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The Journey from Novel to Screen

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“Larry McMurtry's vision is rather unique, and it comes from as close to the source as a writer living today can get.”

—Tommy Lee Jones on Lonesome Dove

When native Texan and screenwriter Bill Wittliff took on the job of adapting Larry McMurtry’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel to film, he had quite a challenge on his hands. First, he needed to rein in the sprawling 843 page story while still retaining its majestic essence. Wittliff’s work was also made more difficult because, in the novel, McMurtry uses the narrator’s voice to reveal information about characters and to describe events. To provide the same information in the film, Wittliff needed to create dialogue and provide visual cues that did not exist in the novel.

Below is Wittliff’s annotated copy of Lonesome Dove and also the first page of his first handwritten teleplay draft. Note that Wittliff changed the opening scene to begin with the sign for the Hat Creek Cattle company. The sign, of course, becomes a significant image throughout the rest of the film.

Wittliff also created a new ending for Lonesome Dove by returning to both McMurtry and Charles Goodnight, the real-life historical figure who inspired McMurtry’s character Woodrow Call. In McMurtry’s book of essays, In a Narrow Grave (1968 Encino Press), McMurtry begins his essay “Take My Saddle from the Wall, A Valediction” with an epigraph from J. Frank Dobie’s book Cow People:

Stranger: “Mr. Goodnight, you have been a man of vision.”

Charles Goodnight: “Yes, a hell of a vision.”

Bill Wittliff was acutely poised to adapt the epigraph for the film version of Lonesome Dove because he was the founder of the Encino Press, which published not only McMurtry’s work, but also that of J. Frank Dobie. Wittliff's friendship with Dobie also resulted in his acquisition of J. Frank Dobie papers, which formed the basis for the Southwestern Writers Collection, founded by Bill and Sally Wittliff in 1986.