Reading Winter in the Blood

I continue to watch with interest the development of the Winter in the Blood film project. It had been several years since I read the James Welch novel, and the possibility of a new film based on it inspired me to pick it up this summer and read it again. I admire the ambition of the filmmakers in tackling the book, as it’s a challenging to novel to realize on screen. In particular, the novel’s careful balance of realism and surrealism seems difficult to achieve, made somewhat easier in the novel because we are inside the narrator’s consciousness, and the shift between subjective and objective experience that the novel as a form is so good at doing makes the combination of surrealism and realism a bit easier to do.

In some ways, it might be easier to focus on the novel’s realistic elements, but the casting of the film thus far suggests that the filmmakers are willing to tackle some of the stranger parts of the tale as well. Chaske Spencer has been cast as Virgil First Raise, the book’s protagonist and narrator; Julia Jones has been cast as Agnes, the “girl who had stolen my gun and electric razor” (as Virgil calls her); Gary Farmer as Lame Bull, the man who marries Virgil’s mother and takes over her farm (perfect casting for this character); David More as Airplane Man (aka, “the man who had torn up his airplane ticket”).

I’m going to follow the film in referring to the protagonist as Virgil. I’m not sure if the narrator is named in the book—at least, I couldn’t find a reference to his name, but I may have missed it.

That Airplane Man is listed as part of the central cast suggests that the film is taking the right approach to the novel. It would be easy to jettison the Airplane Man part of the story and focus on Virgil’s tragic life story, but the decision to make the role an important part of the film suggests the filmmakers are intent on preserving the novel’s dark sense of humor and sense of the absurd.

In one of my favorite sections of the Airplane Man sequence, Virgil has a strange encounter with him in a diner, where he becomes suspicious of another person (the “old man”) in the diner, fearing he might be following Airplane Man:
“Heh, heh,” said the old man. He licked the paper. A bowl of oatmeal sat on the counter in front of him.
“You’re an old timer. Have you ever known this river to have fish in it?”
“Heh, heh.” He held the cigarette up to admire it. Considering his shakiness, he hadn’t done a bad job. It was just a little bulgy in the middle. “Heh, heh,” he said again. A great crash, as though somebody had dropped a stack of dishes, came from the kitchen. Somebody swore. The old man placed the cigarette between his lips, struck a farmer’s match on his fly, inhaled deeply, then plunged facedown into the oatmeal.
It was plain that he was dead. I tapped him on the shoulder just to make sure, but he was dead all right.

I hope that scene makes it into the movie.

I’m a bit puzzled by the listing of Agnes as one of the major cast members. I wonder if that is because actress Julia Jones has become well known through the Twilight films? In the novel, Agnes is an important character in that Virgil spends much of his time in the present looking for her (or, ostensibly looking for her), but she only appears in one scene. I wonder if the film plans on giving the character Agnes an expanded role?

Also, one of the things I like about the book is the careful attention that Welch pays to animals, many of which emerge as individualized characters in their own right, Amos, the duck, and especially Old Bird, the horse, an animal that plays a major role in Virgil’s past and present. It will be interesting to see if the film can preserve that element of the novel.

From what I’ve read on the film’s blog and website, the novel seems to be in good hands, and I’m looking forward to seeing the completed movie.

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