Adapting to Film: Midnight Cowboy

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Vladimir Nabokov described Stanley Kubrick’s film adaptation of Lolita—a film whose screenplay Nabokov himself wrote—as “the swerves of a scenic drive as perceived by the horizontal passenger of an ambulance.”  No doubt a film adaptation loses something of the original, but can it also improve upon its source? And, if so, how? This column will look at a different Oscar winner for Best Adapted Screenplay—both the source and the film—to determine, as Nabokov might’ve put it, whether that horizontal passenger is really missing anything at all. The series will commence with Midnight Cowboy.

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The Source: James Leo Herlihy’s novel Midnight Cowboy (1965)

The Film: Midnight Cowboy (1969); screenplay by Waldo Salt; directed by John Schlesinger; winner of three Oscars (Best Picture, Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay)

The Plot: Dimwitted but virile Joe Buck leaves Texas for New York, where he intends to be a male prostitute. There, he meets “Ratso” Rizzo, a frail, smalltime hustler with whom he forms a friendship. The two men struggle to survive as Ratso’s health fails. Eventually, they try to go to the warmer climate of Florida, but Ratso dies on the way.

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Watching Midnight Cowboy in 2014, it’s not hard to understand what made the film popular upon its initial release: Jon Voight and Dustin Hoffman are both remarkable (as is Sylvia Miles in a very small role); the film captures something gritty about life in New York that seems to lead directly to later landmarks like The French Connection, Mean Streets, and Dog Day Afternoon; and the film’s progressive look at sexuality—both the prostitution in which Joe Buck engages and the undercurrent of homosexuality he suppresses—was mostly new to American cinema. It remains, at least nominally, a beloved classic, even though I can’t remember the last time I heard anyone talk about it.

The friendship at the center of Midnight Cowboy between Joe and Ratso no doubt accounts for the story’s cultural endurance. Joe is brawny and not too smart, whereas Ratso is physically lacking but clever. This pairing seems so common that it reaches the level of archetype, existing in big cities, college dorms, and, hell, Cyrano de Bergerac. In Midnight Cowboy—both the novel and the film—this friendship helps Joe grow beyond his stud inclinations into…well, what? The story ends before it tells us, and both versions close with the haunting image of Joe cradling Ratso’s lifeless body on the bus to Florida. The reader/viewer has the sense of Joe moving into adulthood due to a definitive moment in his life. It’s a quintessential coming-of-age story, really.

The key difference between the novel and the film, then, is the emphasis on the coming-of-age elements vs. the friendship. Author Herlihy doesn’t even introduce Ratso until more than halfway through his novel. Instead, the book’s first half details Joe’s history: his strange upbringing, his early sexual encounters with a promiscuous young woman, his “friendship” with a hustler named Percy, and on and on. Herlily takes his time in getting Joe to New York—and takes even longer to introduce Ratso, who, as played by Hoffman in the film, becomes a co-lead, but in the novel feels like just another character. Herlihy isn’t too interested in Ratso; he’s only interested in Joe Buck, which means he’s also interested in Texas. The film, however, has different ideas about setting.

In screenwriter Salt’s adaption of the novel, Joe never reveals where in Texas he’s from, and the early scenes of the film imply a small town. Thus, Joe is the yokel from backwoods America, trying to make it in the big city. Herlihy, however, makes very clear where Joe hails from: Houston—which, even in the ’60s, wasn’t “small town America” (as David Berg’s terrific memoir Run, Brother, Run shows); in fact, for Herlihy, Houston becomes an emblem of urban alienation (the poor city plays this role in Paris, Texas and The Tree of Life too). In the novel, the character’s pre-New York history is focused on to a somewhat maddening degree: having framed the novel, from its earliest pages, as being about Joe Buck’s eastward move, it seems puzzling that Herlihy takes so long to pack his character’s bags.

In light of this, Salt makes a smart decision in his screenplay: he hits the delete button on all of Joe’s earlier loneliness (collapsing the character’s inability to connect into one great series of frustrated encounters with strangers on the bus) and introduces Ratso in act one. From there, Salt takes a chisel to Herlihy’s summary narration, trying to find the scenes hidden therein. A couple chapters of Herlihy’s novel—which describe, broadly, the winter that Joe and Ratso spend together—become, in Salt’s adaptation, the emotional core of the story. Herlihy suggests that Joe’s greatest need is to assuage his loneliness, but Salt reduces it to something far more effective and primal: Joe’s—and Ratso’s—greatest need is to survive.

Joe’s final decision to help Ratso is far more fraught in the film than in the novel: In the film, Joe finally finds success as a gigolo, and even sets up another appointment, before returning home to find Ratso, nearing death and begging Joe to take him to Florida. This is powerful because it sets up a conflict—Joe’s career vs. Ratso’s friendship. Ratso has requested something of his friend, and Joe has to make a decision: will he help his friend get to Florida, even if it means giving up all he has worked for, picking up an innocent gay man, and beating him senseless for bus fare? Of course, the answer is yes, and the film cuts simultaneously, and effectively, between two parallel actions: Joe beating the gay man and Joe helping Ratso onto the train—i.e., Joe’s violence and Joe’s kindness.

Herlihy’s approach to this proves stranger. In the novel, Joe is the one who suggests that he and Ratso head to Florida, which Ratso agrees to with reluctance. Ratso’s illness still provides stakes, but absent is the sense that Joe is potentially giving up his career to help his friend. Herlihy goes on to detail Joe’s encounter with the gay man by creating an absurd character named Townsend P. Locke who monologues for page upon page of exclamatory prose. It’s a pretty shocking authorial failure, rupturing the novel’s tone; providing a victim who, rather than sympathetic, is merely obnoxious; and running from the text’s heart by spending an inexplicable number of pages away from the key relationship between Joe and Ratso.

Thankfully, the film adaptation of Midnight Cowboy avoids this stumble on its way to a powerful and justly famous climax. Joe’s sacrifices—moral, financial, et cetera—and the reason for those sacrifices is made clear in Salt’s screenplay, and the film’s editing during this sequence, cutting rapidly between Joe’s beating of the man and Joe and Ratso boarding the train, reinforces this point in a economical but still aesthetically interesting way, becoming an example of an ideal collaboration between a screenwriter and a director: Salt has reorganized and rewritten one of the novel’s key moments, while Schlesinger has found a visual means to communicate the screenplay’s intention.

Yet, Midnight Cowboy fails—and why? Because elsewhere, Schlesinger seems to undermine Salt rather than collaborate with him. Salt has great love for his characters and finds thematic directness and purity in the way he constructs scenes (as he would find again in Serpico and Coming Home, films he wrote for directors—Sidney Lumet and Hal Ashby, respectively—whose visual styles were also direct and pure). Schlesinger, however, was an experimental filmmaker at heart, and in Midnight Cowboy, he fractures the narrative wherever possible. Joe’s history in Texas gets presented in evocative glimpses—a blond woman rocking young Joe, men breaking into a car while Joe has sex with a woman, et cetera—making pretentious what, in Herlihy’s novel, is merely banal and longwinded. (Take your pick between those two artistic sins, I suppose.) There’s a jarring moment early in the film of diegetic sound becoming alien when Joe (and, therefore, the film) visualizes a series of women he hears as voices on a radio. It’s stylistically cool, perhaps, but also pointless, and it establishes Schlesinger’s approach as a director: to fuck with things that ought to be left alone. As such, Schlesinger strives to make Midnight Cowboy an “art film,” with the surreal fragments of Joe’s past; the mixing of fact and fiction (i.e., involving Warhol’s Factory stars in the action at the hilariously dated hipster party); and the indefensibly silly sequence where Ratso imagines Florida, including wheelchair-bound old women chasing him into a pool.

Such cinematic experiments in tone and montage were, of course, en vogue at the time—Midnight Cowboy arrived in the first batch of post-New Wave modernist cinema, two years after John Boorman’s Point Blank and one year before Nicolas Roeg’s Performance—and Schlesinger’s most famous pre-Midnight Cowboy film, Darling, was a trendy dismantling of British celebrity. Darling may feel a tad dated (hell, most of Godard’s films feel dated too), but it’s good work whose form meets its function. The subject of Midnight Cowboy, however, demands a different form, and in imposing the highfalutin fashions of sixties cinema upon the story of Joe Buck, Schlesinger creates something questionable: a film that would confuse—and likely bore—its own characters.

In other words, Herlihy’s novel isn’t perfect, but I can imagine Joe Buck reading it eagerly, happy to see his own story told in its pages. But Joe Buck would watch the film with consternation, likely unable to recognize his own experiences in its telling, and finally frustrated and alienated by all the stylistic mumbo jumbo. The book is occasionally clumsy and pedestrian, yes (and boy does it contain groaners, e.g., during a sex scene, “he continued to work and to work and to work and to work”), but at least it honors its characters by staying on their level. Schlesinger, however, undermines the empathy of Herlihy and Salt to create a pretentious bit of fluff that, frankly, I’m surprised hasn’t yet drifted into the rearview of American culture like tumbleweed.

The beauty of Midnight Cowboy’s story is its simplicity. So what is Schlesinger getting at? He’s talking at me, but I can’t understand a word he’s saying.


Benjamin Rybeck lives in Houston, where he is the events coordinator at Brazos Bookstore. His fiction has received notable story and special mention distinctions in The Best American Nonrequired Reading and The Pushcart Prize Anthology, respectively. His writing appears in Electric Literature's The Outlet, Kirkus Reviews, Ninth Letter, The Seattle Review, The Texas Observer, and elsewhere. More from this author →