Lonesome Dove, Larry McMurtry’s 1985 epic of the old west, was the kind of success that can ruin a writer. Before its release, McMurtry was the widely respected author of “literary” novels like Moving On and All My Friends Are Going To Be Strangers. Despite being pegged as a regional writer, the native Texan was no niche talent. His first book, Horseman Pass By, was made into the iconic Paul Newman film Hud in 1963. His third novel, The Last Picture Show, was adapted by director Peter Bogdanovich into one of the great films of the 1970s. His bestselling novel Terms Of Endearment was made into the 1983 Oscar-winning smash hit. By any measure, this was a successful writer.
Then came Lonesome Dove. The book was a blockbuster that won McMurtry two things: a huge mainstream following among Western fans, and a Pulitzer Prize. Then, in 1989, came the legendary mini-series starring Robert Duvall and Tommy Lee Jones. The program raked in millions of dollars for CBS and won a raft of Emmy awards. It reinvigorated the Western (Dances With Wolves was still a year away), it reestablished the financial and artistic credibility of the mini-series (which had just taken a hit with the disappointing epic War And Remembrance), and—this is often forgotten—it launched the superstar phase of Tommy Lee Jones’s career.
The triumph of both the book and the mini-series made Lonesome Dove something McMurtry could not have expected: a franchise. His novel spawned a sequel, two prequels, four more mini-series, and a short lived series. Unless McMurtry is a terrible businessman, all this probably earned him a ton of money, but the famously cranky author doesn’t seem to have gotten much joy out of it. Asked on NPR’s Morning Edition in 2009 how he felt about Lonesome Dove, the only praise he could muster was: “I don’t hate it or anything.”
Part of the problem for McMurtry is that he never intended Lonesome Dove to be a traditional Western. “I’m a critic of the myth of the cowboy,” he said in a 1988 interview with the New York Times. ’’I don’t feel that it’s a myth that pertains, and…I feel it’s a legitimate task to criticize it.” But while his most famous creation was an attempt to critique the myth of the Old West, many readers missed the point. ’’Some people read Lonesome Dove as a reinforcement of the myth,” McMurtry explained. “People cherish a certain vision because it fulfills psychological needs. People need to believe that cowboys are simple, strong and free, and not twisted, fascistic and dumb…”
To be fair, the halo of glory that sets atop the Lonesome Dove success story does distract from the actual accomplishment of the original text. McMurtry’s novel is an 843-page juggernaut, an epic that never feels outsized, a page-turner that is nevertheless finely attuned to human foibles. Despite its frequent suspense and action, the story of two former Texas Rangers who undertake a cattle drive from Texas to Montana is really about age and, like so much of the author’s work, about regret. The narrative unfolds in an alternating POV that grants us access to the minds of many characters, and McMurtry’s real accomplishment is the sensitive, and seamless, way he floats from person to person. His gallery of characters—of different ages, genders, races, backgrounds, perspectives—is impressive, but more impressive still is the way the novelist gives everyone his or her own perspective.
At the forefront of the narrative, of course, is the relationship between the two aging rangers, Captain Woodrow Call and Captain Augustus McCrae. In the author’s preface to the twenty-fifth anniversary edition of the book, McMurtry spells out an aspect of his two protagonists that every reader instinctively picks up on, even if he or she doesn’t have the words for it: Call, the author says, is a Stoic, while McCrae is an Epicurean. Though it is dressed up in cowboy garb and adored with six-shooters, the central drama of Lonesome Dove is how these two men—lifelong partners and boon companions—negotiate their philosophical disagreement about the meaning of life. Call sees it as a thing to be endured for the sake of duty. McCrae sees it as a jug of wine to be drunk before the final sun goes down. One intuits that the author rather agrees with McCrae, but it’s important to note that in many ways Call is the novel’s main character. The book’s final section belongs to him (and the sequel, Streets Of Laredo, is the unrelentingly dark story of his death), and the final question of this novel (will he claim the illegitimate son he fathered with a prostitute years before) is his to answer. All of this makes Lonesome Dove, ultimately, a tragedy.
Simon Wincer’s mini-series adaptation of the novel is a grand accomplishment in its own right. Wincer’s direction is always sturdy and often good, but the real power here is in the script that stays faithful to the novel and keeps all of McMurtry’s best dialogue:
Call:We come to this place to make money. They wasn’t nothin’ about fun in the deal.
McCrae: What are you talkin’ about? You don’t even like money. You like money even less than you like fun, if that’s possible.
Of course, good dialogue doesn’t count for much if it being spoken by bad actors, and the mini-series is blessed with a gifted cast (Danny Glover, Diane Lane, Robert Urich, Rick Schroder, Chris Cooper, Glenne Headly). At the head of this rich ensemble are Robert Duvall as Gus McCrae and Tommy Lee Jones as Woodrow Call. Now, it’s not too much to say that Duvall and Jones are two of the best actors in American cinema, and their duet here—often hilarious, and ultimately heartbreaking—might be the best work either actor has ever done.
Interestingly, Lonesome Dove had its start back in the seventies when McMurtry was working with director Peter Bogdanovich on the film version of The Last Picture Show. Bogdanovich wanted to film the story with Jimmy Stewart as Gus and John Wayne as Call, but Wayne—not yet ready to make a movie about the death of the Western myth—turned down the project and Stewart followed suit. McMurtry kept the story for himself and turned it into a novel. Though one would love to see the movie Bogdanovich envisioned, that development was for the best.
Lonesome Dove needed to be a novel, needed the space to develop its characters and let its meanings run deep. For the same reason, it was perfect material for a long form television production like a mini-series. Larry McMurtry may be uncomfortable with the massive success of his creation, but his artistic accomplishment is no less extraordinary.