Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Bury My Heart In HBO

Books are rarely good enough for screen adaptation. Audiences who sit in front of glowing screens want to be entertained. If they wanted to learn something, they'd read a book.

Dee Brown's incredible history of the American Indian, Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee, was a blockbuster best seller when it came out in 1971, and it remains the quintessential non-fiction treatise. In page after page, the book is highly informative, educating people who had never before heard of the Lakota's side of the story and opening up many eyes to the harsh realities of Manifest Destiny and America's western expansion. This is the history of the loser, the other side of the coin.

HBO is going to make a movie of the book, but the book's just not sexy enough. In Hollywood's judgement, a character is sorely needed, one to appeal to the largely white audience. So bring in a fictional character into the non-fiction story, a half-native half-white, Ivy League educated gentleman. They plucked a somewhat similar person from history, a Santee who was sent away to boarding school back east, and plopped him in the middle of the Little Big Horn. The non-fiction story is set in a specific place, and HBO is trying to follow the historical narrative and adhere to the timeline of the events as much as possible. So they lift a real person, shake him out, dust him off, and put him where he never was in real life, all to make for a lovely story.

Dee Brown never allowed his book to be given the Hollywood treatment, no doubt because he expected the entertainment industry to do exactly what they have done. The esteemed author has passed away, however, and a project that was floated near the end of his life will soon come to life on the small screen.

Professor Raymond Wilson of Fort Hays State University is the leading authority on the real Ivy League native American, Mr. Charles Eastman. He's having a top laugh over Eastman's presence in the Dakotas, as per HBO's version, when in actuality Mr. Eastman was in Nebraska at the time of the battle at the Little Big Horn river. Watch HBO's version and you'd think Charles Eastman was there, watching events unfold. Read Professor Wilson's book, however, and you'll find an entirely different story, but reality is not as much fun as a writer's imagined scenario.

There has to be a love interest in any good movie, and HBO has warped time to put Elaine Goodale, who really was involved in native American education in the Dakotas, at a place she was not at with Mr. Eastman who was not there. Nicolas Proctor, the grandson of Dee Brown, is mourning this bastardization of a well crafted piece of history. As he has observed, the historical narrative, which is interesting in its own right, has been morphed into nothing more than a love story.

By resurrecting a book published thirty years ago, HBO may be doing something positive. Sales of Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee may shoot up as viewers turn into readers and discover that there was far more to the story than the few hours of entertainment presented on television.

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