The Revenant: does the film change feelings about the book?

Exploring the story of The Revenant, three different ways - and how the film changes things...

This article contains spoilers for The Revenant

Over the next few weeks, with help from BookBeat – who we thank very much for their support – we’re trialling a book club series of features, where we look at books, how they translate to movies, how they work in audiobook form, and just generally chat about a certain title. You can get a free trial of BookBeat – a sort-of Netflix for audio books – right here. Den Of Geek readers get a full month free trial, as opposed to the usual two weeks. But you need to click on that link to get it!

This week, we’ve looked at The Revenant, the film version of which won Leonardo DiCaprio his Oscar. Over to Aliya, then, to get us started…

In this age of choice, it’s not so easy to decide how to experience something; a movie blockbuster comes with the decision of 2D, 3D, IMAX…. Is it based on a book? If so, should you read that before, or after, or not bother with that at all? Is it a graphic novel tie-in or a short story, or available as an audio book? Did it start out as a stage play, or as an article in a newspaper? There are so many ways to make sense of a story, and some forms of entertainment work better than others, depending on how you like to take on board the information you’re being given, and what kind of approach best suits the material.

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There’s also the fact that whichever way you choose to go with first will affect how you feel about the other versions. Watch the film first, and you might find the book a bit slow and ponderous. Listen to the audiobook first, and the film might not match up to the images you’ve created in your own head.

It’s great to have so much choice, but it’s worth bearing in mind that the experience of listening to, watching, or reading a story can really change how you feel about it. Here’s a look at one example – The Revenant.

The tale of Hugh Glass’s epic crawl to exact revenge on those who left him for dead started out as a piece in a literary journal in 1825, and then appeared in newspapers and gained popularity as a story of unlikely survival. There was a real Hugh Glass, who never commented in print on the bear attack or its aftermath – he died in 1833. There have been lots of books and articles and earlier films about his mauling and abandonment, but the 2002 novel by Michael Punke, entitled The Revenant, caught the attention of Hollywood producers, and in 2011 director Alejandro G. Iñárritu agreed to make it. Released in 2015, it was a commercial and critical success.

So if you want to enjoy The Revenant, you’ve got a few choices in how to go about it.

If you start from the 2002 novel, you’ll get a dry but fascinating read, big on detail about the trapping way of life, that feels on the factual side. Punke’s novel starts with a map, and the path that Glass crawled is marked upon it with a dotted line, to compare to the journey of the two men who abandoned him. Each chapter starts with a date. There is little in the way of description of the natural world; it’s not seen as beautiful, or as an emotive experience, to travel through such difficult lands. In fact, the only thing that really gets described lovingly is Glass’s rifle:

It was a beauty that other men noticed, asking, as they often did, if they might hold the rifle. The iron-hard walnut of the stock took an elegant curve at the wrist, but was thick enough to absorb the recoil of a heavy powder charge… the stock turned gracefully at the butt, so that it fit against the shoulder like an appendage of the shooter’s own body.

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The rifle is worth a fortune, and is very important to Glass. It’s the only thing he asks for when he is left to die, after being torn apart by a bear. Being left behind makes sense in this harsh environment, but stealing a man’s rifle is low blow; still, it is taken by the pragmatic Fitzgerald. The eventual return of the rifle marks the end of the novel, and also the end of Glass’s quest for revenge – he can’t kill Fitzgerald, who has since enlisted in the Army, and is protected by his superiors.

We don’t really get to see inside Glass’s head in the novel. He feels squarely like he belongs to a different time. Why he survived and fought on when so many others would have died from their wounds is down to many factors, none of which involve being a hero in the sense that we understand actions to be heroic nowadays, just as Fitzgerald isn’t straightforwardly a bad man. I think that’s what I like most about the novel – this isn’t a straightforward tale of heroic actions and daring deeds. It’s about survival, and how that crowds out all other thoughts and actions. There’s no time for a relationship with nature; nature is what’s trying to kill Glass.

The film takes an entirely different approach. The natural world is what provides the cinematic spectacle, so it’s a hugely important part of the story. Moments that were described in an economical fashion in the book (the grizzly attack takes up two pages out of three hundred) become the intense selling point of the film, because of the visual excitement they provide. The journey is no longer about the details, but the vastness of the landscape, which is so brilliantly photographed – it is stunning.

Is that why the film opts to give us more traditional heroes and villains? Because the epic sweep of the camera across the land, or looking up through the trees to the sky, demands epic characters? I don’t know, but the decision to create a son for Hugh Glass, only to have him killed in order to provide a stronger sense of revenge, has never appealed to me. Glass becomes a much more straightforward hero and Fitzgerald becomes a more traditional villain in the process, and therefore the ending has to change to satisfy the audience. The Revenant becomes recognisably contemporary in moral attitude, and sacrifices a sense of understanding of what that way of life might have really been like. If it ever felt like it might be a true story in the book, the film makes that look pretty much impossible.

There’s no denying that the film version looks magnificent and you drink it all in; at the other end of the spectrum, there’s the version that doesn’t ask you to use your eyes at all. The audio version, an unabridged reading of the text, is nine and a half hours long and the recording I listened to was narrated by an actor called Jeff Harding, who gave the story a slow and pleasant American drawl. It’s an immersive experience, demanding you take your time and listen to every word, so it’s not for anyone who’s in a hurry (you could argue the same about the film).

The audio book made me realise something I hadn’t paid a lot of attention to before – I skip bits when I read. I don’t read every word, and vary the pace at which I’m reading according to whether I’m finding the paragraph exciting, moving or not to my taste. The only way this translates to the audio book experience is that sometimes I might wander off and make a cup of tea, or at other points I might stop everything and listen intently.

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Is it a good way to get to grips with The Revenant? It has a power to it, and it feels like a more authentic experience of the story. Perhaps that’s because the oral form of storytelling is so old, and intimate. You could imagine yourself around a campfire, getting drawn into The Revenant in this format; after all, it’s the perfect subject matter for such an approach.

The differences between these productions of the same story (give or take some changes) raise the question – could listening or reading to a version of a story you hated as a film, or vice versa, really make you love it? If you have a problem with slow-paced Westerns generally, then The Revenant in any form is going to be a tough sell, I suspect. I like Westerns, so it’s no hardship to get caught up in Hugh Glass’s fight for survival in whatever format. But I’ve discovered that I’m much more likely to skip ahead when reading a novel, and that means I don’t always get the full benefit of the author’s writing. Watching a film, it’s easier to get sucked into the setting but sometimes the subject matter can be oversimplified. An audio book can really capture my attention, but I need to be prepared to devote time and effort to it.

So there’s always room for a different approach to what would appear to be a well-worn narrative. The way we experience something makes a big difference to what we think of it. As we are given more and more options about how we’re going to watch, read, and listen to things, it’s worth finding out not only which format best suits that story, but which best suits you.

Novel: The Revenant (author Michael Punke) Published 2002.

Film: The Revenant (director Alejandro G. Iñárritu) Released 2015.

Audio Recording: The Revenant (read by Jeff Harding). Released 2015. Available from BookBeat.

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