Happiness is a warm gun: on the novel that inspired The Revenant

Michael Punke's The Revenant may have informed last year's Oscar-winning film, but it is both more complex and more honest.

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What justifies vengeance? What act is so despicable, so transgressive, that the constraints of society – if we can agree, for one moment, on what we call “society” – can be justifiably abandoned? The murder of a child? Killing a son in front of his father?

In Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Oscar-winning film The Revenant, it is just such a crime that drives its protagonist, the trapper Hugh Glass, towards revenge. The year is 1823 and a party of men is after furs in the high plains of North America. When Glass is mauled by a grizzly bear, the men travelling with him assume he’ll die, but post guards to care for him until he does. One of the men, the wicked John Fitzgerald, kills Glass’s half-Pawnee son while the helpless trapper looks on. Fitzgerald and his companion then hightail it out of there, though not before burying Glass alive.

But the indestructible trapper hauls himself out of the grave to wreak revenge on the perfidious Fitzgerald. There will be many more astonishing perils to conquer before the two men meet again, such as the devouring of raw bison liver, and cosying up inside the abdominal cavity of a dead horse. (Remember Han Solo, Luke Skywalker and the dead tauntaun in The Empire Strikes Back? Just like that.) And so, groaning and moaning, freezing and nearly drowning, Leonardo DiCaprio dragged himself, at last, to his Academy Award.

But let’s say Fitzgerald didn’t kill Glass’s son. Let’s say he just stole his rifle. How do you feel about the whole thing then?

The posters for Iñárritu’s film claim that it is “inspired by true events” – which, when you consider it, could be said of nearly any story. Artists are inspired by the world around them: all their creations are, therefore, inspired by true events. But in Hollywood-speak, “inspired by true events” is code for “serious”. You thought we made this shit up? No way, bro, this happened. In the uncertain 21st century, the phrase imparts instant gravitas. But just as 19th-century trappers were rightly wary of mama grizzlies, so wised-up audiences should be wary of Tinseltown shtick.

The Revenant takes its title from a novel by Michael Punke published nearly 15 years ago. That novel was inspired by true events; in a “historical note” to the book, however, Punke makes a couple of things quite clear. First, that the era of the North American fur trade “contains a murky mixture of history and legend”; and that the story of the historical Hugh Glass can be summed up in a few sentences. He was attacked by a grizzly bear while scouting for the Rocky Mountain Fur Company in 1823. He was horribly mauled and his companions left him to die. He survived “to launch an epic quest for revenge”.

And so, because the writer wishes “to stay true to history in the main events of the story”, he declines to invent a son for Glass. He also declines to invent a ghostly Pawnee wife, who serves in the film to align Glass not with the rapacious fur trappers who are despoiling the continent and stealing its lands from its indigenous inhabitants, but rather with those indigenous people. This allows the viewers of the film to feel that Glass occupies a moral high ground a whole two levels above the other characters. First, those bad men killed his son, and who wouldn’t get pretty mad about that? Second, that son is half Native American, so Glass isn’t really like those atrocious, thieving white people.

Things are more complex and honest in Punke’s novel. The author knows a thing or two about the difficulties of human interaction when it comes to questions of commodity and possession; he happens to be a deputy US trade representative and the US ambassador to the World Trade Organisation. (Think hard next time you tell anyone you’re too busy to write a novel.) We haven’t heard much from him not only because his day job doesn’t allow him time to rush around signing copies of his reissued novel: federal rules on ethics prevent him from taking part in any activities that might be considered “self-enriching”.

There were no such restrictions on the adventurers who headed out along the Missouri River to enrich themselves. Punke shows a band of men who have fallen through the cracks of so-called civilised life, hoping to remake themselves by measuring themselves against the wilderness. What the novel shares with the film is a sense that the landscape – its weather, its predators, its game, its rivers and mountains – is the protagonist; human beings can only react in such a setting. There is little sentimentality regarding the indigenous tribes that Europeans encounter in the book; Glass’s time with the Pawnee is precipitated by his ability to trick the “savages”, as he thinks of them, by causing them to believe that he has magical powers of some sort.

And anyway his true love isn’t a woman: it’s a gun, which makes this a quintessentially American story. The equation is spelled out plainly:

Glass’s rifle was the one extravagance of his life, and when he rubbed grease into the spring mechanism of the hair trigger, he did so with the tender

affection that other men might reserve for a wife or child.

It’s a Kentucky flintlock rifle, manufactured in Pennsylvania, startlingly accurate by the standards of the day; but there’s more to it than that for Glass. It is not only accurate, but beautiful:

The iron-hard walnut of the stock took an elegant curve at the wrist . . . From even a short distance, the grain of the wood was imperceptible, but on close examination, irregular lines seemed to swirl, animated beneath the hand-rubbed coats of varnish.

Fitzgerald’s great crime, in leaving Glass to die, is the theft of this rifle; the Anstadt, named for its maker, is the totem of the book. It is the thought of recovering it that keeps Glass alive. His travails, incidentally, are not nearly so dramatic as those in the film, though the novel is thoroughly gripping. It is the excessive suffering portrayed on screen that results in what Ryan Gilbey of this magazine called, quite rightly, a kind of macabre comedy.

Michael Punke, among his other talents, is something of a scholar of early American history, and his depiction of Glass as a man motivated by desire for a manufactured object, rather than love for his fellow human beings, or even the landscape they inhabit, offers a foreshadowing of life in the country settled by men like him. Iñárritu’s film, by contrast, is a sop to bad conscience. However many speeches Leonardo DiCaprio makes about the importance of native populations, or the dangers of climate change, the damage has been done. 

The Revenant by Michael Punke is published Borough Press (308pp, £7.99)

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer. A former literary editor of the Times, she has twice judged the Man Booker Prize. Her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters”, the novel Seizure and, most recently, Chief Engineer: The Man Who Built the Brooklyn Bridge

This article appears in the 17 March 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Spring double issue