Book/Movie Review: Winter in the Blood

As book nerds, we commonly hold the rather snobbish opinion that movies based on novels are never as good as the book. There are good reasons for this, as each book reading experience is very subjective. We visualize the characters in our own way. We savor each detail. Film interpretations of novels often have to be ruthless in cutting details, lest each film run hours or days in length. Characters are often cast for their star appeal rather than their authenticity to the role. Avid literati often take offence at this. “How dare they cast Brad Pitt in that role? He’s completely wrong for it.” Or, “How dare they not include the scene at the refinery, that’s the key detail that explains the ending.

I am as guilty as the next book nerd of holding this snobbish view about film versions of novels. But when I saw Winter in the Blood (2013, Kitefliers Studios), and subsequently read the book of the same name, I finally found a film that does justice to the writer’s intent.

James Welch was a son of the Blackfeet and Gros Ventre tribes, and spent time on both the Blackfeet and Fort Belknap reservations in Montana while growing up. He attended the University of Montana, and attained an MFA in creative writing and poetry. He taught at the University of Washington and Cornell University. James Welch passed away in Missoula, Montana, in 2003, after publishing several novels and poetry collections. Winter in the Blood, first published in 1975, was Welch’s first novel. He had previously published a collection of poetry, Riding the Earthboy 40.

Welch said that he began writing Winter in the Blood with the intention of writing a poem about the Montana landscape. Indeed, the book is very poetic. James Welch was perhaps the James Joyce of the American prairie. The world he describes on and around the Fort Belknap Reservation is dream-like, fantastic in the surreal sense. Virgil First Raise is a young man in search of something, but he’s not sure what. He recalls the tragic deaths of his father and brother. He goes on a half-hearted quest to find the woman who may or may not be his wife, who absconded with his father’s rifle and his electric razor. In the process, he fills his days drinking with friends old and new in a variety of seedy bars and hotels in small towns in north-central Montana. He has bizarre encounters with characters that are possibly imagined. We are left uncertain of whether he has found what he sought, as he himself is probably uncertain of whether or not he has found it, but the journey itself has taught him a few things. Life is a hell of a ride.

Twin brothers Alex and Andrew Smith directed the film version of Winter in the Blood, and did an amazing job turning Welch’s poetic prose into film. Filming entirely on location in towns in and around the Fort Belknap Reservation, the Smith brothers captured the stark yet beautiful landscape in a way that would have pleased Welch. Casting the supremely talented Chaske Spencer as Virgil First Raise was brilliant, as his strong performance carries the weight of the entire movie upon his shoulders. He’s in virtually every scene. Gary Farmer, a Canadian Cayuga kin of my Oklahoma Cayuga relations (and who is apparently in ever movie ever made involving Native characters) puts in another strong performance as Virgil’s step-father Lame Bull. The gorgeous actress Julia Jones portrays Virgil’s Cree girlfriend/wife, Agnes. The ever-talented David Morse, who was so strong in the Smith brothers’ first film The Slaughterhouse Rule, portrays the mysterious Airplane Man.

For readers, I highly recommend finding a copy of Winter in the Blood, which has been republished as a Penguin Classic, with a forward by the incredible Louise Erdrich. It is a slim novel, at less than 140 pages, but it is incredibly rich. It is the first novel I have read in quite some time that had the power to completely pull me in. I nearly missed my train stop one day last week because I was mentally in Havre, Montana and not on a DC Metro train. Welch’s writing is poetic yet sparse, like the wind-swept prairies he describes.

For viewers, I highly recommend watching Winter in the Blood. It  is available on Netflix or on DVD. Rarely have I seen a film so authentic to both the original novel and to the content. The supremely talented Sherman Alexie was involved as an associate producer, and the movie very much feels like a movie about Native Americans written and produced by Native Americans. And I don’t mean Lone Ranger, here folks. This isn’t Johnny Depp yammering in broken English with a dead bird on his head. If you are Native, or have been fortunate enough to spend time with Native people, you will appreciate the uniquely indigenous sense of humor. See the movie, read the book you will not be disappointed.

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