Where the Red Fern Grows (Norman Tokar, 1974)
I don’t keep a Best Books list the way I keep a Best Movies list (yet), but if I did, Wilson Rawls’ Where the Red Fern Grows would be somewhere in the top ten. I don’t believe there’s a single book that requires multiple sittings to read that I have read more often than that one; I probably read it four or five times a year between discovering it in sixth grade (I had Summer of the Monkeys as an assignment in school, and so I decided to find out what else that guy had written) and, oh, 1990 or thereabouts. And yet somehow I had not only never seen the movie adaptation, but never even knew such a thing existed, until a few nights ago. So, with trepidation, I sat down to watch it. Now, I haven’t read the book for quite a while, and I tried to take into account that the book is never as good as the movie, but still, I found myself entirely unable to work up a lot of enthusiasm for it.
Plot: Billy (Seven Alone‘s Stewart Petersen in his screen debut; as of this writing, his film career seems to have ended in 1981) is a boy from so far on the wrong side of the tracks in the Ozarks that tracks don’t even exist there yet; his family is hardscrabble-poor, trying to make a go of it farming in the middle of a drought, while his parents (Twice-Told Tales‘ Beverly Garland and High Plains Drifter‘s Jack Ging) harbor a dream of buying their uncle’s feed store in Tulsa and making a living as real businesspeople. Billy’s dreams are not nearly so grand; he just wants a couple of coonhounds so he can go hunting. Raccoon skins, we’re told, are all the rage in Vermont, and Billy proposes using the money from them to do things like help his father get a new mule. Grandpa (The Shawshank Redemption‘s James Whitmore) counsels Billy that the lord helps those who helps themselves, and once Billy groks what he’s on about, it’s time to start scrimping, saving, and doing odd jobs to raise the money to buy a couple of hounds. From there, well, if you haven’t read the book yet, get on that.
…and with a few exceptions, the movie tallies well with what I remember of the book, a statement I have heard numerous times reading comment threads and discussions about it. There were a few discrepancies that I rush to add may be in my head rather than on the screen. I don’t remember the book being nearly as religion-centric, nor do I remember Billy being quite to selfless; it’s possible to change emphases in a story and still be faithful to the source material, though, and those make sense given the structure (if you need to be clued in, look at the main title credits; the font used is right out of a fifties Western, and Tokar went for both the structure and the morals that come packaged with same). The climactic scene, on the other hand, was changed, and very deliberately; there may have been a reason for doing so, but I have yet to come up with anyone who’s advanced a good reason for doing so. I also understand that one cannot fit an entire novel, faithfully, in a movie, and thus cuts need to be made; I had to question why they spent so much of the film pre-dogs, which ended up rushing the dogs section. (As a side note, that balance could have easily been rectified by cutting out all the religion and “oh look how selfless I am” nonsense.) Maybe (again) I’m misremembering, but the competition seemed especially rushed; (quasi-spoiler alert) what I recall as taking up a good quarter of the book got crammed into about ten minutes of screen time, with lots of minor characters and that sort of thing absent, or present only in passing. Mostly what watching the movie did was remind me I need to re-read the book. ** ½