Daniel Woodrell reflects on how his small novel became a big movie.
By Ashley Fantz
JANUARY 31, 2000: West Plains, Missouri, population 10,000, has a few familiar hot spots. Casey's convenience store, the Minimart, Ryan's Family Steakhouse, the West Plains Motor Speedway. The closest thing to Hollywood is the town's sole Blockbuster Video.
"I suppose there are more people now who know me than before," says Daniel Woodrell, author of "Woe To Live On," the novel on which director Ang Lee's latest film "Ride With the Devil" is based. "It was easy to go unnoticed, but that's getting to be a little harder lately."
Lee found "Woe To Live On" through a fluke -- someone on his staff read the book when it was published in limited quantity (it was out of print within a year). At the time, Lee was wrapping up "Sense and Sensibility," a prim project that would have driven any director to change his focus to dirt and danger. Lee's assistant handed him the copy, he read it in one night, and sought out Woodrell for the rights.
The film has stirred controversy among critics for its depiction of the savage Kansas/Missouri border wars during the Civil War and its empathetic portrayal of the Confederacy. Stars Tobey Maguire, Skeet Ulrich, and Jeffery Wright have received as many "Oscar-worthy"s from reviewers as Jewel has laughs for her performance as a demure young widow.
While most reviewers praise the film and novel's storyline, others denounce its unapologetic portrayal of the Civil War South.
"One of the things that bugs me is that there's an assumption by Northern critics that the film and novel are inherently racist due to the language or the characters," the author says. "It's a complicated tale with diversely noted characters. Many audiences just aren't willing to look at the humanity of the people."
Although he's not Southern and has lived in the Ozarks along the Missouri-Arkansas border for most of his life, Woodrell considers himself a Southern writer. And his previous novels, such as "Tomato Red" and "Give Us a Kiss," reflect the colloquial dialect for which the author is praised by such writers as Pinckney Benedict, Annie Proulx, and Roddy Doyle.
"My grandfather was a great storyteller; he sounded like Shelby Foote," Woodrell recalls. "He would tell us jokes that wouldn't fly in today's world and several sayings that rang out like smokey bullshit. He was a sly country guy with a ferociously dry wit. I hear his voice in my head when I'm writing."
The novelist has always tried to meld his experiences with a purely fictionalized narrative. He's at work now on a novel that takes place during the Vietnam War, a time particularly sensitive and mysterious to Woodrell, who at 17 years old joined the armed forces after dropping out of high school -- not too far a stretch from Rides's baby-faced protagonist Jake Roedel.
"Throughout the film, you never forget how young Jake is. Tobey captured Jake's vulnerability," he says. "Skeet was great as an anguished Southern aristocrat transplanted into an environment that was nothing of the gentility that he wanted to preserve."
Unlike many writers who complain that Hollywood's manipulation of their work ends in creative shellshock, Woodrell reports non-scary cinematic experiences. Screenwriter James Shamus changed very little of "Woe To Live On"'s original story. Because most audiences are not familiar with the Kansas/Missouri border wars, the visual narration of the film is aided by a storyline that stays true to the book's dialogue while explaining Quantrill's Raid, an 1863 massacre in which 450 Confederate soldiers attacked Lawrence, Kansas, and slaughtered 150 innocent civilians.
"It's guerilla-like warfare," says Woodrell. "The violence is dramatic but the violence of any war is extreme. I think Ang was sensitive to that. On any side, there are reasons for fighting that the other side will never comprehend."
Lee and Shamus have gone out of their way to credit Woodrell during interviews, he says. The filmmakers also brought the author along for Ride With the Devil's London Film Festival premiere.
"It was a bunch of guys in tuxedos in a 200-seat theater," he recalls, with a heightened Ozarkian twang. "They all looked like dukes to me and when they started pumping my hand... then Emma Thompson came up and said she loved it. It was a heck of an ambience."
Woodrell jokes about how out of place he was in the swank hotel the moviemakers reserved.
"The most amazing thing is that I've written six novels and this movie appeared in more places in two weeks than "Woe To Live On" was mentioned in two years," he says. "This is the book that was closest to my heart, but it sold only 2,600 copies without ads and it wasn't in bookstores. So, when retrospectively, people praise the book it's ironic but mostly a pleasure."
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