From Novel to Film pt. 3: The Last Picture Show

First published in 1966.
but probably better known as the 1971 film.
I first read this when I was the same age as the main character (Sonny Crawford) - something that's unintentionally become kind of a running theme at this blog - and saw the film a few years afterward. I haven't read the book in over twenty years or seen the film in several, so I thought it'd be fun to revisit both for this here From Novel to Film series.


"Is growing up always so miserable?" Sonny said. "Nobody seems to enjoy it much."
"Oh it ain't necessarily miserable," Sam replied. "About eighty percent of it, I guess."

In case you've neither read nor seen it, here's the cover blurb from the Dell paperback 1st printing:

Which while technically correct doesn't quite tell the whole story.

Whatever else it may be, The Last Picture Show is some kind of master class in omnipresent narration. The point of view switches effortlessly from one character to the other, sometimes in the same paragraph, and although the characters are often unaware of why they're doing the things they're doing or why things are happening to them, their frustration, confusion, and anguish comes through faithfully and clearly.

Our main character is Sonny Crawford:

and the novel is told primarily - though not wholly - through his relationships with the other characters. (All images below from the film - I've spared you all the who-played-whom details; here's a link to its imdb page if there's anyone you don't recognize.)

First and foremost, it details his affair with the football coach's neglected wife, Ruth.

His giving her a ride to the doctor's blossoms into a clandestine love affair that everyone in town (except the coach) knows about.
While the affair initially revitalizes Ruth, it ends up causing her much pain once Sonny neglects her.

Sonny's inconsideration towards Ruth rings true of adolescence - unfortunately - and it comes about as a result of his affair with Jacy Farrow, the prettiest girl in town.

Of whom her mother says "If we don't get this little bitch off to college, she'll ruin the whole town."
This is actually in the novel's third act. Jacy starts the story as Sonny's best friend's Duane's girl. 

Jacy is a fascinating character in her own right, and her treatment of both Duane and Sonny is another true-to-adolescent-life feature of the novel. But let's stay with Sonny for the time being.
His relationship with Billy, the town simpleton, could possibly be the novel's most important, symbolically, as Billy represents Sonny's own (inevitably trampled) innocence.

When he betrays Billy - or at least does nothing to stop the sequence of events that causes him harm - it is Sonny's old self that he is offering up for sacrifice, so to speak. 

The sacrifice is made literal at novel's end, when Billy is run over on the main street, having wandered into the road - as he often does - with both eyes covered. 

More on this in a bit.
About halfway through the book, Sonny and Duane and their friends decide to get Billy drunk and force him into a car with the town's (official) whore, Jimmie Sue, a kind of Saraghina figure. When the experience ends with humiliation and a bloody nose for Billy, Sonny is chastised for this by the novel's father figure, Sam the Lion, the proprietor of the three main locations (the picture show of the title, the pool hall, and the diner.) 

Sam's quiet authority and support is taken for granted until it's gone, first with his excommunicating the boys from his establishments, then with his death (after he's forgiven Sonny.)

Sonny's relationship with Jacy's mother Lucy is also important, though the two don't connect meaningfully until the very end of the book, after his aborted marriage to Jacy.

"I sat next to your mother in second grade. I never expected to sleep with her son on his wedding night to my daughter. That's small town life for you."
That "small town life" line is more than just a wry comment. McMurtry's dedication ("lovingly dedicated to my hometown") was meant ironically. The novel was actually his attempt to purge himself of the hostility he felt towards Archer City, called Thalia in the novel. 

He acknowledged many years later that although he successfully brought to life his hometown's isolation, dysfunction, despair, inadequate role models, and suffocation by fundamentalist religion, he had still, somehow, romanticized the place and its people. "Clearly," as mentioned here, "he did not intend to temper his satiric look at Archer City with sentimentalism and "the stubborn resiliency of the human spirit and its capacity for love."

This is perhaps best encapsulated in another of the novel's tragic but still hopeful figures, Genevieve, the waitress and eventual owner of the diner.

Her relationship with Sonny is warm throughout the story. Sonny's actual parents are not a part of the novel (his mother has died, and he lives apart from his well-meaning but essentially-incapable father) so while Sam the Lion is his Dad, Genevieve is the closest thing he has to a mom. (Albeit one he fantasizes about.)

Outside of the relationships described above, the plot is a little difficult to summarize. As the New York Times noted in its review: "nothing much happens." In actuality, plenty happens; there's a lot of plot going on. It's more of a tone poem about alienation from the first line ("Sometimes Sonny felt like he was the only living creature in the town") to the last ("Never you mind, honey. Never you mind.")

Other themes? The awkwardness and unbearable self-consciousness of burgeoning sexuality.

This is also very apparent in the book's (arguably) most shocking scene - the gang-rape of the cow.

"The prospect of copulation with a blind heifer excited the younger boys almost to frenzy, but Duane and Sonny, being seniors, gave only tacit approval. They regarded such goings on without distaste but were no longer as rabid about animals as they had been. Sensible youths, growing up in Thalia, soon learned to made do with what there was."

McMurtry manages to make things even more uncomfortable for the reader:

"One sophomore was in something of a predicament because, by an unexpected stroke of luck, he had actually made out with a girl that night. As a consequence of that success the boy was feeling somewhat enervated and was attempting to restore himself by beating his member against a cold aluminum gate."

If a cruder but more effective symbol for sexual frustration exists, I have not seen it. The scene ends with:

"In the midst of it all, the heifer finally broke loose and went dashing across the lot with one of the freshman hanging furiously to her tail. Sonny was just as glad. Somehow it wasn't as exciting as it had been when he was a freshman."

Sonny doesn't participate because the very same night he first kissed Ruth and is excited and confused by those feelings. So at least we're spared having our main character, you know, rape a goddamn cow.

The rich have it marginally more glamorous in town (nearby Wichita Falls) but as Jacy learns at her first nude swimming party, not much more. 

"One little kid surprised Jacy to no end. He had freckles and a burr haircut and looked about thirteen and he had on a green diving mask. What surprised Jacy was his penis, which stuck straight out. It wasn't very big or anything, but it was certainly sticking out and Jacy thought it was just awful that he would walk around with it like that. 'That's my little brother Sandy,' Bobby Sheen said. 'Don't pay attention to him - he's not in the club. He just likes to swim under water with his mask on and look at girls while he fiddles with himself.'"

Nevertheless, running with the wild naked swimming pool crowd excites Jacy and sleeping with Bobby Sheen is her motivation for losing her virginity to Duane. (Bobby tells her to come and see him when she's not a virgin, as he doesn't want to "mess up his parents sheets" upon learning she's never had sex.)

More from the Times review: "There is one perfectly adjusted character in the place: Abilene. His passion is pool. He works in the oil fields all day and handles a cue all night, except when he is squiring some filly around in his Mercury." 

This is an odd way of summing up Abilene's role in the story. He works for Jacy's father, is carrying on with Jacy's mother, and ends up seducing Jacy, either for the hell of it or as a way of hurting Lucy Farrow.

KinD of an indelible part of the town's victimization of its adolescents. 
Lucy Farrow and her daughter bond over Abilene's ill treatment of Jacy, and elsewhere we discover she and Sam the Lion were once lovers, as well. Not just lovers, but the love of one another's lives. 

"If she was here now I'd probably be crazy again in about five minutes. Ain't that ridiculous?"
(later) "It ain't really. Being crazy about a woman like her's always the right thing to do. Being a decrepit old bag of bones is what's ridiculous."
One thing that stuck out this time around - is Joe Bob Blanton the illegitimate offspring of Sam's and Lucy's affair? Joe Bob is the son of the town's revivalist and the kid in school everyone picks on. (We're told early on that Joe Bob got his underwear taken from him so much his mother buys it in bulk.) After Sam dies, he leaves one thousand dollars of his estate to Joe Bob. No one knows why. After Joe Bob is arrested for kidnapping a little girl and getting her to take her panties off - another thing that is left rather mysterious: does he do so out of the same repressed / twisted sexual frustration that grips everyone else? Or was this his not-very-well-thought-out plan to get out of preaching at the revival? - the only person in town to show him any kindness is Lucy Farrow. When his father abandons him to his fate, calling upon the Lord to show him the way through prison or death at the hands of the little girl's father, she storms out of the revival and goes to the jail to play checkers with Joe Bob.

Is Sam's interest in the welfare of the town punching bag just an outgrowth of his compassion? His own sons all died young, and it's suggested that this is why he watches after Billy. Is his leaving Joe Bob the money from the same impulse? Could be. And maybe Lucy is just honoring Sam's memory by going to the jail to spend time with the accused child molester. This isn't explored anywhere I could find out there, but I thought it was worth mentioning.

One other thing: there's more than a little monomyth going on here. The Hero's Journey, through the usual stages, but explicitly captured in a few places:

Duane and Sonny's journey through the underworld. (i.e. Mexico.)
The hero gets maimed.
Sacrifice an eye / get wisdom.
And I could go on. But a) wow, I didn't realize this section was getting as wordy as it is, and b) as with the Fisher King symbolism in The Sun Also Rises, just because it's there doesn't mean it was exactly what the author had in mind. But, as with Joe Bob's possible parentage, just thought I'd mention it.

Let's wrap this up with this last bit from the Times review: "The boys tend to be composites. There is not that much difference between Sonny and Duane and Joe Bob. But Jacy and her mother, or the lumpy Charlene, Ruth, the coach's wife, even the two-bit call-girl are individuals." I found this to be true, as well. Except for Sam, and Coach Popper. Speaking of the coach, this next part is a real (unfortunate) sign of the times: "The big man at the school is the football coach, a coarse, stupid, Neanderthal type who doubles as a teacher in civics, a course he couldn't pass, never mind teach. But the coach knows how to protect his preserve. When another teacher wants to turn his prize quarterback to serious study, the coach contrives to get him dismissed for perversion. " 

That's one way to put it, and for 1966 (when the review was published) probably as close as you could get to what actually happens in the book: Coach Popper - himself a pederast - drums up false kiddie-rape charges against the teacher in question, ruining his marriage and livelihood and forcing him to leave town altogether, all because he (the coach) wants to keep the quarterback all to himself. No one in Thalia could ever conceive the football coach of being a pederast (although he is, as well as a sadist; he almost castrates Duane and Joe Bob just to show he can in an early scene) but the English teacher? Got to be a pervert.


Peter Bogdanovich (aided and abetted by McMurtry himself as co-screenwriter) brought the novel to life in 1971 as a BBS production.

"This was the maverick company, run by Bert Schneider, Bob Rafelson, and Steve Blauner most associated with the seventies revitalization of American cinema, partially through the rejection of classical modes of storytelling. The Last Picture Show has a foot in both camps, the old and the new. Slow and mournful, it does not seem to have much in common with the work of other directors who emerged during the decade. Yet it fully embraces the new era’s sense of personal artistic vision. And like the other Raybert/BBS productions, it powerfully depicts loss, loneliness, the failure of family, and the pipe dream of love—themes very much of the time." - Graham Fuller, from the Criterion review.

Polly Platt, the director's then-wife and the film's production designer (though she had a great deal more input than that title suggests, some going as far as to say she was primarily responsible for how the film looks, feels, and sounds) wanted the film to deal with American themes (particularly its sexual matter-of-factness) in a "French" way. 

In this, it succeeds admirably. The performances are very old school (particularly Cybill Shepherd's and Timothy Bottoms's) but the mix of old and new sensibilities is perfect. Ben Johnson is perfectly cast as Sam the Lion, "carrying the moral authority of Old Hollywood, all those years working with John Ford." 

He originally passed but changed his mind after Ford called him to personally appeal on Bogdanovich's behalf.
According to Peter Biskind's Easy Riders Raging Bulls, Bogdanovich came close to making a movie with Henry Fonda, Jimmy Stewart, and John Wayne, based on a script called Streets of Laredo that Larry McMurtry wrote shortly after they worked together on The Last Picture Show. Stewart and Fonda were eager to do it, but Duke passed, saying it was more of an end-of-the-Western type picture and he wasn't ready to hang up his spurs just yet. Bogdanovich believed Ford sandbagged him: it was one thing to loan him Ben Johnson for a movie but another thing entirely to give him his three biggest stars to make a great western. (Streets of Laredo eventually materialized as a little book called Lonesome Dove, and its original title was resurrected for one of its sequels.)

Outside of the casting, the film's other home run is the cinematography.

"The last person to make classical American cinema was Peter. To really utilize the wide frame and the use of the deep focal length. He really understood it."  - Martin Scorsese.

Nearly every sequence has one or more shots that conveys the psychological and physical isolation of the characters. 

Several long shots are utilized for the same purpose:

Billy with Sonny shortly before Sam dies.
Lucy walking away from Sam's graveside.
Just pointing the camera around the town itself yields the same effect.

As mentioned above, McMurtry modeled Thalia after Archer Falls, Texas.
The name was changed to Anarene for the film, but was actually shot in Archer Falls.

It is for the most part a very faithful adaptation of the book; its changes are mostly cosmetic. The most drastic omission is probably Lucy Farrow's and Sonny's not having sex at the end of the story. But, as the critic John Simon pointed out, (from that Criterion review aforelinked) Sonny’s sleeping with Lois on-screen would have not only diluted the delicacy of his forlorn affair with Ruth but also cost the movie the touch­ing conversation between Lois and Sonny when she recalls the only man who knew her worth. 

"It is through Ruth’s and Sam’s upbraidings that Sonny learns about emotional responsibility and through Lois’s acceptance of her past that he learns about the transience of love."
Other changes and let me just bullet-point them:

- the Coach is much less of a presence in the film. His sadism and self-denial is much more evident in the novel.

- Bogdanovich inserts references to John Ford's Grapes of Wrath and Howard Hawks' Red River everywhere he can.

Red River is even substituted for the closing film of the last picture show.
In the novel it’s The Kid from Texas (1950), which fails to divert Sonny and Duane from their thoughts about Jacy: “It would have taken Winchester ’73 or Red River or some big movie like that to have crowded out the memories the boys kept having."

- Sam the Lion gets an additional line in the scene where the boys bring Billy back to him after his experience with Jimmie Sue and all the cow-rape.

"You didn't even have the decency to wash his face."
- We see Sonny and Duane directly before and after their trip to Mexico but nothing of the actual trip. This undoubtedly saved the production money and doesn't exactly rob the story of essential scenes, but I found the whole journey to-and-from Mexico to be important, symbolically, for the boys, so I was disappointed.

- Sonny gets his eyepatch off in time for the film's last reel. Not a big change, except that it robs Billy's death scene of still more symbolism. In the book, he is run over in the street because he has covered both eyes with Sonny's eyepatches. I'm not 100% on the symbolism here (nor of the blindness of the heifer, or if I'm just reading into things) but it would have made for a memorable visual. Wonder why they cut it?

- Finally:

Duane Jackson? He's named Duane Moore in the book (and its four sequels.)

It's possible all of these things are addressed in the commentary. I didn't have time to listen to it - something to look forward to.

Verdict: Excellent book, excellent film, excellent adaption. 

(Couple left-over screencaps, submitted for your approval)

"The earth is mostly just a boneyard. But pretty in the sunlight." - Larry McMurtry


  1. My favorite author hands down is Stephen King, and while there's a hairy battle-royale being fought between several folks for the runner-up position, I typically hold up Larry McMurtry as my #2. And in some ways, McMurtry influenced me as much as King. When I was in college telling myself that "being a writer" was what I was going to do with my life, it was McMurtry whose voice/style/content I was typically trying to emulate.

    And specifically, it was his modern-western novels like "The Last Picture Show" that really piqued my muse's interest.

    Nothing much ever came of those plans I had to Be A Writer, which (of course) in and of itself is a rather McMurtrian non-development. Maybe it's for that reason that I've been holding off on diving back into a revisit with his works; I think maybe I sense that I won't entirely like the implications of how much more connected I feel to some of those books now.

    Regardless of that, as with all McMurtry's best work, there is stuff in "The Last Picture Show" that will just flat break your heart. (I find it hard to even look at that screencap of the coach's wife sitting there all by her rejected self.) Peter Bogdanovich captured most of that in the film, too; it's a monumentally great piece of work, and it bums me out to think that anybody could watch the movie (or read the book) and feel that "nothing much happens." Man, for my money, that just couldn't be farther from the truth.

    1. I agree - that Times review felt like the book was only half-read, or half-digested.

      Hope this post did right by you, as a fan of such longstanding.

      Bryant is the curator of a McMurtry blog, by the by, fellow readers:
      http://larrymcmurtryfanblog.blogspot.com/2012/04/works-of-larry-mcmurtry.html which only has the one post at that link at the moment, but with the promise of more to come.