Tony Hillerman’s “Skinwalkers” is the first program in 22 years of “Mystery” to take place in United States. Edward Gorey’s opening sequence gets some added flags and other red, white and blue elements, but the important thing is the film lives up to the high expectations for the series. It airs Sunday on most PBS stations and is also being released on DVD.
Hillerman wrote three mysteries featuring Joe Leaphorn, an older cop skeptical of traditional Navajo culture, and three featuring Jim Chee, a young officer who is also training to be traditional healer, before bringing them together in “Skinwalkers.” There are major changes from the book. Some involve updating it. There were no cell phones or search engines when it was published in 1986. But many change the characters and plot. Still, the culture and the contrast between the two cops remain.
Hillerman says in an interview, “I was trying to impress on him [screenwriter Jamie Redford] that to make a movie out of a novel, you had to kind of kill the novel, so to speak, and take pieces out of it. It’s such a different art form.” There a section on the website which compares two sections of the novel to the screenplay. It doesn’t say that the first scene compared opened the book, but is in the middle of the film (it would be best to read it after watching the film).
Hillerman had had experience with Hollywood before. In his memoir “Seldom Disappointed,” he describes his frustration when he met with NBC in the 70s about a possible series based on Leaphorn. The many changes they wanted ranged from a more upbeat ending for the book the pilot would be based on to moving Leaphorn to the city because “a handful of city yuppies was worth more than half the elderly farmers in Iowa to the marketing people.”
Robert Redford who later bought the rights to the series also was frustrated in his efforts to make films of the books for years (a film of “A Dark Wind” directed by Errol Morris with Lou Diamond Phillips as Chee and Fred Ward as Leaphorn was released in Europe in 1991, but went straight to video here). But Redford was full of praise for PBS at their annual conference in San Francisco this summer.
Chris Eyre who developed “Smoke Signals” at Sundance is the director. Adam Beach plays Chee was also in “Smoke Signals.” Wes Studi plays Leaphorn. They give excellent performances and hopefully will be able to return to the roles in future films based on Hillerman’s novels for “Mystery.”
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