***WARNING! Spoilers for both book and movie!***
The Power of the Dog by Thomas Savage (1967)
The Power of the Dog directed by Jane Campion (2021)
I want to thank Diego who reached out to me on Instagram suggesting this book and movie! I of course had heard of the movie, but I hadn’t seen it and didn’t know it was based on a book! I am so glad he recommended it!
I went into this knowing very little, which is how I love to do into a book and/or movie.
The basic overview of both book and movie, we have Phil and George Burbank. Two brothers around the age of 40 who are rich from their ranch. George ends up marrying a widow who has a 16 year old son and she moves onto the ranch. Phil dislikes her very much, and dislikes her son and makes fun of him calling him a “sissy”.
Phil makes life for Rose terrible and she ends up becoming an alcoholic. Peter comes to stay over the summer and can see how miserable she is due to Phil’s mocking and mean remarks and treatment of her. He treats her this way when George isn’t around, and Rose doesn’t tell George about it.
Anyway, Peter, seeing what is being done, plots to poison Phil. This works out wonderfully because Phil begins to respect Peter and they spend a lot of time together. In the last moment, Peter manipulates Phil’s repressed homosexuality and is able to poison him using rawhide he had infected with Anthrax and asks Phil to finish the rope he has been working on.
In the end, Peter saves his mother from Phil.
Thoughts on the book
This book had me from the start. There is so much tension throughout, so many uncomfortable, awkward, embarrassing scenes and you feel it. These uncomfortable scenes all have to do with Phil, who loves to embarrass and shame people. I felt such a strong dislike for him throughout this book, while at the same time understanding his perspective-but only to a certain extent.
It is a slow burn, which I love, but it did kind of feel like the ending came abruptly. I guess it really wasn’t abrupt though, because the majority of the book was leading up to the ending! Maybe I just didn’t want the book to end and felt like it came to quickly.
Anyway, great character development, which is key for me. And again, the emotion and the tension in this book is palpable. Another reading experience where the world around me fell away and I was there with them on their Montana ranch.
This movie has been nominated for three SAG awards, and I’m sure will get multiple Oscar nominations. I am recording this in early February, so I don’t know if it wins the SAGs and what Oscar nom’s it gets-but I am excited to find out! By the time this video is posted, the SAG awards will have already happened and the Oscar nominations will have been released so maybe I will write in the description what the results were.
This book was optioned for a move three different times in the past; however it was never made until today! I am curious what an older adaptation of this would have been like…
The casting of this movie is superb. Everyone is so spot on with how the characters are described in the book and the acting is incredible by everyone!
Benedict Cumberbatch is nominated for a SAG and no wonder because he is excellent as Phil. Phil had more of a sense of humor, though it was a mean humor, that isn’t quite as present in the movie as it had been in the book. That’s a minor critique though because really, he is spot on.
Jesse Plemons is an actor I have talked about before in my episode for I’m Thinking of Ending Things book vs movie, he plays George and again, is perfectly cast. He isn’t in as much of the movie as the other three, but he is great as the mild-mannered George.
This role was originally going to go to Paul Dano. If you have listened to my episodes for 12 Years a Slave, Being Flynn or There Will Be Blood, you will know I love Dano! However, I think Plemons was the better casting choice for this role. Speaking of TWBB, I have heard these two movies being compared and I agree they are similar in many ways. I probably like TWBB better, but this one is amazing as well.
Kristen Dunst also has a SAG nomination for her role as Rose. She is great in every scene, but two that stand out is the dinner party scene and when she is drunk talking to Peter about stars.
Kodi Smit-McPhee is incredible as Peter, the odd yet strong son of Rose’s. He has some very emo looks in this movie, which seemed too much at times. Nonetheless, he is amazing and I hope he wins awards!
Meaning of the title
I love this title so much. It comes from the scripture, “Deliver my soul from the sword, My darling from the power of the dog.” Such a beautiful passage and the book begins with this line. Whether you believe in the Bible or not, there is no denying that there are some great passages and just amazing writing with beautiful symbolism in it! No wonder we hear Bible quotes all over the place!
I thought the movie would have this as the intro as well but instead we get a voice over from Peter. The voice over tells us of Peter’s father, who isn’t seen in the movie at all, but I thought what he says kind of gives away what will happen. Maybe I thought that just because I already knew the end though. I was talking to someone on instagram about the voiceover and he had said it intriuged him, but it didn’t give the ending away for him. Anyway, as the movie shows, Peter likes this scripture and reads it after having poisoned Phil. He “delivered” Rose from the power of Phil-the “power of the dog”.
It also seems significant that it is an attacking dog which both Phil and Peter see in the mountain.
“The lean hind legs thrust the powerful shoulders forward; the hot snout was lowered in pursuit of some frightened thing—some idea—that fled across the draws and ridges and shadows of the northern hills. But there was no doubt in Phil’s mind of the end of that pursuit. The dog would have its prey. Phil had only to raise his eyes to the hill to smell the dog’s breath. But vivid as that huge dog was, no one but one other had seen it, George least of all.”
The symbolism of Phil and Peter being the only ones who see the dog shows how they themselves won’t stop til they have gotten their “prey”.
Another key scene in the book that is referenced in the movie but not shown, is that before Peter’s dad, whose name is John, kills himself by hanging, he tells Peter what it means to be kind saying, “To be kind is to try and remove obstacles in the way of those who love or need you.” Phil is an obstacle to his mom’s happiness, so he removes it for her because he loves her.
In the book we also see that John is an alcoholic and was the town doctor but was better known for being a drunk and unreliable. One painful scene is when he is drunk in the bar and talking, trying to impress people. He speaks Latin or something, and one of the cowboys speaks back, surprising John and showing him up. The cowboy proceeds to make a fool of John and beats him up and tells him that his son is a sissy. John returns home and doesn’t tell Rose who did that to him, and from then on stops drinking. Before he kills himself, he speaks to his son; I thought he would get embarrassed that his son is different and would take it out on Peter. However, he never does and shows that he truly loves Peter and cares about him.
Phil of course is the cowboy who beats up John and insults his son. This is never found out by Rose.
Phil is such a great character! I felt such a strong dislike for him throughout reading this book and that’s a good thing! When a writer can make you feel strong emotions about a character, be it positive or negative, is a great thing.
Phil is talented, observant, patient and smart. One line of the book reads, “Each object reflected some facet of his gifts and talents, his stunning ability to grasp what others missed, his monumental patience.”
He can spot a person’s weakness or insecurity and gets pleasure out of embarrassing them or shaming them. The book often says how Phil likes to “get their goat” as they say. The afterward of the book says of Phil, “never misses a chance to lacerate another with his mean-spirited opinions.”
Those around him know what Phil will make fun of, and this causes them to be insecure of not only themselves, but those they care about. They suddenly feel embarrassed for the loved one, because they know how Phil will react. One example is when Rose is talking to Peter and, “she was sickeningly aware of his slight lisp. That and the neatness would draw Phil’s scorn at once…” This also happens with George. Rose makes a flower arrangement from weeds and things and George thinks it’s impressive, but he thinks about how Phil will make fun of it.
We also see how Phil likes things to stay the way they are. He doesn’t like modern inventions of cars and such. He doesn’t like Rose for multiple reasons, but a big one is that he just doesn’t like that she’s showing up and changing things and changing the dynamic of his and George’s relationship. One quote showing this in Phil, about how he like reliability and predictability reads, “Phil needn’t have worried, but you do wonder sometimes if people are what you think they are, or if you only think that they are and they are what they are and not what you think. For a moment Phil wanted to rise and congratulate George for not disappointing him, for being what he hoped he was, thought he was, knew he was.”
Even with all this, Phil is well liked by plenty of people and admired. He went to college and graduated top of his class; he isn’t shy and makes for great conversation (with most people) and has so many talents. He also respects people who are loyal and good at what they do. He even gets emotional when regulars return to the ranch for summer work.
He cares about George, yet he manipulates him and belittles him so much. When he graduated college, George still had two more years. Phil makes George feel inferior for getting lower scores and tries to get him to just drop out. George sticks with it, but eventually flunks out just as Phil had predicted. He also calls George “Fatso” as seen in the movie.
Phil is also homophobic due to his own repressed homosexuality. He loves talking about Bronco Henry, the cowboy who taught him everything he knew. Bronco Henry was trampled by horses and Phil had loved him and was heartbroken. He makes fun of Peter, both to his face, behind his back, and just in his own thoughts. It’s not until Peter impresses him with his strength against mocking that he starts to respect him to some degree.
The reason Phil is even making the rope to give to Peter is to drive a wedge between Rose and Peter and lead Rose to drink even more. Which would lead to Phil’s ultimate goal, for Rose to commit suicide. Of course, this rope ends up leading to Phil’s own death.
George and Rose
The movie has the scenes from the book where George finds Rose crying from what Phil had said about Peter. Then going to visit her later and helping her serve dinner to the rowdy customers. This scene was so wonderful in the movie and in the book when he walked back in Rose was bent over laughing because of how surprised the customers were and how they instantly quieted when he walked out there with their dishes. This is great scene in the movie though because George walks out there confidently and gets these people’s respect. Earlier, we saw with the guys on the ranch how George was timid and didn’t get the attention of the men.
In the movie we don’t get the proposal scene and I was kind of bummed about that because it is such a great scene in the book. Two lines from it read, “He knew no more of love, he told himself, than he did of tears, but he enjoyed sitting there. And he enjoyed the conversation which seemed to him on the verge of taking an even more sprightly turn. In other words, he knew all there was to know about love, that it’s the delight of being in the presence of the loved one.”
Then after they talk of marriage she says, “But don’t you see, I don’t want your money.” “Isn’t it funny,” he said. “I used to think that’s all I had, was money, until we sat here and laughed and talked. Isn’t it funny that even when I’m alone now, I feel so good.”
The scenes between them were so sweet and in his proposal, I had that happy butterfly feeling you get from a romance where you see the characters growing love and then the big moment finally happens. But here, Savage was able to achieve that feeling without spending a ton of time on their “courting”. He gave us just enough insight into each, to feel their love and to be so happy for them.
The movie does include the picnic they have on the drive which is also a sweet scene.
As shown in the movie, Phil writes to their parents about George and Rose, and they come out to Montana. The mother likes Rose though and there is a scene where the “Old Lady” is telling the “Old Gent”, “She said, ‘Somehow knowing George, I knew I could count on your kindness.’” “Well?” “It pleased me. That she sees George’s kindness.”
Of course, Phil tries to poison George against Rose. He also just instills doubt in their relationship and once it gets to a certain point, Rose is wondering when George will finally approach her about ending the marriage.
Phil also tells George at some point to look in the mirror and see that he is unattractive so how could a woman possibly love him, so she must therefore be with him for the money. Rose later sees George starring at himself in the mirror and thinks it’s odd but doesn’t say anything.
George is a great character though, and even though he can be mild mannered and is awkward around people, he is loyal. Which I guess can be a downside because he tries to play both sides in some ways. He is loyal to Phil but is also having to divide his loyalties with Rose as well.
Rose tries to talk to Phil when she first arrives, calling him “brother”, to which he replies, “I’m not your brother.” In the book, George comes back and happily says, I heard you two talking. Phil is smug because he knows Rose won’t tell George what had been said.
At one point later on, Rose approaches Phil and asks why he doesn’t like her. Phil says it is because she is a schemer and is stealing their alcohol. Rose is so taken aback and ashamed that she walks to her room. It then reads, “The recent protector of Indians, the erstwhile arranger of flowers, brought her fist to her mouth.”
There are other lines I highlighted that also show the effect Phil has on Rose which read,
“When she spoke of Phil her mouth grew dry, her tongue thickened. The thought of him scattered all pleasant and coherent thought and reduced her emotions to a child’s.”
“She felt suffocated in the void between her intention and her ability and shattered by loneliness.”
The Office is known for having the most awkward dinner party ever witnessed on screen. Well, The Power of the Dog is giving it a run for its money, only the dinner party we have here isn’t funny.
This scene in the book was almost painful to read, in a good way, because of how awkward it is. It is just Rose, George and the governor and his wife. In the movie George’s parents are there as well, but this doesn’t really lessen the awkwardness. (The movie also gets rid of the line where the mother is happy that Rose sees George’s kindness.)
In both, George asks Rose to play the piano and, in the book, I think she plays one song, but does it poorly. Then when attempting to play a second song, says that she suddenly can’t remember.
In the movie she isn’t able to play at all.
In the movie Phil also shows up near the end and further taunts Rose. The governor and his wife are excited to meet Phil, seeing as he is the interesting, smart, talented brother, whereas George is seen as the boring one.
In the book, Phil doesn’t show up till they are in bed already. They hear Phil come in and George goes to his room to apologize for having asked him to clean himself, to which Phil has a bitter reply.
The piano George buys for Rose was a huge ordeal to deliver and one man was even injured and was speculated he had broken his back. Savage brings this up multiple times, one time reading, “Rose glanced at George, but he was smiling with pride, and she rose and walked to the piano that had, perhaps, broken a young man’s back, whose chords had provoked Phil’s vicious mimicry.” Further showing how inferior she feels. A man broke his back to bring them this piano, and she uses it to poorly play simple tunes. The movie shows how Phil plays along when she is practicing, on his banjo and shows her up because he is a skilled banjo player.
Man, like seriously, just thinking about all the things he does to torment her make me angry all over again!
Peter actually has a lot of attributes Phil has. He is patient, observant, he can be cold and sees into people the way Phil also does.
Phil doesn’t suspect this of Peter and sells him short. He is shocked when Peter can see the dog in the mountain that Phil thought only, he and Bronco Henry could see. He also doesn’t suspect foul play when Peter appeals to Phil’s ego in the end. In the movie when Peter gives Phil the rawhide, he says that he cut it up for Phil because he wants to be like him. In the book, this isn’t said but is thought by Phil. He had just been yelling about how Rose sold the hides, when Peter approaches and touches Phil’s arm and gives him the hide. Phil is moved by Peter’s touch and his thoughtfulness. Meanwhile, Peter is simply manipulating him.
Before all this, as shown in the movie Peter comes across Phil bathing himself. In the movie he also comes across men’s magazines that had belonged to Bronco Henry. The magazines weren’t in the book. The book was very subtle in showing that Phil was gay. This book was written in the 60’s so I imagine that is why. If this had been made into a movie back then, I wonder how explicit they would have been in showing this. The movie here definitely makes it very obvious and you are never left wondering about certain details. The one scene I thought was unneeded is when Phil is like caressing himself with this kind of cloth or bandanna that had belonged to Bronco Henry. This scene was just kind of too much in my mind. Scenes like this in general I’m just not a fan of, so it’s just personal preference, I guess. It acheives what the director is going for though, allowing the audience to see this intimate moment Phil thinks no one else can see. I guess the intimacy of the moment made me uncomfortable.
Anyway, before Phil begins to take Peter under his wing, Peter thinks of Phil, “In a way, he and Phil had a kind of bond—a bond of hatred, maybe, but Peter felt that one kind of bond could be just as useful as another.”
The scene in the movie when Phil dies is so expertly acted by Cumberbatch! The movie follows the book very close with the events of his death. Peter poisoning the hide with anthrax, Phil’s cut on his hand, George taking him to the doctor, the doctor sending away a sample but already knowing it was from anthrax.
Then when George and Rose come home Peter sees them kiss and is content that he has secured his mother’s happiness and well-being.
The movie makes it very clear (at least it appeared so to me, but I did have the book in my head) of his intentions and it shows him getting the hide off the dead cow. In the book we never see this done and it’s not until Phil’s death we go into Peter’s head and see what he has done.
In the book it seemed like Phil’s death was very sudden, but in the movie, I guess I was expecting it so it didn’t seem as quick.
Native American’s and the Cow Hides
About halfway through the book, a man and his son approach the ranch and Phil is there. They ask if they can camp for the night because their horse is tired. The man is also the son of the former chief of the area and is even buried on the property before it belonged to the Burbank’s. Phil turns them away and doesn’t care that the dad was the chief. The man has his son with him and, as Phil does with everyone, the man is ashamed to be turned away and not to be shown any respect in front of his son.
Later, Rose and George notice them walk past. Rose says how she saw them walk past earlier and George guesses that Phil turned them away and that the man is probably the son of the dead chief. Rose can’t believe how the man and his son must feel and run after them and tell them they can camp there and that they would be honored.
Phil is of course upset about this, but he treated Rose to terribly prior to this event, he doesn’t treat her any different afterwards.
Later, a guy comes to the ranch asking about the hides. Rose doesn’t know that Phil doesn’t like selling them and takes $30 for them. When Phil and Peter ride back, as in book and movie, Phil sees the hides are gone and freaks out.
In the movie, the man and his son that want to camp out on the land that was once theirs isn’t in the movie. Rather the two scenes are combined, because in the movie it is a Native American who wants to buy the hides and Rose lets him have them for free. The man’s son gives Rose a pair of embroidered gloves. These gloves were in the book as well, so it was a nice touch to include them in the movie.
After this Rose collapses and is taken to bed.
In the book, after selling the hides she collapses, but makes it to bed and the next morning decides she is going to stop drinking. Of course, soon after Phil is taken away and then dies. He was the reason she was drinking in the first place, so now she has no need for it.
In the movie, Dunst wanted there to be a definitive moment where the audience sees Rose start to drink as a way to deal with Phil. This moment happens after the dinner party when Phil taunts her, she downs her drink. In the book there is not particular moment, it is just something that happens over time.
Book or Movie
When I was less than halfway through this book, I was loving it so much. I was getting that excited feeling, when you are reading a book and realize, “This could be a five-star read!” But that thought also makes you scared, because you are getting your hopes up, and what if the book starts to go downhill?? It will be such a disappointment! Thankfully, this book was indeed a five-star read. At the end of both book and movie I felt like I could cry. Not because the ending is sad, not even because it is touching, but I think just because there is so much emotion throughout this movie and book that at the end you just want to release all that with a cry! I was so excited going into this movie, and it did not disappoint. If I had to pick a favorite, I would probably say the book, however the movie is almost equally fantastic. It has a great, ominous score, beautiful cinematography, the directing, the acting is incredible, the set and wardrobe, and the script! Jane Campion adapted the story and she did such superb job adapting this incredible novel and staying true to the story.
My feelings on adaptations being close to the book as possible, vary from book to book. Some, I think it’s fine to take creative liberties. Some books just can’t be adapted exactly as written. Or maybe it could be, but the director just decided to take things his own way and I’m fine with that.
I also love though when a script stays close to the source, especially if the book is amazing like this one was! Ultimately, I don’t know which I like better when it comes to adaptation styles. What I like is a well-made movie, whether is it close to the book or not lol.
Anyway, what I am saying is, this movie stays very close to the original novel and both are absolutely incredible. If you loved one, I would highly suggest the other! They are similar, yes. But both are so well done that you won’t get bored going into either already knowing the story.