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Authors: Walter D. Edmonds

Drums Along the Mohawk

BOOK: Drums Along the Mohawk
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Vintage Movie Classics spotlights classic films that have stood the test of time, now rediscovered through the publication of the novels on which they were based.

Movie Adaptation of Walter D. Edmonds’s

DRUMS ALONG THE MOHAWK

1939:
Produced by Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation. Directed by John Ford. Starring Claudette Colbert, Henry Fonda, and Edna May Oliver. Screenplay by Lamar Trotti, Sonya Levien, William Faulkner, and Bess Meredyth. Academy Award nominee for Best Actress in a Supporting Role and Best Cinematography, Color.

Walter D. Edmonds

DRUMS ALONG THE MOHAWK

Walter D. Edmonds was born in 1903 in New York State. His 1936 novel,
Drums Along the Mohawk
, was a bestseller for two years. His later works received major literary awards, including the National Book Award and the Newbery Medal. He died in 1998.

ALSO BY WALTER D. EDMONDS

Tales My Father Never Told

Bert Breen’s Barn

The Matchlock Gun

Chad Hanna

Rome Haul

FIRST VINTAGE BOOKS EDITION, FEBRUARY 2015

Copyright © 1936, copyright renewed 1964 by Walter D. Edmonds
Foreword copyright © 2015 by Diana Gabaldon

All rights reserved. Published in the United States by Vintage Books, a division of Random House LLC, New York, and distributed in Canada by Random House of Canada Limited, Toronto, Penguin Random House companies. Originally published in hardcover by Little, Brown and Company, in 1936.

Vintage is a registered trademark and Vintage Movie Classics and colophon are trademarks of Random House LLC.

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.

The Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Edmonds, Walter Dumaux, 1903–1998.
Drums along the Mohawk / Walter D. Edmonds; foreword by
Diana Gabaldon. — First Vintage Books edition.
pages; cm. — (Vintage movie classic)
1. Mohawk River Valley (N.Y.)—Fiction.
2. New York (State)—History—Revolution, 1775–1783—Fiction.
I. Title.
PS3509.D564D7 2015
813′.52—dc23 2014039499

Vintage Books Trade Paperback ISBN: 978-1-101-87267-3
eBook ISBN: 978-1-101-87268-0

Cover design: Evan Gaffney Design
Cover photograph © Mary Evans/Grenville Collins/The Image Works

www.vintagebooks.com

v3.1

FOREWORD

by Diana Gabaldon

When I talk to school kids for Career Day about what writing and publishing are like, I usually take along a couple of my books as props. Invariably, one kid will raise a hand and ask (in tones of mingled respect and horror), “How do you write such
big
books?” To which I answer, “The same way you write a short book. You just don’t stop.”

My books run in the neighborhood of nine hundred pages. As my husband once asked, looking at a German paperback edition (1248 pages), “Do you win some kind of prize if it’s a perfect cube?”

Now, there actually are good reasons why most books aren’t nine hundred pages, and why most movies aren’t four hours long. Any art form that’s continuous rather than static—film, literature, music—is constrained by two major factors: the cost of production and the attention span (or possibly the bladder capacity) of the audience. This is why most books fall between seventy-five thousand and one hundred thousand words, and why most movies are between ninety and one hundred twenty minutes long: Those are the points at which cost and interest most often intersect.

Unusually long specimens generally have some special appeal that justifies their size. Historical novels, for instance, are generally longer than nonhistorical fiction, because people are deeply interested in the details of life in earlier times—and such details take up a lot of room on the page. These same details, though, take up much less room on the screen, because a picture really
is
worth a thousand words. You can communicate an enormous amount of information visually in a very brief span of time. But can you tell a good story that way? Maybe.

This is the art of film adaptation: condensing a written story (of varying size) into a form of strictly constrained length, with specific expectations and structural requirements imposed by the new medium. And believe me, it
is
an art. Having witnessed (and, in a minor way, been involved in) the adaptation of my first novel,
Outlander
(1991), into a sixteen-episode television season, I’ve been impressed, entertained, and not infrequently shocked at how it all works.

With regard to
Drums Along the Mohawk
, I loved the book. It’s based on good research, covers an interesting period (not that I am biased toward the eighteenth century or anything), and best of all, it is very skillfully structured, with intersecting rings of story that link a wide range of engaging characters. The novel gives a striking picture of the struggles of rural life during the American Revolution and makes a powerful but subtle statement about the messy, painful—but necessary—nature of war. It’s a nice, hefty, satisfying read.

No matter how long or short a book is, though, it can’t be translated directly to the screen, page by page. The pacing, rhythm, and structure of a story work differently in a visual medium—and if one is faced with the necessity of turning a six-hundred-page novel into a ninety-seven-minute film, obviously Things Will Need To Be Changed. So how does one go about this?

Well, to start with, clearly things are going to be left out. Walter D. Edmonds has at least half a dozen notable major characters (and a lot of fascinating minor ones) whose lives wind in and out of the story. Something like this
can
be done in film—
Traffic
(2000) did it brilliantly—but it’s so difficult that it’s rare, and nobody was trying anything that experimental in 1939, when the film version of
Drums
was made.

The first question, then, was plainly: Whose story do we tell? And the obvious choice was the young couple who begin and end the book: Gil Martin and his new bride, Magdalana, who set out to farm in the half-settled Mohawk Valley in 1775, only to be harried and discomposed by the American Revolution going on in their immediate vicinity, with the British army essentially hiring independent groups of Indians to kill and scalp settlers and burn their houses and crops. A story—as I tell the school kids—begins with an interesting character in a situation where conflict can happen. And the way you tell a story is to open the conflict and ask, “And then what happened?” So we have characters—Gil and Lana—and obviously we have a situation of conflict. What does our adapter do next?

Well, choice of subject (character) dictates the choice of scenes, and the emphasis to be placed on different parts of the story line. A novelist has a lot of space and time in which to manipulate things and thus the climaxes of the story can be controlled and happen when and as the author likes. A film, though, has a set time period, must have a dramatic arc, and a good film must end in a satisfying way.

So an adaptation—or at least one meant to be faithful to the original source material—begins with selecting the scenes that pertain to the main characters, and among those, scenes that can be engineered into (roughly) a three-act structure, in which the major climax occurs at the end. In pursuit of this goal, scenes are often partially deconstructed and/or flexed a bit, and may be moved out of their original chronology.

Having evolved a rough story line (this process is sometimes called storyboarding, as scenes are written down on separate sheets of paper or cardboard or on magnetic strips, to facilitate being moved around), the adapter then has to consider the problem of focus—the art of getting an audience to look where you want them to look and to see what you want them to see. I won’t go into the techniques one uses to do this in a novel, save to say that they’re often complex and delicate. It’s much simpler with film: Essentially, you point the camera at what you want to focus on, and that’s what your viewer is going to see. (I’m ignoring howls of outrage from DOPs here.… A DOP is the Director of Photography, a Very Important Person on set.)

A subtler aspect of focus is the question of viewpoint. Whose head are you, the writer, in? In text, viewpoint normally works best if you stay in one character’s head for a good stretch of time, giving clear signals to the reader when and if the viewpoint changes to another character. Film (or other visual media, like graphic novels) has an advantage in this regard, in that you can easily have more than one viewpoint working simultaneously, without confusing the audience.

In the film, soon after the young bride Lana (played by Claudette Colbert) enters her new home—a depressing, dark, cold, cramped cabin—she turns from warming her hands at the fire her husband has made and screams. The camera shifts at once to what she’s seen: a tall Indian, feathered and wrapped in a blanket. We’re sharing her viewpoint, and continue to do so as she has hysterics up one side of the cabin and down the other, in spite of her husband’s efforts to reassure her that this is a friendly Indian, an acquaintance of his called Blue Back (played by Chief John Big Tree). He finally resorts to slapping her face (and not a minute too soon, if you ask me) and then proceeds to straighten things out; at this point, we’re seeing
his
viewpoint, but without losing Lana’s.

Now, this particular scene doesn’t occur at all in the novel. Neither does the brief scene on the new couple’s wedding night, in which a sinister gentleman in an eye patch approaches them during supper at an inn and demands to know Gil’s political affiliation. But these brief “new” scenes condense a number of minor but important plot points into no more than a minute or two—and even seconds count, in film.

To the same end, a good adaptation often shares lines and blends characters from the original material, in order to reduce the number of important characters, simplify the story, and improve the focus of the film, without sacrificing too much information or dramatic content.

For example, the novel of
Drums
has a wonderful multipage sequence wherein the “timber beast” (i.e., hunter and scout) Adam Helmer escapes from a party of Mohawk Indians by outrunning them over a staggering distance and most of a day. This is plainly cinematic, very dramatic, and a cool thing to have in your movie, but as a filmmaker, you (a) don’t have time to develop the burly Adam as more than comic relief and occasional Indian-fighter; (b) can’t take the time to deal with an incident from the novel that has no plot point beyond saving Adam’s life; and (c) can’t take the focus off your main characters for more than a few moments—not nearly time enough to do justice to this heroic chase. So what do you do? You assign the heroic chase—and a better motive: racing to a distant fort to summon help—to Gil, portrayed by poor, spindle-shanked Henry Fonda, who to his credit manages a reasonable imitation of a stork doing wind sprints over short distances before the camera shifts to the rather more athletic trio of Indians chasing him.

So far, most of what I’ve talked about is the concern of the scriptwriter, director, or showrunner: the basic content and outline of the story, boiled down as far as possible to make a simple, clear story that can be filmed reasonably easily. And that’s where the art of adaptation begins—but it’s sure not where it ends.

A novelist is God. The whole of the book is mine, to do with what I will. A film is the work of dozens—if not hundreds—of people, most with very specialized skills, and while a bad script will ruin a show, so will any number of other failures, from poor direction to bad acting—especially bad acting—to subpar photography, set-building, and location scouting.

Finally, the quality of the finished show lies in the hands of an editor, who will cut the raw footage, select the particular shots needed for maximum impact and then put them together in a way that makes visual and dramatic sense. And
then
along come the post-production people, the color-correctors, the special-effects people, and—the cherry on top—the composer who will score the music to stir the audience’s emotions and cue their moods, subtly backing up the actors’ performances. The blended creativity of all these people is an awe-inspiring thing to see—when it works. Sometimes it works spectacularly, and sometimes … not so much. (This may possibly be why there are fewer great films than there are great novels. On the other hand, it may just be that people have been writing novels longer than they’ve been making movies.)

One (last) important consideration with respect to the film version of
Drums Along the Mohawk
is that it’s not merely a period piece; it’s a
double
period piece. Shooting any sort of “costume drama” requires innumerable small considerations that affect more than the costumes. Ideally, a film set in a specific historical time period or, for that matter, within the confines of any unique community (vide
Witness
[1985], which, while set in modern times, takes place almost entirely within a traditional Amish community) will make some effort to represent not only specific events characteristic of the period, but also the ethos of that period, as well as its appurtenances.

(I’m continually nonplussed by people who seem to think that it’s “inappropriate” to show things in a book or a film that are Not Done by Civilized Enlightened Twenty-first-century People [i.e., them], but that’s a different discussion.)

The film version of
Drums
handles its primary period fairly well, if simplistically. The historical events of the Revolution in the Mohawk Valley are condensed to a couple of Indian incursions, one offstage battle, and one onstage attack on a fort, but in visual storytelling terms, those are more than sufficient. Daily life is given fairly short shrift (for good reason: it’s boring, unless you can mingle personal conflict with it, and that takes a good bit of room—room you don’t have in a ninety-seven-minute movie), but there is a fair amount of realistic wood chopping, and the mustering of the militia is endearingly awkward. Politics are completely ignored, and the entire British army is condensed into the person of Captain Caldwell (aka Snidely Whiplash in an eye patch), played by famed character actor John Carradine.

But this is Hollywood in the 1930s—the second “period” that affects the film. Back then, “gritty” was not expected in a historical movie,
The Birth of a Nation
in 1915 notwithstanding. So audiences in the ’30s presumably had no problem with the thirty-six-year-old Claudette Colbert playing an eighteen-year-old dewy bride with bright red lipstick, false eyelashes, and blue eye shadow, because that’s what leading ladies were expected to look like.

In the same spirit, the eighteenth century at war is prettified; no one is dirty (save when coming off a battlefield), people die decently out of shot, and no one is starving or cold, in spite of all their crops and houses being burnt. Children are not killed, and God forbid anyone should actually be scalped. (The filmmakers chose to use flaming arrows to indicate the Indians’ essential wickedness instead, these being dramatic and not horrifying.)

All the “gritty” characters and the dark aspects of their stories have been eliminated—such as Nancy, the dim-witted servant girl with the strong sex drive, and John Wolff, the storekeeper unjustly laden with forty pounds of irons and hounded into a prison sunk seventy feet belowground—or shrunk into insignificance, like Joe Boleo (Francis Ford), the scout who saves Lana and her children from the Indians, and John (Robert Lowery) and Mary (Jessie Ralph) Weaver, the fourteen-year-old lovers. And there are the musical set pieces—singing and dancing at a party and later at a harvesting—that were expected features of this sort of film, but seem quaintly old-fashioned to modern moviegoers.

In the end, though—is it a good adaptation? Does the film version work as a story? Is it recognizable as the
same
story? In truth, it does. It’s a very watchable film, with a coherent arc, and it is recognizably Edmonds’s story, effectively conveying his novel’s underlying message: that war often makes no sense to the people engulfed by it, even as they are compelled to fight for their lives, in spite of having only the faintest idea of what’s going on. That’s no small achievement.

But the book—of course—is better.

Diana Gabaldon is the #1
New York Times
bestselling author of the wildly popular Outlander novels, as well as the related Lord John Grey books;
The Outlandish Companion
; and the Outlander graphic novel
The Exile
. She lives in Scottsdale, Arizona, with her husband.

BOOK: Drums Along the Mohawk
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