For many years now, in a real irregular way, I’ve been reading the books that my repeat-viewing movies are based on. As book-centered as I am, I’ve felt this is backwards, but what the hey, better late than never.
At its best, this reverse approach lets me “see the movie” in a more fleshed-out, deeper, richer way. You go from a skeleton to a body. It doesn’t always work like that but it did with The Last Picture Show, partly because McMurtry co-wrote the screenplay. Reading the novel made the movie expand. Watching the movie again, after I finished reading, made the novel contract.
The movie owes more to Italian Neorealism and British kitchen sink dramas than it does to American movie conventions. That fits the spirit of the book. In the book, the landscape is plain, even bleak. The story is anti-sentimental, anti-Romantic. It couldn’t be farther from moonlight-and-magnolias if it tried. It shows virtually no sign of trying anything. These are some of the reasons why it’s such an accomplished novel.
The scene is fifties Thalia, Texas, on the plains near the Oklahoma border. It’s a stand-in for Archer City, Texas, where McMurtry grew up. The main characters are Sonny, Duane, and Jacy, three teenagers near the end of high school, and several adults they’re connected to by family, romance, friendship or school. Duane dates Jacy, then Sonny does. Between these two, Sonny has an affair with Ruth Popper, who is forty and married to his gym coach. There’s a whole lot of sex going on in this town, but people seldom talk about it in public (this is much like the real Archer City in the early seventies, according to a film crew member). Tangled webs are woven and re-woven. The movie shocked some with its frank depiction of fluid sexual relations, although little actual sex was shown. But whereas the movie was R, the book is X. Some of the events in it concern livestock. This is Texas without varnish, after all.
Presiding over all the characters is Sam the Lion, a sort of father figure to Sonny and Duane, and owner of the town’s restaurant, pool hall and movie house. His death halfway through parallels the slow death of Thalia itself. You realize that the old-time string band who play at the annual Christmas party is an echo of the frontier past. What everybody really listens to is what’s on the radio. Also fading out is Victorian morality and the cattle industry. People are moving to bigger towns. Maybe the frenetic sex in this Boccaccio-on-the-Plains tale is part frustration with all this change. Nearly everyone here is testy and breaking the bonds of convention that defined small town Southern life. This is a good time to say it’s very funny, too.
In one scene, Sonny, Duane, and some boys get drunk and try to set up the town mental case with the town prostitute. It backfires and they dump the boy in front of Sam’s pool hall. Sam berates them: “Scaring an unfortunate creature like Billy when there ain’t no reason to scare him is just plain trashy behavior. I’ve seen a lifetime of it and I’m tired of putting up with it. You can just stay out of this pool hall and out of my picture show and café too.“ Sam is hardly a prude, but the boys have crossed a line. Sam is as contradictory as everybody else here. All the characters are wrestling with desire, lust, propriety, honor, and boredom, trying and usually failing to put them all into some workable order. Like his literary forebear Henry Miller, McMurtry sees sex as simply part of life. And like his spiritual descendent, British novelist/screenwriter Hanif Kureishi, McMurtry wisely leaves in all the dirty laundry, all the contradictions and schizo behavior. The result: these are people you know. It’s the struggle that counts, and drives the story, not any kind of resolution. There’s almost none of that.