How to Sound Smart: The Revenant

The Revenant by Michael Punke
The Revenant by Michael Punke.

The Oscars certainly are dominating not only the film discussions right now—as they typically do—but also discussions about best-selling novels, since so many of the films nominated for Oscars are based on books this year. Aside from the controversy surrounding the lack of diversity in the Oscar nominations (hilariously mocked by a recent SNL sketch, in fact and given weighty relevance by the recent Variety cover), much of the conversation has centered on Leonardo DiCaprio, his performance in The Revenant, and whether this is the year Leo finally gets the Best Actor award he’s been obviously chasing after his entire career.

That’s put some serious star power behind the novel The Revenant by Michael Punke, driving it up the bestseller lists more than a decade after its original publication. So, you’re not going to be able to avoid discussing the book (and the movie) in the coming weeks, and certainly not if you’ve got an Oscars party or two to attend. To avoid that deer-in-the-headlights look when someone asks what you thought about the novel, here’s how to sound smart about The Revenant.

Very Real

The first thing to know is that the events described in the book are based on reality, as difficult as that might be. There really was a Hugh Glass, and he really was mauled by a Grizzly Bear, and he really was abandoned by the men who were assigned to guard him and dig his grave—and he really did survive and seek revenge. Many of the details in the book were invented by Punke, however, as we have very few first-hand witnesses of the events, and even more (including Glass’ son) were invented for the film. The novel is based on meticulous research by Punke, who grounded all of his inventions and descriptions of the things Glass does to survive in real techniques used by frontiersmen in the early 19th century.

Not the First Adaptation

While the story of Hugh Glass might be a surprise to many, it’s a well-known story in American History, and served as the inspiration for several previous novels, including Lord Grizzly by Fredrick Manfred in 1954, Hugh Glass by Bruce Bradley in 1999, and Saga of Hugh Glass: Pirate, Pawnee and Mountain Man by John Myers Myers in 1976. Glass was also the basis for the 1971 film Man in the Wilderness starring Richard Harris. What sets the DiCaprio film apart is the realism Alejandro G. Iñárritu and his team attempted, filming in the wilderness, using natural light, and staging most of the action with the actors themselves instead of relying on stunt people and CGI.

A Better Ending

The film adaptation ends with a very typical Hollywood-esque confrontation between Glass and the man who is most responsible for his abandonment: The sneaky, cowardly, and belligerent John Fitzgerald. Glass returns to the fort where his fellow trappers are living, receives medical treatment, and then tracks Fitzgerald in the wilderness and they have a brutal confrontation ending with Fitzgerald dead. In the novel, Punke goes for a more meditative ending: Fitzgerald flees Glass and joins the army, intending to desert when he has the chance. Glass arrives and accuses Fitzgerald, but the army insists on putting its man on trial. When Fitzgerald lies on the witness stand, Glass shoots him, but only wounds him, and is arrested (it should be noted that this incident was wholly invented by Punke for the novel). He is later set free with the admonition that Fitzgerald is the army’s concern now, and Glass gives up on revenge, ruminating that civilization is slowly spreading into the wilderness, and with it things like law courts and juries, signaling the end of the brutal, violent world he has been surviving in.

In short, the book’s ending is better. The film is hoping for a stirring climactic battle between the two men, but Fitzgerald is painted as too cowardly, and the fight is staged too realistically to be a proper heroic moment—and Glass even leaves the final killing to a band of Indians who arrive on the scene, making the whole moment a let down. In the novel, Glass the character grows and evolves, learning something from his ordeal.

We’ll never tire of stories about men and women who survive despite incredible odds, whether it’s bear attacks or having to amputate their own arms to escape from caves or being stranded on Mount Everest. As usual, despite all the Oscar buzz, it’s always a good bet that the bestselling book behind the film will teach you more and give you a better story.