Whenever you see a film made from a book, the standard response is “the book was better.” This is usually true, to be fair; the problem is that it’s such an automatic response these days I often wonder if the person telling me that has actually read the book. (These are usually strangers who are unaware that reading novels is about as vital as eating to me.) However, it isn’t invariably true. There are some perfectly good films that have remarkably little to do with the book that supposedly inspired them (Easy A, 10 Things I Hate About You, Clueless) and some excellent films that alter the story they are based on in minor or sometimes drastic ways but turn out to be so good that I can’t bring myself to care (The English Patient, The Princess Bride). And then there are films that are so, so much better than the book, such as Body of Lies (2008), The Assassination Bureau (1969), and most of all Last of the Mohicans (1992).
I’ve never understood why James Fenimore Cooper is still taught in schools–a book having been a bestseller during a certain period is not the same thing as it actually being a great novel. (Imagine Dan Brown or Stephanie Meyer being taught in high schools.) (Actually, don’t. If that ever comes to pass, please don’t tell me.) Cooper apparently felt no burning need to write or create stories, nor demonstrated any particular talent for it at an early age; he was reading a novel one day and decided it was no great challenge, so he sat down to write his own. His lack of any inherent genius for the form shows in the inconsistency of his characterizations and many other flaws. I tried to read The Last of the Mohicans when I was fourteen, found the female characters unbearable, and gave up. Later, the year I studied American Lit in high school, on the one day my English teacher devoted to Cooper and the other early American writers we would not cover (we read Hawthorne and several poets from the time instead), he explained that Cooper’s novels contained a number of lovely descriptions of the long-vanished New England wilderness, but not much else worthwhile, and referred us to Mark Twain’s essay “Fenimore Cooper’s Literary Offenses.” (Very much worth reading, if you haven’t already.)
I can’t think of any other instance where so poor a novel has been made into so compelling a film. I have a feeling that the film of The Last of the Mohicans is variously dismissed by critics and adored by some fans solely as a visually stunning romantic adventure (emphasis on the romance), due mostly if not entirely to the famous scene of Daniel Day-Lewis shouting at Madeline Stowe “No matter how long it takes, no matter how far–I will find you!” I’ve always found this to be decidedly unfair; there’s a lot more to the film than Hawkeye and Cora’s undying love, dramatic and gorgeous as it is. It is about the reasons that the American colonies rebelled against Britain, without being about the revolution itself; it also offers a wealth of detail about people lived in the 18th century, and particularly attitudes towards women during that time, again without being preachy or even intentionally feminist. I have no idea whether Cooper had any intention of earnestly mourning the loss of the indigenous American cultures that European settlers wiped out, but those who made the 1992 film evidently did. Alongside the love stories and the conflict between settlers and the military, the film dramatizes some of the more subtle methods used eradicating native cultures and populations. Most people know about the smallpox blankets, the Trail of Tears, and the massacre at Wounded Knee, but the damage done by alcoholism, the exploitation of native populations as servants and cat’s-paws, the co-opting and whitewashing of indigenous traditions aren’t common knowledge in the same way. The titular Last of the Mohicans at the end of the story is a man mourning his only son, and the end of his tribe with him, but the grief is simply personal; it is the loss of a culture. It feels wrong to me to say I like this, but in the same way I treasure Dark Hour of Noon and the film Wit, I find it valuable–it is beautifully done and important to revisit, even when it is hard to do so.
There are a thousand other things to like about the film. The sharp little glints of sarcasm in the dialogue, particularly those between Hawkeye and Cora; Jodhi May’s excellent turn as Alice, making what could have been an insipid and useless character compelling and heartbreaking; Eric Schweig, just because; the soundtrack; the locations where the filming took place. Seriously, you could watch solely for the views of the Blue Ridge mountains and you wouldn’t be wasting your time.
One of the more unusual, though certainly not unique, problems afflicting fans of the film is that when it was released on dvd, for some reason it was decided to release a different cut of the film. Then, when the blu-ray came out, a definitive director’s cut was released (because apparently Michael Mann hadn’t made up his mind when he did the first director’s cut…). There are at least three (possibly four) versions of the film; the second, the first dvd version, cuts some of the best lines. (They did the same thing with the new Ghostbusters. It’s quite maddening.) The differences between three of the versions are discussed in detail here, if anyone is interested; if you can get the original theatrical release, I recommend that one, at least to watch first. After that, the Definitive Director’s Cut restores some of the missing lines, if not all. The first Director’s Cut is still the film, still plenty to see and enjoy, but definitely the worst of the three.