By Andrew Hager, Historian-in-residence
PPM Picks is a weekly feature offering film, book, or music recommendations from our staff. The links provided in the article go to product listings on Amazon. Purchases made using these links support the Presidential Pet Museum. That said, we were not paid to review or promote any of the items mentioned. We just legitimately like them.
There’s a common refrain that goes like this: The book is better than the movie. Sometimes, it’s actually true. What the generalization fails to account for is the reality that literature and film are different art forms, created with different techniques. And, with very rare exceptions, the book and its cinematic adaptation are created by different artists. What book-lovers really mean is this: The movie version left stuff out.
This was my complaint eleven years ago when I first saw The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. Director Andrew Dominick’s sprawling, nearly three hour film is beautiful and well-acted, but it seemed somehow rushed to me. I had just read Ron Hansen’s novel, and couldn’t separate the two.
I was wrong.
Hansen’s novel is terrific–a lyrical, bittersweet, and honest version of the events that led to the notorious outlaw’s murder by his companion. It doesn’t shy away from the violence of the James gang or sensationalize their crimes. Instead, Hansen describes events with a melancholy third-person detachment that reminds the reader of late-nineteenth century novels. His prose is beautiful, snd his characters perfectly observed. The novel is so deeply researched and well-constructed that it feels like Truth.
Dominik’s film, by comparison, functions as both a traditional, elegiac western and a commentary on celebrity. Who better to play the nation’s most hunted man than Brad Pitt? The actor certainly understands what it means to seek anonymity in a world hellbent on knowing everything about you. His Jesse James possesses a natural charisma that belies his violent tendencies.
Dominik’s screenplay remains true to the novel, including large portions of Hansen’s prose. The translation to film suffers less than you would expect, as the book’s vivid description is replaced by Roger Deakins’ breathtaking cinematography. Few movies have ever looked this good.
My earlier criticisms of the movie version have faded with time. What I really wanted was Dominik’s four hour director’s cut (which has never been released). Most movies feel too long and bloated, especially when they are 160 minutes. That I wanted more is, I think, a compliment. But the extra material, however wonderful it may be, wouldn’t substantially improve the movie. There is a focus here, a confidence as swaggering asJames himself. Dominik has given us something wonderful, a work equal to (yet distinct from) Hansen’s. It feels greedy to ask for more.