Monday, June 30, 2014

Book vs. TV: Craig Johnson's Longmire

TV tie-in
Maybe it's my meds making me grumpy, but I’m not a great fan of the TV series Longmire. Whatever TV touches usually makes a mess of it, and its manhandling of Craig Johnson’s original Longmire novels illustrates precisely why. 

First off, the ebb and flow of a neatly constructed plot from Johnson’s pen is chopped into fragments to fit into a TV hour and then once again squeezed between commercial breaks. Then the generous complexity of his situations and characters (as in this one, Death Without Company) is dumbed down with sex, violence, and visual stunts. 

Lost are (a) the novel’s pacing that gradually builds the elements of a puzzling mystery (the death by poisoning of an elderly Basque woman), (b) the page-turning suspense that rivets a reader in the final chapters as all the chips finally fall and action turns life-threatening (a manhunt in a blizzard), and (c) the wry, smart humor and understatement that come with Longmire’s amused first-person narration, which to me is the greatest loss of all:

Victoria Moretti didn't like being called handsome, but that's how I thought of her. Her features were a little too pronounced to be dismissed as pretty. The jaw was just a little too strong, the tarnished gold eyes just a little too sharp. She was like one of those beautiful saltwater fish in one of those tanks you knew better than to stick your hand into; you didn't even tap on the glass. 

By comparison, the TV series makes Longmire seem darkly angry, weakened and unfocused in part by grief at the death of his wife and in part by what seems like dread and self-doubt. He is a wounded warrior in the fight against crime.

Johnson’s Absaroka County and Durant, its county seat (claimed by the town of Buffalo, Wyoming, as its fictional double), are faithlessly portrayed in the A&E series with all its location footage shot in New Mexico, which with the multi-season run of Breaking Bad seems to be aggressively gunning for TV production projects these days.

The irony at the center of a Walt Longmire novel is his being an aging white male surrounded by women with more than a feminist bias or two, and an Indian friend more than a little proud of his heritage and impatient with Longmire’s relative ignorance of it. Yes, Longmire has the authority and the responsibility that go with the badge he wears, and he wears it as gracefully as he can. But the series writers would have us see him instead as an old-time Western lawman, like Gary Cooper in High Noon, tough and stoic.

Craig Johnson
Johnson makes of him an enjoyable, affable character, who makes you smile and can get you laughing. He’s intelligent and capable of wisecracks, as when he utters a Nebraska Cornhusker cheer: “Go Big Red, and a Big N for Knowledge.” Beleaguered, yes he is, but not seriously so. 

His wry observations of human foibles are sprinkled with quotes from Shakespeare, which go over the heads of his bewildered associates. And you appreciate his ability to get things done, even if it means slipping around the rules and drawing on a lifetime of learning how to second-guess and outsmart people likely to run afoul of the law.

My advice if you like the A&E series is not to pick up a Longmire novel. You will see how poorly Craig Johnson’s skill at storytelling is served by the hash TV makes of it. I probably should say “slick” hash, because it’s all done so smoothly you don’t suspect how cunningly unfaithful it is to the original. Or, sample a novel and see what you’re missing. What’s the worst that can happen? You may meet a Sheriff Longmire you like better and forget to put the book down again.

Death Without Company is currently available in print and ebook formats at amazon, Barnes&Noble, and AbeBooks.

Image credit:
Author's photo, readwestfoundation.org

Coming up: TBD


11 comments:

  1. I have found that the vast majority of film adaptations are not on the same level as the book version. The book usually has more space to properly develop the plot and characters, while the film often has to delete scenes and characters. Plus the film version often changes important elements. There are exceptions but few and far between.

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  2. I haven't seen the series although I thought I might like it. I just don't have a lot of time for TV

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  3. I njoy the show for what it is, a televison production to entertain, but limited to show structure. The performances are so good, for most of the actors, that its lack of Johnson's influence is overlooked.

    Having said that, I agree that the show has lost the beauty of the written word. To me they are two different animals and just share a name. I have a similar feeling about "Justified", but Leonard worked with that show, so it's not quite as different. Doris

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  4. I only watched the first three or four episodes, then came to the same conclusion as you have. I don't think it works as one and done episodes. If they'd written it as a case-per-season type arc, then Johnson could have been served. As it is, I've avoided it after first getting a taste.

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  5. I have not read any of the Longmire novels. However, I have followed the series with religious routine. I really, really want western themed programs to succeed - but onmygosh - When the powers-that-be start jerking the camera around (I assume as a substitute for good dialogue), insert overdone fifteen minute fist fights that aren't appropriate for the scene and all the mumbling Longmire does, I want to scream. I'm going to skip the next episodes and pick up a Longmire novel.

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  6. I completely agree and didn't watch it last year BUT I have drifted back due to its unusual setting and decent acting. I have never read the books but I can imagine exactly where the show goes wrong. Either the arc is too prominent or not prominent enough. It would be better served in 90 minute segments.

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  7. Don't have the A&E station since we got rid of most of them because of the cost and the lack of time for TV. I haven't read any of the Longmire stories yet.

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  8. Have to say Doris "Renaissance Woman" said it best for me, so I won't repeat it. However, had it not been for Longmire the A&E series, I may never have discovered Craig Johnson the author. Every Longmire novel I complete, I conclude, "That's the best one yet," until I read another. So far, I'm through 5 with #6 in the queue. Johnson is such a superb writer, and, granted, the books are much better than the TV shows, but that's just the way it is. Your critique notwithstanding, Ron, seems to me a person could enjoy both, which, personally, I do.

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  9. Love the Longmire books and have read them all. I don't mind the show, but as you said it isn't much about the book. Too bad they didn't shoot the show in Buffalo WY, a stunning western town, the real deal. By the way, Craig Johnson lives just a few miles from Buffalo in a town of 20 or so.

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  10. I usually like to rush and read a book before seeing a film adaptation, as I did with Lord Of The Rings; but I don't let it stop me from enjoying, if possible, the film. Now, note I said "film." The ex-A&E series (numbskulls!) is, to me, cinematic candy. They appear to take the time to use real locations; they allow pregnant pauses; they use lighting, focus, and angle to make each shot count - just as John Ford might have done back before everyone defaulted to chroma key and special effects.

    The (temporary, I hope) cancellation of - in A&E's own words - their top original drama made me order Seasons One and Two, which I had not seen, to get me through what I hope is only a short hiatus. I plan to begin reading the novels in order, and I will hold any differences against neither the author nor the producers. I plan to enjoy both formats.

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    1. Good way to do it. They are really different animals.

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