This series attempts to answer the age-old question: read the book? Or watch the movie?
The Subject: Last of the Mohicans
The Book: By James Fenimore Cooper, released in 1826, the second book in the Leatherstocking Tales.
The Movie: the 1992 film, starring Daniel Day-Lewis and Madeleine Stowe (we’ll leave Hawkeye, the TV show starring Lee Horsley and Lynda Carter, for another column)
In 1757, during the French and Indian Wars, two young women, Cora and Alice, brave wilderness, warring tribes, betrayal, and brutal warfare in order to reach their father, Colonel Munroe. Guided by Major Duncan Heyward, they are betrayed by the treacherous Magua and rescued by the intrepid Hawkeye, and the last of the Mohican tribe, Uncas and Chingachcook. But their troubles are only just beginning.
The Comparison: (Note: Spoilers ahead)
If it weren’t the archaic language, Mohicans, the book, is the sort of adventure story that every boy would want to read. It starts with the two women, Duncan, and Magua, separating from British troops to attempt to find a safer path through the forest, only to be betrayed by their guide. Hawkeye (AKA: Nathaniel Bumpo), and the two Mohicans find them and are soon convinced to guide them through the forest. What follows is a heart pounding chase, filled with narrow escapes, shoot-outs, show-downs, and near-death experiences. When they finally make it to the fort, they find it is under siege. Colonel Monroe parlays with the French leaders and negotiates a peaceful withdrawal from the fort, only to be betrayed by the tribes, lead by Magua, who attack the departing troops. Magua seizes Alice and Cora and the chase begins again, leading Hawkeye, Duncan, the Mohicans, and Munroe deep into upper New York’s wilderness and into the heart of the hostile tribes. Through it all, there are brave speeches, noble stands, brutal violence, and surprising twists to keep the action moving along. While the narrative drags here and there, and there is some silliness, by the time I was done, I could well understand why Mohicans was such a huge hit when it came out. Cooper had written an action epic.
Mohicans, the movie, shifts the action somewhat – the beginning chase is much shorter, for instance, and some of the events from the first part of the book are moved to the second. But the biggest change is the focus: while the book is an action flick with the feel of an Alistair McLean gone early English lit, the movie plays more like an epic romance, complete with breathless romantic tension, epic declarations of love, and an Enya soundtrack. While it maintained some of the book’s action and definitely it’s brutality (the attack on the troops is devastating and almost frightening to watch), the movie is clearly about relationships – and in particular, Hawkeye (Nathaniel Poe here) and the dark-eyed Cora.
Daniel Day-Lewis is not the Hawkeye of the novel. In the movie, he is young, strong, silent, smoldering, and his chemistry with Stowe is hot enough to call for fire extinguishers, almost too good to be true. In book, Hawkeye’s a middle-aged (maybe mid-thirties, so middle-aged for the time) braggart, who knows the lay of the land, how to spin a good story, and has a deep hatred and respect for the ‘skulking Mingoes’ (Magua’s tribe). He’s a little too loud, a little too rugged, a little too honest, and a little too proud, and I absolutely loved him – I could clearly see how Cooper could write a series about him.
Cora was awesome in both the book and the movie: strong, steely-eyed, and determined to see her sister and herself through all trials. In the movie, she is proposed to by Duncan, who eventually gives his life for her when he sees that she prefers Hawkeye. In the book, Duncan is in love with Alice (who is pretty much the same wilting personality as in the movie), and while Cora has earned Hawkeye’s respect and admiration, but it isn’t the scout who falls in love with her, but Uncas, the son of Chingachcook and the pride of the Seven Nations – for good reason.
Conclusion: Read the book
The book is an epic adventure and as much as I liked the movie, the book was much more entertaining and had a more complete ending – when the movie ends, they are still standing in the middle of the woods, probably out of ammunition, and still completely surrounded by hostile tribes. In Cooper’s book, there is a truce and he is careful to show that even the worst of their enemies (Magua excepted) are reasonable human beings worthy of dignity. You’ll have to get through some language, but I thought the book was really good fun and, besides, you’ve already seen the movie, haven’t you?
Agree? Disagree? Hate both movie and book? Leave your opinion in the comments below!