Published in 2002, The Revenant: A Novel of Revenge was written by Michael Punke, a lawyer, western historian and, currently, U.S. ambassador to the World Trade Organization in Geneva, Switzerland.
Punke was not involved in the creation of the film. In fact, as a Washington Post article reported in late December, 2015, he cannot even talk about it due to laws prohibiting federal employees from earning money on the side.[i]
I have purposefully stayed away from most news about the film, so I have no idea if I’m offering plot spoilers for the film in what follows. If I am, it’s done unknowingly. But I thought I’d offer five crucial things to know about the novel (for those who don’t have time to read it!), so you can measure what the film has done with its source material.
- The heart of Punke’s novel, set in 1823 in the upper Midwest, around the Missouri River, is the unlucky encounter of protagonist Hugh Glass with a bear. Scouting ahead of his party, which is heading further west to trap and trade furs, Glass encounters two bear cubs in a clearing. He sees them and the novel tells us that for a split second he fails “to calculate the certain implication of their presence.” That implication is a protective mother, who charges at Glass “roaring with the focused hate of protective maternal rage.” Glass manages to kill the grizzly, but suffers devastating wounds. What begins this story, then, is one of those encounters in the “wild” that has no moral implications. It is an encounter between two animals each trying to protect themselves and their own. Will the film, though, make this encounter more heroic—less about chance, more intentional?
- The head of the trapping party orders John Fitzgerald and a boy, Jim Bridger, to stay behind with (they presume) the dying Hugh Glass—to care for and bury him. The novel moves into ethical terrain when the two men choose instead to abandon him. And they don’t just abandon him; they steal what would allow him to survive—his knife, his flint, his beloved German rifle. In the novel, Bridger leaves Glass only reluctantly, virtually forced to do so by Fitzgerald—a troublemaker and a man concerned with little more than self-interest. Bridger is horrified at Fitzgerald’s lie to the rest of the men when they catch up—his lie that they buried Glass, even made a cross. Will the film keep this difference between the two men?
- The most gripping part of the novel is Glass’s painful survival—and his grim determination to live and to track Fitzgerald and Bridger for the sole purpose of revenge. In fact, this is where the title comes from—Revenant. For in many ways, Glass dies, reanimated only by the desire to kill the men who abandoned him. Here are my favorite lines from the novel:
“Fitzgerald and Bridger had acted deliberately, robbed him of the few possessions he might have used to save himself. And in stealing from him this opportunity, they had killed him. Murdered him, as surely as a knife in the heart or a bullet in the brain. Murdered him, except he would not die. Would not die, he vowed, because he would live to kill his killers.”
And Punke really does make it clear that there is little driving Glass but revenge. Will the film make him so single-minded, so devoted to death?
- Of course, Glass does find the men he’s hunting, and both meetings are let-downs—for Glass, perhaps for the reader. Glass finds he can’t kill Bridger. He realizes (and perhaps this is about his coming back to “life”) that Bridger’s abandonment of him was not unambiguous. Bridger had tended to Glass’s wounds and resisted Fitzgerald fiercely when the latter suggested leaving the dying man. When Glass finds him, Bridger takes Glass’s punishing fist with resignation: he feels he deserves what he gets.
The climactic encounter with Fitzgerald is even less satisfying, as Glass finds himself embroiled in a court case, unable to exact the kind of simple, righteous justice he yearns to exact. Will the film end like the novel, with a frustrating bureaucratic farce?
The court case does give Glass the opportunity, though, to ask himself if he really wants to kill Fitzgerald, if he really wants his life to be defined by revenge. The novel ends with Glass contemplating the night sky:
“He wondered at the stars and the heavens, comforted by their vastness against his own small place in the world.”
And he seems to relinquish his revenge, coming back from the dead by means of a purposeful choice to define his life otherwise.
- Lastly, I sensed from a preview that in the film Hugh Glass may have a child. Not in the novel. The novel portrays a world of men—no women, no children. This is the “uncivilized” frontier. The white men are all getting away from something or looking for something, and they do it alone. Some of the Native American men presumably have wives and children somewhere, but they are absent from the violent clashes on this frontier at this moment. Punke paints a thoroughly unsettled world, and there’s no room for sentimentality. Does the film hew to this vision?
If anyone out there has Revenant, let me know what you think—and how you think the film rates by comparison. I’ll be back with my film review shortly!