Best Director winner The Power of the Dog is adapted from Thomas Savage’s 1967 novel of the same name, which was based on Savage’s own experiences.
Warning: Spoilers ahead for The Power of the Dog.
Netflix’s The Power of the Dog, which won Best Director at the 2022 Oscars, tells a complex and gritty adaptation of a novel that itself is partly based on a true story and inspired by the real-life experiences of its author, Thomas Savage. Directed and adapted by Academy Award-winner Jane Campion and starring Benedict Cumberbatch, Kirsten Dunst, Jesse Plemons, and Kodi Smit-McPhee, The Power of the Dog‘s reviews are overwhelmingly positive, with a 93% on Rotten Tomatoes for a Certified Fresh rating. The film also garnered serious buzz over the fact that it was nominated for a whopping 12 Oscars. Ultimately, The Power of the Dog secured just one win: Best Director for Jane Campion, but it remains a powerful work.
The Power of the Dog‘s story, set in Montana in 1925, focuses on wealthy rancher brothers Phil and George Burbank (Cumberbatch and Plemons, respectively). The kind and gentle George courts and marries Rose (Dunst), a widowed innkeeper, and brings her home along with her son Peter (Smit-McPhee), but Phil is heartlessly cruel to Rose and Peter from the get-go. When Peter figures out that Phil is secretly gay, they develop a camaraderie, much to Rose’s dismay, ultimately leading to a tragic twist at The Power of the Dog‘s ending.
This story is not original to Campion’s film, however. The Power of the Dog is based on a novel of the same name by Thomas Savage, an American author active during the mid-20th century. Born in Utah in 1915 and raised mainly on a Montana cattle ranch, Savage’s writing naturally centered significantly on the experiences of the American West. Although Savage’s work is not generally very well known, his Westerns, including The Power of the Dog, are certainly his most enduring legacy.
The Power Of The Dog Is Semi-Autobiographical
The Power of the Dog‘s story is adapted from the 1967 semi-autobiographical novel of the same name by Thomas Savage. Savage was himself a secretly gay man who grew up on a Montana ranch in the 1920s, so parts of his life are clearly imbued into both main charcters in The Power of the Dog, Phil and Peter. Jane Campion explained that Savage’s story closely mirrors Peter’s in a myriad of ways, including the way in which he came to grow up on a ranch, his suppressed sexuality, a mother driven to alcoholism, and a complex relationship with an abusive uncle who ended up dying from anthrax poisoning (via Decider). However, The Power of the Dog‘s major plot twist ending, in which Peter intentionally gives Phil infected cowhide to work with, appears to be a fictionalized elaboration on Savage’s experiences. As Campion puts it:
“I think [Savage] really did have an uncle who bullied him and who did die from anthrax poisoning, though apparently not from him but on a splinter from a pole.”
Although The Power of the Dog‘s portrayal of homosexuality in the rural West has drawn comparisons to Ang Lee’s movie Brokeback Mountain (adapted from a fictional short story), The Power of the Dog is based on Savage’s actual experiences as a closeted gay man in that same environment. Savage’s living family members believe that the character of Bronco Henry, Phil’s late mentor and lover, may be based on an actual figure from that time in Savage’s life. Even if there is not one single inspiration behind Bronco Henry, he may have been an amalgamation of several people; Savage would have been well aware of the prevalence of secretly gay ranchers in the rural West and had personal insight into what that looked like and how cultural shame manifested.
Who Was The Power Of The Dog Author Thomas Savage?
Thomas Savage, author of the novel that inspired Campion’s subversive Western The Power of the Dog, was born in 1915 in Salt Lake City, Utah, and spent the better part of his childhood growing up on ranches in Idaho and Montana. Although his later life took him to both the East and West coasts as a writer and academic, these early ranching experiences remained a significant touchstone in Savage’s life, as many of his novels and short stories are set in the American West. Savage married Elizabeth Fitzgerald in 1939, who also became a successful novelist later on. Elizabeth Savage knew her husband was secretly gay, as did other of Savage’s family members. Nonetheless, the Savages remained married until Elizabeth’s death in 1989, though Thomas did have some relationships with other men during this time.
Book vs. Movie: How Is The Power Of The Dog Movie Different Than The Book?
In many ways, Campion’s film captures the nuance of Savage’s The Power of the Dog very directly. The major tension between Phil and the Gordons and the shadow of Phil’s mentor Bronco Henry remain central components carried over from page to screen. At the same time, however, Campion thoughtfully adjusts and consolidates certain of the book’s storylines in order to streamline her film. The main example is the backstory of Johnny Gordon, Peter’s father, whose suicide is actually due to bullying from Phil in Savage’s novel. While Jane Campion’s film necessarily leaves out such storylines for time’s sake, The Power of the Dog still artfully translates the key themes of the story and captures the core of Savage’s own adolescent life. While the Power of the Dog‘s story is fictionalized, it is clear that Savage’s experiences with sexuality, family, and the West permeate the source material brought to life in the film.
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