The Revenant - From Script to Screen
Spoilers ahead! This should go without saying, but due to the nature of this piece, I will be spoiling everything from The Revenant, so if you haven’t seen it, stop reading, go see the movie, and come back when you’re ready.
According to the IMDB plot summary, here’s what The Revenant is about:
A frontiersman on a fur trading expedition in the 1820’s fights for survival after being mauled by a bear and left for dead by members of his hunting team.
The Revenant is based on the 2003 novel of the same name. The rights to the film were actually purchased before the book was even done, back in 2001. It went through a few iterations since then – the first draft of the script was written by David Rabe, known by most for writing 1989’s Casualties of War. Park Chan Wook was set to direct with Samuel L. Jackson attached to star.
In 2010, John Hillcoat was attached to direct with Christian Bale in negotiations to star. This was with a new screenplay from Mark. L. Smith - it’s the first draft of this script from 2007 that I’ll be discussing today. Finally, in 2015, the film was completed, directed by Alejandro Inarritu and starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Tom Hardy.
The first noticeable difference between the script and the movie is that the main character changes races. In the script, Hugh Glass is African American. In the film, he’s played by Leonardo DiCaprio. I’m guessing this was just a case of getting the actor they wanted to play the role. Race came up in the script a few times, namely in one scene that we’ll get to later that didn’t make it into the movie. Race did play into Glass’s motivation for being a fur trader scout, however.
In the script, the character remarks that he likes the frontier land because “this country…it’s got no eye for the color of a man’s skin”. In the movie, his main motivation for being there is because he was almost looking to disappear after killing a soldier that was trying to kill his son.
That brings us to the first scene in the movie, the first of a series of flashbacks featuring Hugh Glass, his wife, and their son Hawk. In the flashbacks, the wife is presumed murdered by soldiers and his son is wounded, but lives. In the first draft, these characters didn’t exist at all – at one point, Captain Henry asks Glass if he has family, and his response is simply, “not for a while.” This is the first major change, because this changes the entire motivation of the film. More on this later.
Hawk grows up and is alongside Hugh Glass for the first third of the film. They brave an Arikara Indian attack, which is more of less the same in the script, although they do not have the pelts that they carry and bury in the film. Glass is still attacked by the bear, although in the script his face is mutilated as well – he’s described as having his “scalp peeled back from just above his eyebrows, hanging off of his skull”, and when he’s stitched up, he’s described as a “swollen, disfigured, Frankenstein’s monster…stitches of black thread holding (his face) in place”. Most of the characters in the film are the same as the script aside from Hawk and a character named Pig, who is in the script but not the film (Pig basically has Hawk’s lines and actions up until this point, although they are a non-factor so far). Fitzgerald (played by Tom Hardy in the film) is still here and is largely unchanged, although he is also portrayed as a racist (there are undertones of this in the film as well, but it’s not as overt as it is towards Glass in the script).
In the film at this point, it’s snowing. The snow doesn’t come until later in the script. Just as in the film, the Captain attempts to try to shoot Glass in the head to stop his suffering, but cannot – he offers money to any two men willing to stay behind with Glass until he dies, giving him a proper burial before making the trek to Fort Union.
However, as there is no Hawk, only Bridger (played by Will Poulter in the film) and Fitzgerald stay behind. One of my favorite scenes in the film is where we see how demented Fitzgerald really is – he tells Glass he’ll put him out of his misery – all he has to do is blink. Glass tries to keep his eyes open for as long as possible with Fitzgerald looming over him, just waiting for the sign. Finally, Glass’s eyes cannot take it anymore, and he shuts them. Fitzgerald grabs a blood soaked rag and shoves it down Glass’s throat to choke him out. Hawk, his son, steps in and stops the murder. Fitzgerald turns and stabs Hawk in the stomach and hides his body in the woods. In the script, this cannot happen, since Hawk doesn’t exist. Here, right before Glass blinks, Bridger grabs Fitzgerald. He tosses the rag away, never attempting to murder Glass. They abandon Glass in the same way in the script – Fitzgerald wakes Bridger up and tells him he saw twenty Arikara by the creek – they pack up and leave Glass to die.
The scene where Glass gets to the water is changed. In the film, he’s drinking from the water when a gang of Arikara comes close. He slinks back into the water and swims with the current, Arikara arrows narrowly missing him while he floats downstream. It’s a pretty tense scene. In the script, he’s by the waterfront when he has a dream about a rattlesnake biting his hand and then his throat. When he wakes up from the day dream, he sees a rattlesnake in front of him – he smashes it with a rock and eats it. He then makes his way down the stream by choice, holding onto a log. After a rough patch in the river, he washes up onto shore and has to bat away some vultures, who peck at his face. After some time down at the river, we get a similar Arikara scene to what is in the film – they approach him near the water. Glass, however, weighs himself down in some muddy water with a rock and eventually, they leave.
In the film, there’s a pivotal scene in which Glass reaches a prairie and sees a herd of bison – one of the bison is chased down by wolves. In the morning, Glass gets to the mutilated bison and there’s a Pawnee Indian already there. The Indian is weary of Glass, but in a show of humanity, he allows Glass to eat some of the bison and they actually travel a bit on horseback together – at one point the Indian builds a crude shelter for Glass during a blizzard. He treats Glass’s wounds, but in the morning, he’s hung from a tree, a group of French traders to blame. More on them in a bit. In the script, there is no Pawnee Indian at the bison. Instead, the wolves are still there, and Glass edges them back by using fire. He surrounds the bison with a ring of heat and feasts without fear of the wolves.
After the scene with the bison, Glass makes his way through a demolished Arikara village, where he helps a dying Indian woman eat (in the film, it’s Bridger and Fitzgerald who find the village and Bridger helps the Indian woman eat). While there, Glass is surrounded by three Sioux Indians – Spotted Horse, Three Feathers and Running Fox. They rip Glass’s shirt off, revealing that the deep wounds on his back are covered in squirming maggots. They knock him out and take him to their village.
This is a big change from the film. Glass spends a month at this Indian village. They fix his wounds, feed him, clothe him. They bond, share laughs, hunt. He’s known as Tatanka Wicasa – Buffalo Man.
Bridger and Fitzgerald getting to Fort Union is similar, although in the film Bridger leaves the desk without taking the money and in the script he does. The timeline after this scene gets a little muddy between the script and the film. Remember those French folks? In the movie, they’re extremely important. They have kidnapped Powaqa, the daughter of an Arikara. This humanizes the Arikara a bit – they’re doing horrible things – murdering, scalping, looting – but it’s for a reason. They are decimating any white man in their path in hopes of finding Powaqa. Glass comes upon the French and saves Powaqa, stealing a horse in the process. After a short run in with the Arikara (Glass shooting a few of them on horseback), Glass and his horse accidentally ride off of a cliff. Glass survives, the horse does not. He guts the horse and strips, crawling inside the carcass to sleep in the corpse. The scene in the script is similar, although Glass doesn’t shoot any Indians and does not sleep in the dead horse.
In the film, one of the French frontiersmen makes it to Fort Union and he’s got Glass’s canteen with him. He tells them where he got it and his old crew goes to find him. They do, and bring him back. When they go to get him, Fitzgerald robs the Captain’s safe and leaves into the mountains (on his way to Texas). In the script, Fitzgerald doesn’t even know Glass is alive when he robs the safe and leaves the settlement (on his way to St. Louis). In the script, Glass steals a horse and a gun from a few racist trappers at a trading post/saloon. He rides to the Fort on his own. On his way to St. Louis, Fitzgerald goes to the same saloon right after Glass – he mentions the same trading company they’re from and the trappers reveal that Glass (referred to as a “scarred-up (n-word)”) had been there. At this point, Fitzgerald rides back towards Glass, instead of away from him like in the film.
In the film, Bridger is thrown into jail as a traitor, but Glass does stand up for him – says that he only did what Fitzgerald told him to do. That’s the last we see of Bridger. In the script, Glass has no sympathy for Bridger, who ends up deserting the crew after they shun him. Bridger is shown to have a little more bravado in the script, actually going after Fitzgerald a few times while they’re making their way to Fort Union.
The Revenant’s finale is similar up until the point Glass and Fitzgerald finally meet again. Glass and Captain Henry still split up. Henry is still shot and scalped by Fitzgerald (although in the script, he also takes off both of his ears, a telltale sign that it wasn’t the Arikara that did it, as they only take off the left ears of the white man). Glass still tricks Fitzgerald into shooting the wrong man from the back of the horse. It’s at this point when things get different for the last time.
In the movie climax, Glass and Fitzgerald have a bit of a chase, ending at the bottom of a creek. They have a brilliant knife fight – Fitzgerald gets his fingers chopped off, Glass gets a knife through his hand – it’s very brutal, ruthless. Glass finally gets the upper hand, but as he does, he sees the Arikara standing on the other side of the creek. Instead of finishing Fitzgerald off, he floats him down to the Arikara, who murder him off screen. They ride right past Glass, Powaqa (the young woman who Glass saved from the French) in tow. He has one final flashback and we cut to black as Glass breathes.
In the script climax, Glass and Fitzgerald have a pretty short fight at the bottom of a frozen river – Glass still gets a knife through the hand. At one point the ice on the river cracks, sending both men in. Glass is able to escape the freezing water, but Fitzgerald’s rifle gets caught, pulling him under the water. He calls for Glass’s help. Glass reaches down and cuts the strap instead of pulling him up, sending him to drown underneath the ice. His revenge exacted, he looks up and sees the Arikara on the other side of the river (the leader of the Indians is named Elk’s Tongue). Glass screams out a diatribe about being Tatanka Wicasa and dares them to come across to face him, but they leave without incident.
As you can tell, a lot was changed between the script and the film, and with good reason. Glass’s entire arc in the film was based around Fitzgerald killing his son. He wanted to find him to kill him for what he did to his boy. For any parent, that’s an understandable motivation. In the script, Glass is after Fitzgerald (and Bridger) because they left him for dead. Immediately, this sounds reasonable, but remember – this is 1820 and they’re in Arikara Indian territory. I actually found this the smart thing to do, and I totally understood Fitzgerald’s move to ditch the dead weight. This actually seems like something Glass would understand as well. Giving the Arikara Indians some motivation was also something that benefitted the film. In the script, they’re simply seen as savages, a scary Indian tribe that rides, collecting ears and scalps from the people they terrorize. In the movie they’re mowing down people looking for a lost girl from their tribe.
I'm sure you can tell (from this analysis) that I loved the film, and I hope you did as well.