Sunday, July 10, 2022

Complicated winds.

You may recall that a few weeks ago, I attended a Q&A with the force behind the Game of Thrones TV series, George R.R. Martin, at the Santa Fe Literary Festival. He talked about the series he was developing with Robert Redford (yes, that Robert Redford) based on Tony Hillerman's series of mystery novels set on the Navajo Nation. And I said I was very much looking forward to seeing the show -- Dark Winds -- when it showed up on AMC.

Well, I've seen it. The sixth and final episode of the first season dropped today. And I'm torn. I want to like it -- I really do. The production company took pains to make sure Native Americans were involved in all aspects of the production, from showrunners to cast. That's a good thing. In addition, the show was shot on location here in New Mexico. Tesuque Pueblo, just up the road from Santa Fe, has converted its former casino building into a film studio, and Dark Winds was shot there, as well as at other locations around town. I was tickled to recognize Loretto Chapel (with its "miraculous" floating staircase) in downtown Santa Fe standing in for an Indian school run by nuns.

And I know that Hollywood does crazy things to novels to make them into properties that will bring eyeballs to either the big screen or the small one. But... wow. This show is so far afield from the world that Hillerman invented that pretty much the only things that are the same are the setting, the names of the characters, and their job titles (and even that last is not quite true).

The first season of the show is based pretty loosely on the third novel in the series, Listening Woman. I read the book probably 25 or 30 years ago, so I was pretty hazy on the details. But I checked out Wikipedia's plot summary this evening, and it confirmed my suspicion that not much of the book's plot made it into the TV show.

Oh, the framing of the story is more or less the same: Lieutenant Joe Leaphorn of the Navajo Tribal Police investigates the deaths of an elderly man and a young woman. The man had sought advice from a Navajo healing woman -- the "listening woman" of the title of the book; the young woman is the listening woman's niece. The listening woman steps away to ponder her advice to the man, and when she returns, both he and her niece are dead. They were murdered, of course, and Leaphorn eventually ties in their case with one a few years earlier, in which crooks blew the back off of an armored car in Santa Fe and escaped with the cash in a helicopter.

I won't go any farther with the plot because of spoilers -- not for the book (it was first published in 1978!) but for the TV series. I will say, though, that the showrunners had to do a major overhaul to bring in the other two main characters: Jim Chee and Bernadette Manuelito. You'll note that the cover of Listening Woman is billed as a "Joe Leaphorn Mystery"; that's because Hillerman hadn't invented either Chee or Manuelito yet. Chee first appeared in People of Darkness, the next book in the series. In his autobiography, Hillerman wrote that he created Chee because he thought Leaphorn was too hardened to fit the plot he had in mind for that book. But that's not what Martin said in May; he said Hillerman had signed an option to make the first three novels into a movie, and the document turned over all rights to the character of Joe Leaphorn to whoever owned the option. It didn't matter that the film was never made; Hillerman simply didn't own his character anymore. (Hillerman must have eventually gotten the rights to Leaphorn back, because he does show up in later books.)

In any case, Chee's not in Listening Woman, and neither is Manuelito. She doesn't show up until The Fallen Man, the 12th book in the series, published in 1996. After Hillerman's death, his daughter Anne has continued the series and has put Manuelito at center stage, along with Chee. (Leaphorn's now retired.)

In the novels, all three of them -- Leaphorn, Chee, and Manuelito -- are good cops. Their lives are as  complicated as anyone's, of course. But morally, there's no question that they believe in the work they do and in the Navajo way of life. And that's not always the case in the series. There are things that Leaphorn and Chee do in the TV series that they simply wouldn't do in the books.

I get it; moral ambivalence is the fashion now. Protagonists these days are messy, with complicated motives -- it makes them seem more real, or so the thinking goes. And if I'd gone into the show with no preconceived ideas about the main characters, I expect I would have liked it a lot.

But what I wanted from Dark Winds was a story about heroes and bad guys, and I didn't get it. Nobody here is a hero. 


These moments of complicated blogginess have been brought to you, as a public service, by Lynne Cantwell. Get vaxxed! 


Unknown said...

We often talk about "Save the Cat," but I thought the first episode featured a moment of "Kill the Cat," when Chee drove by the people that were broken down alongside the road. That was a pretty early establishment that he wasn't a great guy.

We're only two episodes in, and I'm struggling with it. It's just not great, which is a shame.

Anonymous said...

Have you read any of the books?

Chee has a pretty redemptive character arc in the show. But he's *completely* different in the books - he was in training to be a healer at one time. A very spiritual guy. It's pretty awful, what they've done to him in this show.

Lynne Cantwell said...

Have you read any of the books?

Chee has a pretty redemptive character arc in the show. But he's *completely* different in the books - he was in training to be a healer at one time. A very spiritual guy. It's pretty awful, what they've done to him in this show.