Horseman, Pass By, a beautiful coming-of-age first novel by Larry McMurtry was immediately made into a big Hollywood film starring Paul Newman and renamed Hud. The film was huge validation for a freshman novelist, and got Larry McMurtry’s writing career going with a bang, but I wondered how McMurtry felt having his sensitive literary hero pushed aside to focus on the novel’s most insensitive, and rather minor character. Horseman, Pass By made me think of a rural version of The Catcher in the Rye. Hud feels more akin to Midnight Cowboy. Don’t get me wrong, Hud is a good movie, it’s just not Horseman, Pass By even though they keep much of the basic plot.
The novel is about 17-year-old Lonnie Bannon’s emotional life in the summer of 1954 where he lives on his grandfather’s east Texas ranch with several other significant people. One of those people is Scott “Hud” Bannon, his uncle. In the book we seldom see Hud, and usually only when he’s at his nastiest. For the movie, Hud is elevated to the main character, and Lonnie’s story becomes secondary to Hud’s. Instead of being an empathetic story about a boy learning about life through relationships, the movie gives us sympathetic story about the nastiness of an asshole. Unfortunately, that asshole is so well played by charming Paul Newman, that he becomes an anti-hero, and upstages all the other characters. In the book, Hud deserved to put down with a 30-30 like one of the hoof and mouth infected heffers, in the film he’s not quite as bad, but still deserves some jail time. In both stories he gets off scott free.
Actually, we know what McMurtry thought about Hud since he wrote Hollywood: A Third Memoir about his books being turned into film. He was overjoyed to get the money because it freed him from a life in academia. His only disappoints were he didn’t get to meet Patricia Neal on the set and the screenwriters didn’t fix the ending, the scene with Homer Bannon dying. McMurtry thought it was weak, and one forced on him by his publishers. McMurtry’s general attitude toward Hollywood was take the money. Oddly, though, the pictured Hollywood made from his second novel, Leaving Cheyenne, retitled Lovin’ Molly so outraged him that he wrote a protest article for New York magazine. So, I guess he really didn’t care about the changes made to his first novel with Hud.
But I did. I cared a lot. Horseman, Pass By is a great novel. It deserves more attention, and it deserves not to be remembered as Hud. Besides not focusing on Lonnie, the movie leaves out one great character, and chickenshitly changes another.
The Halmea character played by white Patricia Neal in the film was an African-American woman in the novel. She is a sympathetic and fully realized black character in a 1961 southern novel, making her very important indeed. Hollywood just couldn’t handle that. If 1961 Horseman, Pass By had been filmed as it was, it would have been very close to 1960’s To Kill a Mockingbird in sentiment. And to say a sensitive inner-voice novel can’t be put on screen is to ignore the 1962 movie version of To Kill a Mockingbird. Horton Foote did the screenplay for that book, so I wonder what he could have done for Horseman, Pass By.
Hud also leaves out Jesse, an aging cowboy who Lonnie admires. Jesse is a far more important character than Hud. The real story is Lonnie’s relationships with Homer, his grandfather, Halmea who mothers him, but who Lonnie is sexual attracted, and Jesse, who is a kind of cowboy Socrates to the boy. In the novel, Lonnie is trying to figure out how to live through the people he admires. Hud is not one of them.
Hud is an excellent film if you ignore the book it’s based on. I’ve watched it three times over my lifetime. I just wished they had filmed Horseman, Pass By as it was written. This is my second reading of Horseman, Pass By, and that’s what I want to stick with me.