Originally published in 1967, The Power of the Dog has become a sort of “those who know, know” book–a status also offered to its author, Thomas Savage. In layman’s terms, that means that for anyone in the mainstream, this was a forgotten classic by a largely forgotten author. But a core group of literary fans kept his work alive, including Annie Proulx, who penned an afterword for a 2003 re-issue of the novel.
Buzz began to build when acclaimed director Jane Campion announced in 2019 that she would be writing and directing a film version of Savage’s novel, ultimately casting Benedict Cumberbatch and Kirsten Dunst. Things really went into overdrive when Campion’s film The Power of the Dog premiered to great critical enthusiasm at film festivals before debuting on Netflix in November of 2021. At the time of this writing, it is predicted to be a heavy contender for the Academy Awards.
Unfortunately, the vast majority of that buzz has centered around the movie. I made it a point to read the book before watching the movie and I sincerely hope more people take the leap to the book, which deserves a spot in the canon of Great American Novels alongside other subversive westerns like Larry McMurtry’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Lonesome Dove.
As with any adaptation, changes were necessary to make the story of the novel fit the screen–and in the case of The Power of the Dog, which features very taciturn characters who aren’t always great at communicating their internal workings, some of those changes are significant. So let’s explore them and see if we can decide which one works better!
Before you proceed, it is important for you to know that THERE WILL BE MASSIVE SPOILERS ahead. So if you don’t want to know the secrets of The Power of the Dog before you either watch the movie or read the book (which I recommend), you might want to bookmark this until later.
What The Power of the Dog is About
In 1925 Montana, brothers Phil and George Burbank are running the ranch their parents left them in charge of. The parents relocated to a hotel in Salt Lake City following a mysterious argument with Phil that is never explained. Phil is a ruthless bully: intelligent, unforgiving, and uncompromising. George is kinder and more insecure. For many years, they have lived on the ranch as their parents left it–even sharing the same bedroom they grew up in as children. Their delicate routine is upended when George unexpectedly marries Rose, a widow who has a son named Peter, and moves them onto the ranch. Phil isn’t a bit happy about this new arrangement, and so he wages a psychological war on his new sister-in-law that has devastating consequences.
Using that framework, The Power of the Dog explores themes about cruelty versus kindness, the passage of time, toxic masculinity (which is even more impressive since it was published long before that term was coined), and homosexuality.
Yes, homosexuality. You see, Phil has an obsession with a man called Bronco Henry who died a long time before the story begins. An obsession that could explain a lot about his intense hatred of “sissies” and his fixation on being tough or manly. Could self-loathing be at the heart of it?
Author Thomas Savage relied on his own experiences growing up on a ranch in Montana with a cruel stepfather to write this novel, making it a fusion of fiction, experience, and wish fulfillment.
The Power of the Dog feels particularly resonant in the current moment because it’s a book about how kindness and decency can get steamrolled by more domineering characteristics like the ones Phil, whose intelligence is weaponized by his ruthlessness, embodies.
This basic set-up and the shattering climax it builds to are the same in both the book and the movie, but some of the texture and plotting along the way changes in the journey from page to screen.
So let’s get into it.
What the Movie is Missing
Perhaps the most difficult part of any adaptation is deciding what elements of a novel to streamline and what to leave out entirely in order to save time (not to mention to avoid endless exposition for the viewer). This is where some of the biggest differences between the book and movie come into play, because Thomas Savage’s narrative allows him to proffer a lot of backstory to his readers without having the characters say it out loud. He can also allow the reader to flit around the characters to see what’s going on inside their minds, which offers the reader insight into their motivations and psyches without Savage needing to express those things through the plot or dialogue.
A movie doesn’t have that option. The medium of film, by its very nature, requires that things be expressed–be it through plot, dialogue, or expressions on the character’s faces. As a book, The Power of the Dog is incredibly subtle. In writing the screenplay, Campion had to find ways to honor that tone while still telegraphing some of the deeper meanings to her viewers. A lot of detail had to be sacrificed in the name of this balance.
And so, the movie never offers any backstory on how Phil and George came to be running their ranch while their parents live elsewhere or why the brothers share a bedroom at the beginning of the film. It also omits any explanation as to the dual nature of Phil’s bullying intellect and his tendency to intentionally use “low” mannerisms. The latter detail was probably a bit too complicated to capture onscreen because there are two completely separate motivations at play. On the page, Phil’s outright rejection of “putting on airs” sees him deliberately eschewing proper behavior–in some instances, he’s deliberately using dumbed-down ways of speaking to provoke people he sees as highfalutin. In other instances, Phil uses low-class mannerisms and ways of speaking to mock the people who use them and don’t know better. It’s a really complicated facet of Phil’s personality because it does so many things at once, so I guess I’m not really surprised Campion chose to show Phil doing things like referring to a piano as a “pananno” without explaining just what that word means to Phil–and what impression it leaves on the person he’s speaking to.
The movie hints at Phil’s intense hatred of society, social climbers, and anyone or anything he sees as pretentious, but the theme is much softer than anything you find in the book. The shame in this is that the nuance here is where you find a lot of the details that give you the idea that Phil may be suffering from self-loathing because who he is doesn’t fit into society’s norms. His ruthlessness may, in part, stem from anger relating to this–and so may his rejection of proper decorum. Evidence of this is everywhere in the book. Take the fact that Phil bathes only infrequently. It’s a refusal to comply with “niceties” as well as a gauntlet thrown to anyone who might care to complain about his smell (which Phil knows will remain unchallenged because as one of the richest ranchers in the area, no one would dare risk making him angry). But Phil’s bathing habits also reflect an intense vulnerability because he will only do it in secret in a location that has profound meaning to him because it has only ever been shared with his brother and Bronco Henry. It’s provocation and vulnerability living side by side. The movie, by the way, hints at the secretive nature of Phil’s bathing but does not explain it, which means that when Peter, his brother’s stepson, stumbles upon Phil bathing you don’t understand it as the violation that Phil would feel it to be.
You can also see this at play in Phil’s fatal refusal to wear gloves. It is at once a symbol of Phil’s manliness (because he doesn’t think he needs them), of Phil’s refusal to comply with social norms (because everyone else does wear them), and of Phil’s ultimate vulnerability (because not wearing them leaves him exposed–both literally and metaphorically).
An omission that is much more significant to the narrative of The Power of the Dog is the backstory of Rose’s husband (and Phil’s role in it). In the movie, all we know of Rose’s husband is that he was a doctor who died by suicide and that it was their son, Peter, who found his body. In the book, we get the whole story of Rose’s relationship with her dead husband as a build-up to her relationship with George. To wit: Rose’s dead husband, Johnny, was a well-intentioned but ineffective man who suffered from pride. That made him exactly the type of person Phil would despise, and in several instances, it was Phil who (publicly) took Johnny down a peg or two. These meetings first drove Johnny to drink and ultimately drove him to suicide when he felt he had been made to look like a failure in front of his son.
If this backstory exists in the movie, and we can probably assume that it does, it is never mentioned. This is most likely because the characters are unaware of the connection. How can you connect the dots when no one in the plot knows the full story? Still, without that backstory, crucial thematic material is missing from the movie.
For one thing, knowing that Johnny was a good man driven to drink and suicide by bullying raises the stakes for Peter when he begins to witness the same thing happening to his mother–even if he doesn’t know the same person is behind the bullying. For another thing, Johnny and Rose are examples of prideful people who put on airs. This doesn’t necessarily make them bad people, but they reveal the fragility of the human ego. We so desperately want to be seen as worthy of esteem that our shortcomings can feel devastating. For Johnny, the quest for esteem came in the form of being a man of knowledge. For Rose, it came in the form of being a good wife worthy of the money and respect George brings to her through marriage. When Phil punctures those images they have of themselves, it brings them dangerously low.
This is highlighted in an exchange entirely missing from the movie. In the book, Rose deludes herself into the idea that she begins drinking first to deal with the migraines Phil is causing her but also to build the courage to confront him about why he dislikes her so strenuously. When she finally does, she imagines that either social niceties will cause Phil to deny the whole thing and treat her more nicely in the future or it will start a conversation that will lead to mutual understanding and respect. Instead, Phil (who doesn’t abide social niceties anyway) bluntly tells her that he despises her because she steals his brother’s alcohol. All her self-delusion about her ability to hide what she’s doing is destroyed in an instant. Her pride that she was going to get the better of Phil and solve the problem is similarly destroyed. Instead of becoming her crowning moment, attempting to confront Phil only sends Rose further into despair and drink.
We see this happening to Rose in the movie even without this specific moment, but without the context brought by the history with Johnny, we may not see how important it is–especially once we learn how Peter gets the better of Phil by taking advantage of Phil’s own vulnerabilities.
And while we’re speaking of Peter, it must be said that Peter is much creepier in the book, which enhances his similarities to Phil while also highlighting the key differences. Peter’s ruthless precision with killing chickens and rabbits (and the way he performs experiments with them) is hinted at in the movie but highlighted repeatedly in the book. In the movie, it can quickly be explained away since he wants to be a doctor, so he would naturally need to dissect animals. In the book, there’s something disquieting about it. Knowing that torturing or experimenting on animals as a child is an indicator of psychopathic tendencies perhaps enhances this. Peter is not a psychopath, but I do think Savage is using this characteristic to draw parallels between Phil and Peter. They are both different from anyone else–and again, the fact that this is coded as a queer novel comes wildly into play here, because the chief complaint against Peter is that he has qualities that cause others to label him a sissy. Phil despises Peter at first because he recognizes himself, and he makes fun of him to the others as a form of deflection. The reality is that they are more alike than different, and that is more apparent in the book.
I know I’m running long here but the last important element missing from the movie is the entire notion of time passing. The Power of the Dog is a western novel set in a time when the old west was dying (if not already dead). Cowboys like Bronco Henry are a thing of the past. Cars are replacing horses. And no one mourns this passing of time like Phil. The passing of the years is constantly on his mind. The fact that the story opens with Phil and George’s 25th cattle drive together is remarked on in the movie, but Phil’s intense bitterness that this milestone doesn’t seem to mean much to George is only suggested. Phil clings to the past and rejects forward momentum while George is willing to adapt and change and grow. Significantly, George owns and drives a car while Phil does not. It’s a beautiful underlayer of the novel that is only hinted at in the movie, to the point where you could miss it entirely.
What the Movie Adds
Since The Power of the Dog is such a subtle novel, a lot depends on the interior of the characters. A movie has to be a good deal more literal to get these things across. The most significant additions to the movie relate to Bronco Henry and his relationship with Phil.
In her afterword to the novel, Annie Proulx remarks on how few reviewers of The Power of the Dog mentioned homosexuality when it was published. I think of it as how a lot of the subversive elements of Lonesome Dove are so subtle that a casual lover of westerns could read the book and not notice how the book had called every western cliche into question. There’s a staggering amount of evidence that queerness is at the root of the relationship between Phil and Bronco Henry (and how Peter is ultimately able to exploit Phil), but just how explicit that relationship was is left open to interpretation. That also means that casual heterosexual readers of The Power of the Dog could come away from the book simply thinking that it was sorta sweet how Phil honored the memory of his cowboy mentor long after he was gone. The movie removes a lot of the ambiguity.
This is first achieved by having Phil do something that would be uncharacteristic of the Phil found on the page: Bronco Henry’s saddle has become something of a shrine in the barn. Savage’s Phil refuses anything showy or that could be called sentimental, but Campion manages to make the change fit because having a shrine to Bronco Henry cues the viewers to start thinking that Phil seems obsessed with Bronco Henry in a way that might not be “normal.”
Things go into overdrive when we get to the key scene where Peter stumbles on Phil taking a bath in his private refuge–the one known only to Phil, George (who stopped visiting it as a child), and Bronco Henry. Instead of simply having this be a scene where Peter discovers Phil naked, Campion adds to the scene by having Peter first discover a trove of lurid muscle magazines that had belonged to Bronco Henry, who wrote his name on the covers (why he would sign them is unknown, just go with it). While Peter examines Phil’s secret stash, Phil himself is having a private sexual moment with himself and a piece of clothing that bears the initials “B.H.” An article of clothing that Phil has been secretly keeping in his underwear. Peter doesn’t witness this act–he only sets eyes on Phil (and is discovered by Phil) after Phil has jumped into the water to clean himself off.
It’s a clever change because without the context of what this location means to Phil, the viewer still understands that Peter’s presence is a violation because of what he very nearly interrupted. It also continues the thread of making Phil’s relationship with Bronco Henry much more overt.
If that wasn’t enough, Campion takes it further by showing us the final night Peter and Phil share. In the book, Peter offers the strips of hide he has secreted away to Phil to finish braiding the rope Phil intends to gift to him and agrees to stay up with him until it is done. The next thing we know it is morning and Phil isn’t showing up for breakfast, which begins Phil’s sudden illness and death. In the movie, we stay with Peter and Phil while Phil completes the rope. It’s a scene laden with hidden and suggested meaning, from the way Phil’s hips move as he braids the rope to the way Peter holds his cigarette to Phil’s mouth. It’s a stunning scene that is exceptionally well filmed.
And just in case Phil’s relationship with Bronco Henry wasn’t overt enough, Phil tells Peter a story about Bronco Henry saving his life that involves the two of them sharing a bedroll.
Speaking of the conclusion, Campion also sprinkles references to anthrax in several places during the movie as a way of foreshadowing Phil’s fate. In the book, anthrax is only mentioned in the final paragraph–ending the story with the stunning revelation of how Peter got the better of Phil by handing him strips of hide he had taken from a cow that died of anthrax, knowing that Phil and his cut, exposed hands would absorb the illness and cause his death. Without this interior moment, the movie can only imply what Peter did by showing him handling the rope Phil made for him with gloves before hiding it away after a doctor informs George that Phil’s illness closely resembled the disease.
What the Movie Alters
There isn’t much that is altered beyond what we’ve already discussed at great length, but there are two significant storylines that are altered for the film. The first concerns the visit of the elder Burbanks as well as the dinner party with the Governor and his wife. In the book, these are completely separate events. In the movie, most likely due to timing/pacing concerns, they happen at the same time.
The plotline most ill-served by this change is the one belonging to the elder Burbanks because it reduces their already-slimmed-down presence to almost nothing. That means that none of their complex relationship with their sons is present. You get shades of it when they return for Phil’s funeral at the conclusion and George invites them for Christmas–the only possible way you would know that they were staying away largely because of Phil.
I do miss the dinner with the Governor being its own thing because the scene in Savage’s novel is biting, witty, and laden with meaning. It gets across so much of the novel’s emphasis on class and the self-worth we define based on this arguably arbitrary definition.
Another alteration to the Governor’s dinner is that in the book, Phil steadfastly refuses to show up. His snub is a slight upon the Governor, a rebuke of his brother for caring about appearances, and yet another instance of Phil refusing to bow to social niceties. But in the movie, Phil shows up–albeit incredibly late–after a confrontation with his brother in the barn that is far more overt than any conversation found in the book. At first, I hated this alteration. It feels like a massive change in Phil’s behavior, after all. I made peace with it, however, when I realized just how awkward he made the dinner by showing up–and how his presence exacerbated Rose’s utter failure as a hostess.
The other storyline that is significantly altered is the one belonging to the Native American man who visits the ranch with his son. In the novel, he has a whole backstory, for one thing: he was the son of a Chief who lived on the land near where the Burbank ranch is now. His family was forced off the land and moved to a reservation. His son has only seen his father as a man beaten down by the government and knows nothing of the former glory their people enjoyed. He takes the son to view their former home in defiance of the government in an attempt to recapture some of that glory and show the son his heritage. Remember how Johnny ultimately committed suicide when he felt he had been shamed in front of his son? That notion of fatherly pride is all over this storyline. It also serves as a subtle nod to the ways in which cowboys we traditionally celebrate as heroes often committed despicable acts against Native people.
In the book, the fact that the Native man and his son end up on the Burbank ranch is an accident–property lines have changed so drastically that they didn’t realize they were about to trespass. Phil angrily ordering them to go back where they came from (without having reached their destination) shows his cruelty. Rose accidentally defies Phil’s command when she drunkenly invites the Native man and his son to camp on the ranch before continuing their journey, which shows her compassion. It also shows the residual trauma she suffers following Johnny’s suicide, because her ultimate motivation in offering them a place to camp is that she wants to spare a father from looking shamed in front of his son.
In the movie, the Native man and his son are given a very different role to play, which completely negates the power of their storyline and what their backstory means in a western novel. Instead of any of what I just described, the Native man and his son appear toward the end of the movie in a role occupied by a man coded as Jewish in the book: they appear on the ranch looking to purchase the hides that George and Phil usually burn since they serve no other purpose. In the book, Rose is the only one home when the man shows up, and she thinks selling hides that no one will use anyway makes her clever (and gives her secret money to spend on booze). Instead, she drunkenly passes out with the money clutched in her fist, where George discovers her–and Phil’s anger over her actions leads directly to his date with an anthrax-soaked rope. But before Phil’s death days later, it is revealed that Rose has abruptly stopped drinking because of the humiliation she suffered when George discovered her passed out drunk. And Peter’s final moments imply that without Phil’s negative presence, his mother will not relapse.
Back to how it goes down in the movie, the Native man and his son are turned away by the cook when they ask if they can purchase the hides. Rose overhears the cook explaining that Phil would rather burn the hides than let anyone else have them, and off Rose goes running to catch up with the Native man to sell him the hides in exchange for a beaded pair of gloves, which is what she is clutching when she passes out on her way back to the house. George still finds her drunk and passed out and Phil’s anger still leads directly to his death, but the appearance of the Native man is insignificant except as a plot device in the movie. All the meaning and subtext has been erased.
As for the happy-ish ending, the movie shows Rose drinking coffee when Phil leaves for the hospital but does not remark any more deeply than that. Instead, the final moment of the movie shows Peter watching from an upstairs window as George and Rose return home from the funeral and kissing romantically before entering the house–implying that without Phil, they will repair their relationship and live happily ever after.
Which is Better?
My answer to this question feels surprising when you consider that both the book and the movie of The Power of the Dog are very good, but perhaps less surprising if you read any or all of what I just typed out. It’s just that as good as the movie is, the book has so much more to it. Savage’s novel is richer, deeper, and more layered. It also has more themes and ideas for the reader to explore.
I would say that if you are going to engage with The Power of the Dog, you have to read the book. If you want to watch the movie first, that’s fine–but you’ll discover so much more on the page.
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