Tell Us 5 Things About Your Book: Bringing ‘Giant’ to the Big Screen
Posted April 8, 2018 4:06 p.m. EDT
“In Texas, as ‘Giant’ so brilliantly points out, big is always better than small; and if the only way to be big is to lose big, then well, so be it,” Larry McMurtry wrote in The New York Times in 1996. The director George Stevens’ film, starring Elizabeth Taylor and James Dean, and based on Edna Ferber’s 1952 novel of the same name, was released in 1956. It earned Stevens an Oscar and was nominated in several other categories, including Best Picture. (It lost to “Around the World in 80 Days.”) Don Graham’s new book tells the story of how this epic about the ranching life, the oil business, clashing cultures and the changing fortunes of generations made it to the screen. Graham, an English professor at the University of Texas at Austin, discusses how his students’ reaction to the movie helped inspire the book, how Stevens’ experiences during World War II influenced the film and more. (This interview has been condensed and edited.)
Q: When did you first get the idea to write this book?
A: I could have written it 30 years earlier. In 1986, my wife and I went to Marfa, Texas, on our way out to California. We were invited to spend three nights at the ranch right beside the decaying house where “Giant” was made. It was the 30th anniversary, and Marfa was going to hold this celebration. It turned out to be kind of a farce because they never got the film, so they couldn’t show it. They had a rodeo, but that didn’t seem to have much to do with anything. So the film was much on my mind, but I was working on another book.
I’ve taught a class called Life and Literature in the Southwest for many years, and I started putting films back into it. I put “Giant” in, in 2004 or 2005. Most of the kids had never heard of it, but it really struck a chord with them. They complained about the length, but I told them that they watch the NFL and pro baseball; it’s the same length. The film feels very modern to them. They’re surprised at Elizabeth Taylor’s feminism. They love the scene where she denounces the men for being Neanderthals. And the question of racial prejudice is very powerful in the film. The more I talked about it and thought about it, the more I thought this is the book I need to write now.
Q: What’s the most surprising thing you learned while writing it?
A: The degree to which World War II affected both Edna Ferber and George Stevens. Stevens was an obsessive guy, as many directors are. He was much influenced and really devastated by what he saw when he went to Dachau. He was shooting footage for Eisenhower under the general’s command. When he came back, he wasn’t able to work for two or three years. Ferber went to Europe in the summer of 1945 as a war correspondent. She witnessed the Buchenwald death camp and pronounced Germany to be an “unadulterated horror.”
Stevens put motifs in the film straight from his experience in the war. I would never have picked up on that independently from just watching the film. One instance is the burial of the soldier, Angel, a young Mexican-American boy. We see his whole burial scene, for three or four minutes. A lot of people wanted Stevens to leave it out, but he thought it paid respect to all the people who died in the war and whose remains were delivered years later. He and Ferber were both progressive. They were fearful that America was hardening; that discrimination might turn into something even worse. I think that fear was emphasized by what they saw in Germany.
Q: In what way is the book you wrote different from the book you set out to write?
A: The best film books tell a story. Others get bogged down in the technical stuff — changes in the script and things like that — and it’s pretty slow going. I wanted it to move along in a narrative flow.
I got so interested in the people I was researching — including James Dean, who threatened to take over the film. Someone told me, “It looks like he’s threatening to take over your book.” He’s such an interesting and complex and impossible person in many ways. I got caught up in all those lives and minor characters, like Rock Hudson’s agent Henry Willson. I’d never heard of him when I started the book. And I didn’t know much early Dennis Hopper, and I really didn’t know much about Dean. There turned out to be tons of information about him and his rocky relationship with Rock Hudson, and the fact that Elizabeth Taylor was the mediator. She listened to each one’s grievances about the other.
Q: Who is a creative person (not a writer) who has influenced you and your work?
A: My first-through-third-grade teacher, Inez Smithy. She heroically taught eight classes in one room of a schoolhouse in Lucas, Texas. This was cotton-farming country, northeast of Dallas, and there was nothing mythic about it. But she managed to give us a vision of a Texas bigger than life. She made history exciting, something to be a part of. Later on, I wrote books about Texas movies, Audie Murphy, a local boy from the next county over, the great King Ranch in South Texas, and “Giant” in far West Texas. It all started in those early days in that little schoolhouse on the backland prairie.
Q: Persuade someone to read “Giant” in 50 words or less.
A: It’s a great story. There was a lot of off-screen drama. And to talk about modern Texas, you need to know what Texans have thought of themselves over the years. “Giant” is one of those markers. Ferber was an outsider, and sometimes outsiders can see things more clearly.
By Don Graham.
Illustrated. 323 pages. St. Martin’s Press. $27.99.