Novel Review: The Power of the Dog by Thomas Savage

If I may be allowed to open with a cliché: “You’ve seen the movie, now read the book!”

I ordered a copy of and read Thomas Savage’s 1967 novel, The Power of the Dog, before the release of Jane Campion’s film adaptation.  Hence, when I watched Campion’s film, I already knew about the Burbank Brothers, Bronco Henry, Rose, and Peter Gordon.  Neither the film’s big twist nor the diabolically clever ending were quite as much of a shock to me as they apparently were for others, though both were still undeniably effective in both the book and the movie.  Campion’s film sticks close to the plot of the book and visually, it captures Thomas Savage’s simple but effective prose.

In case you’ve yet to see the film or read the book, The Power of the Dog takes place in Montana in the 1920s.  Phil and George Burbank are brothers.  Ever since their parents retired, Phil and George have owned and managed the family ranch.  The gentle and kind-natured George has spent almost his entire life allowing himself to be led around by Phil.  Phil, meanwhile, has fully embraced the identity of being a tough cowboy and all of the myths that go along with it.  He rarely bathes.  He makes it a point to castrate all of the cattle personally.  He seldom wears gloves, believing the all work should be done bare-handed.  He’s dismissive of anyone who he believes has shown any sign of weakness.  He’s a bully and a sadist but he’s also an Ivy League graduate who takes pride in his ability to quote Ovid in the original Latin.  Phil is brutally dismissive of almost everyone.  He only seems to truly care about his brother and the memory of his mentor, the mysterious Bronco Henry.  When George meets and marries a widow named Rose, Phil can’t handle it.  George is breaking free of Phil’s influence and Phil seeks revenge against Rose, psychologically tormenting her and driving her to drink.  When Rose’s son, Peter, arrives at the ranch, Phil initially dismisses Peter as being weak.  But, to Rose’s horror, Phil soon starts to take an interest in Peter….

Author Thomas Savage was born in Montana and grew up on his stepfather’s ranch.  Savage later said that, much like Peter, he always felt like a misfit on the ranch.  His stepfather was a man who was much like Phil Burbank while Savage felt a lot like Peter Gordon.  Despite never feeling like he belonged, Savage was still able to use his early experiences as a ranch hand as the inspiration for his first published short stories.  Savage went on to write several western novels, many of which dealt with dysfunctional ranch families.  Though well-reviewed, The Power of the Dog was not a best seller when it was originally published and even the positive reviews often seemed to wilfully miss the subtext behind Phil’s homophobia and his devotion to the memory of Bronco Henry.  In 1967, The Power of the Dog was ahead of its time.

Hopefully, with the release of Campion’s adaptation, the original novel will be read by an entirely new audience.  As I mentioned earlier, Campion remains faithful to the book’s plot but there are a few elements in the original novel that will add to one’s understanding of the film.  For instance, the book goes into more detail about the history and the culture of the town and it also goes into more details about  the ranch’s dealings with the local Native tribes.  Whereas both the film and the book present Phil as being a wilfully malicious agent of chaos, the book makes clear that Phil is also a creation of the culture in which he was raised.  The book makes clear that, for all of his overt macho energy, Phil still feels like an outsider among even the ranch hands who worship him and that adds an element to his relationship with Peter that is only suggested at in the film.

Perhaps most importantly, the book devotes a chapter to the life of Rose’s first husband and the circumstances that led to his suicide.  Rose’s first husband is a doctor who comes to Montana to try to help people but who is slowly destroyed by the town’s apathy.  We learn of the argument that led to his suicide and, again, it adds an entirely new element to Phil and Peter’s relationship.

So, if you’ve seen the movie, read the book.  Or read the book and then see the movie.  They’re both excellent deconstructions of the mythology of the American west.

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