common? I think of that as all nineties and postmodern and stuff) before the opening gunbattle. Now, in the book, Books is set on by an old claw-handed bandit, who he shoots in the belly. Before he rides off, he offers to kill the bandit quickly, rather than leaving him to die slowly in the desert, but the bandit refuses, and in fact begs Books not to kill him. In the movie, Books tells the (younger) bandit that he won't die, but he'll have a hell of a bellyache. Right away, it's a different character, and a different world. So I was very suspicious.

There is some of that in the movie. Books is twinklier, more sympathetic, and a the roughest edges are taken off. But the main difference, the thing that really changes the movie, is the Ron Howard character, Gillom Rogers. He's the wastrel son of the boardinghouse widow, drinking and cursing and wanting to learn to shoot. He starts out idolizing John Bernard Books and ends up ... well, in the book, he ends up killing him, and enjoying the feeling of killing, and being on his way to becoming a shootist himself. In the movie, he ends up killing the barman who shoots Books, and then throws the gun away. In the book, he keeps the guns. In the book, Gillom is a thief and a liar, and one of the tragic moments comes when Books finds himself so debilitated that Gillom can knock him down. In the movie, Gillom is a goodhearted kid, trying on misbehaviour to see how it fits, and in the end, it doesn't fit at all.

There are other changes, of course. Books spends his last days both fending off other people's attempts to cash in on his fame and cashing in himself, selling his horse, his clothes, his watch, his image and even his corpse to scrape together a few hundred dollars to send Gillom off East to school, his mother's last hope of keeping him out of trouble. In the book, Gillom steals the money. In the movie, we see some of Books gathering the money, and we see him put it in an envelope (if we're paying attention), but that's it.

So the boy's character is changed, and that changes everything else. In the book, John Bernard Books is, finally, a failure; he manages eventually to get himself killed to avoid the agony of cancer's final days, but he never manages to make the human connection he desires, and for all that he makes an attempt at redemption, its practical outcome is that Gillom becomes rich, vicious and (presumably) famous. In the movie, though, it's clear that Books is redeemed. The whole world is turned over—instead of Books (and others) being a remnant of a foul and vicious time, they are shadows of a glorious past. Instead of the modern world being (for all its cupidity and stupidity) showing the possibility of a world without so much violence, it's a pale shadow, less manly for being less violent.

I'd like somebody to remake the movie. It's a grand part, and there's no reason why my vision of it should be the only one, but there's no reason why John Wayne's should be the only one, either. Robert Duvall would be excellent, as would James Garner or Nick Nolte. Each would convey different things, play up the violence or the stubborness or the pain or the age or the regret. If it were a play (and it wouldn't work as a play at all), every American actor would have to try his hand at it sometime in his sixties. As it is, John Wayne—and Ronnie Howard—are all we get.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

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