A Novel by Michael Punke | A Film by Alejandro Inarritu
A trapper on a 1820s fur trading expedition fights for survival and retribution after he’s savagely attacked by a bear and abandoned by the men who swore to protect him.
The Revenant isn’t the first book—or even movie—about Hugh Glass’s epic tale of survival. It was told as early as 1954 in Frederick Manfred’s Lord Grizzly, and then again in 1976 in The Saga of Hugh Glass by John Myers Myers. The story was also made into the 1971 film Man in the Wilderness starring Richard Harris. But while many of the facts of Glass’s life are known to be true—the bear attack, being left for dead by the two men looking after him—it’s still a story that, for the most part, is one of legend.
Author Michael Punke retold and enhanced that legend, while also achieving something of legendary status himself—at least among his colleagues at the World Trade Organization in Geneva, Switzerland, where he has worked as Deputy Trade Representative and U.S. Ambassador since his appointment by President Obama in 2009. Twelve years earlier, Punke was a lawyer working in DC, and aspiring to write a political novel when he came across the story of Glass. Having grown-up in Wyoming as an avid outdoorsman and with a love of the frontier, the material resonated far more than confining halls of Washington. He’d wake up early and write for a few hours before work. It took him four years to finish his first novel, and it was published in 2002. Boldly billed as “a novel of revenge,” The Revenant was a critical success, though not a big commercial one. Still, the film rights had sold even before the book was published. It would be another ten years before Alejandro Inarritu would sign on to direct and help adapt the screenplay. That gave Punke plenty of time to pad his resume with high profile political appointments in case the writing gig didn’t pan out—though he also managed to publish two more books about the old West. His role in international relations, however, has prevented him from taking full advantage of his new literary fame. As a federal employee, Punke is not allowed to promote or even talk about his book or the Oscar-nominated movie that’s based on it, because it could be construed that he’s profiting from his position. Fortunately for us, he’s still allowed to write books and sell them. It just might take him a while.
Imarritu’s film changes enough things from the novel—leaving out many scenes wholly invented by Punke and borrowing from other works on Glass—that it’s really yet another retelling of the Glass story than a true adaptation. But it’s unmistakably a film of revenge, and also keeps Punke’s foreboding title, evocative of a horror movie and some malevolent, unremitting spirit—and practically spelling out “revenge.” It’s a bit of a misnomer, since although a revenant is defined as someone who has returned from the dead, the person is not necessarily bent on retribution. But still, it works. (Punke says in his acknowledgments that he didn’t come up with the title himself—a savvy editorial assistant did. So, kudos, Svetlana Katz!).
The biggest change from book to film is the motivation for Glass’s revenge. In the novel, Fitzgerald steals his rifle and knife and leaves him for dead (with Bridger as a reluctant accomplice). But in the film he murders his son in front of his eyes and tosses Glass into a half-dug grave. He also lies to Bridger about their reason for needing to leave Glass—he never sees the Indians coming by the stream as he does in the novel. Fitzgerald is a killer in the book—it’s revealed in a flashback that he stabbed the prostitute he loved in a jealous rage, along with the john she was sleeping with—but he never tries to kill Glass even though he might want to. The film demands blood to be spilled. Was it a necessary change? It’s certainly easier to understand his motivation for revenge. Films have a long history of avenging the death of loved ones—stolen rifles, not so much. The movie can’t get into Glass’s head the same way the book can, so it needs to make its case for revenge quickly and unequivocally. An audience can easily rally around a story of survival, but a character’s right to revenge must be harder earned. It makes sense that the film would want to make his justification as clear as possible. This change also ensures that Fitzgerald will find a different fate than he did in the book. Again, blood must be spilled. It’s a more satisfying end for moviegoers, but perhaps not for Glass. The book is in a way more optimistic for Glass—he finds peace without the revenge he was seeking, or maybe more truthfully, in spite of it.
Novel vs Film
- The rifle is not as important. The Anstadt is Glass’s closest companion in the book: “It was the one extravagance of his life, and when he rubbed grease into the Spring mechanism of the hair trigger, he did so with the tender affection that other men might reserve for a wife or child.” Fitzgerald coveted it, and the only reason he agreed to stay behind with Glass was to claim this treasure as his own once Glass was dead. But since the film gives Glass a son—whose life Fitzgerald also takes—the rifle isn’t needed.
- The movie opens with a dramatic attack on the trappers by the Arikara Indians. The attack is mentioned in the book, but is not described in detail except for smaller skirmishes later on that aren’t in the film. It’s sets both the scene and the stakes of the story perfectly. The novel opens with a short prelude of Glass being abandoned by Fitzgerald and Bridger, before jumping back to the beginning of the expedition.
- The bear scene rivals the book’s. Many people who hadn’t read the book still knew there was a graphic bear scene coming in the film—and was even their reason for seeing the film. It was talked about before the film came out. The surprise was how unrelenting and graphic it was. It comes a bit later in the movie than in the book, and it goes on much longer. It’s an agonizingly visceral scene. You can almost feel the bristles of the bear’s fur and the smell of his breath.
- The movie doesn’t give us anything on the amazing backstory of Glass—his time as a first mate in a Philadelphia shipping company, the woman he loved there and hoped to marry, his capture and then escape by pirates that forever altered his life and would lead him from the sea to the wilderness. It adds a richness to the story that’s lacking in the film, but it’s why you read the book.
- I missed seeing the characters Professeur, Langevin, La Vierge, and Dominique, who travel with Glass by canoe up the Missouri River. They are minor characters introduced more than half-way through the book, but the foursome are so richly drawn, and their terrifying encounter with the Arikara Indians so memorable and cinematic.
- The trial at For Atkinson is left out of film. It was one of the weaker parts of the book. After his ordeal in the wilderness, it was disheartening to have Glass finally confront his betrayers only to have to endure a show trial in front of a wannabe judge. The trial and its verdict were anti-climatic and I was glad to see the film have Glass be sole judge and jury.
- Captain Henry becomes more of a hero in the film. He’s supportive of Glass in both, but in the novel he’s weighed down by the curse of losing his best men a second time as well as the perennial black cloud that follows him to Fort Union. He doesn’t have any better luck in the film, but he gets to accompany glass on his final mission to hunt down Fitzgerald.