I have just finished reading Larry McMurtry’s The Last Picture Show for the umpteenth time. I was going to say the tenth time, but I don’t think that is right as I have had the book since 1975 and tend to read it every year or so. I have since that first reading and viewing been involved in writing, editing and publishing many books and have had the heart of much of what I do the lessons learned from this book about people and the place in which their stories are charted.
I first bought the book after seeing the film of the same name at the art deco Berkley Theatre in St Heliers, Auckland, now owned by Hoyts. It is one of the few cases where a film has been the ideal accompaniment to a book, capturing perfectly the characters and the atmosphere of the story’s setting.
A 1966 review of the book in the New York Times noted “Mr. McMurtry is not exactly a virtuoso at the typewriter. Some of the transitions as he works from one scene to the next are noticeable; some of the writing could be smoother. But he knows his town and its folkways.” The writer of that review (Thomas Lask) knew his stuff but the last sentence is of as much importance for people writing stories around their communities.
The story is set in Thalia, Texas. Not for McMurtry the rustic beauty of rolling fields and picturesque countryside. Instead, the picture he paints is a town that would be as bleak as any found in a Russian novel set in Siberia. The atmosphere is either blazingly hot and filled with dust from the expanse of prairie that laps against the town like an angry sea or freezingly cold in blinding blizzards of snow.
For would-be writers, the beauty of this story is how the characters grow out of and match the setting. At the time I first saw the film and read the book, I was struck by how a story set in such a deeply wasted place with characters apparently so confused yet ordinary could be so evocative.
The reviewer mentioned earlier may not have thought McMurtry a “virtuoso at the typewriter” but the gift he had (and still does have after all these years) provides lessons for writers. The place in which writers set their stories is as much a character as any of the people. McMurtry’s virtuosity is in his ability to root even the least important person in their environment physically and spiritually.
In his later books he dug deep into the West of the 1800s, achieving notable success with “Lonesome Dove”. Although that book was an 843-page epic, it was sustained by McMurtry’s grasp not only of his subjects but also of the vast land in which they travelled.
For writers, the lessons I learnt in the early 1970s when watching the film and reading the book for the first time remain. Everybody has a story, and a back story, and they all live in a place. Making sure these elements are met goes a long way to writing a complete novel.
For further about writing around place, see:
The Soul of Place : A Creative Writing Workbook: Ideas and Exercises for Conjuring the Genius Loci by Linda Lappin
For the 1966 review of the novel The Last Picture Show, go to:
The Independent provides a good precise, at
Filmed in black and white, the movie version is considered one of the most controversial of its time, being R-rated for Director Peter Bogdanovich's “frank and realistic” depiction various issues such as adultery, alcoholism, and promiscuity. The film was nominated for eight Oscars and won two for support actors but was considered by some as obscene for its full-frontal nudity and explicit sex.
A list of the 10 most controversial films can be found at: