From Page to Screen: Old Yeller

My thoughts on the movie

The 1957 film version of the book was a great favorite of mine as a child, but until recently, I hadn’t seen it in over 20 years.

The only thing I remembered really well, besides the ending was depressing, was obnoxious neighbor Bud talking about someone who had the “hydrophobee” and, thus, died under a sweet gum tree.

But I am happy to report that the movie holds up really well and does a good job of adapting the original story while also being entertaining in its own right. The only thing that seemed cheesy and dated was the theme song at the beginning and its variation at the end.

Overall, the movie maintains the book’s plot faithfully. In fact, almost all of the dialogue is drawn directly from the book.

One of the most major omissions is of the subplot about two bulls fighting. It occurs fairly early in the story, before Travis likes Old Yeller, and results in the farm’s fencing being torn down. It’s a recurring point later in the book when one of the bovine contestants turns up with “hydrophobee,” along with one of the family’s milk cows. The omission works in the movie because the fence still gets torn up and Travis’s initial antagonism toward the dog is well established with other scenes. The rabid cow story line just gets condensed to one cow instead of two.

Personally, I wondered if logistics also played a role in removing that story element. The movie already required quite a bit of animal action scenes. In between handling the stunt dogs and stunt hogs and stunt cows they story calls for, I’d imagine that finding stunt bulls and choreographing a bull fight between them would be a tall order.

I’m assuming that is also why Old Yeller is quite a bit more photogenic in the movie than in the book. He is actually missing an ear in the book,  but I can see how finding a one-eared dog was probably pretty low on the set of priorities for casting.

Speaking of Old Yeller himself, the movie has a lot of reaction shots of Old Yeller, and I do think this makes the movie seem like way more of an example of an animal story than the book. But I think those reaction shots are pretty priceless, so they work well within the context of the film. Really, would you make a movie with the dog as a main character and not include adorable dog reaction shots?

There are a few other minor changes that also make sense from a purely practical standpoint–Bud’s granddaughter is introduced earlier in the movie, but it would seem stranger in a movie for her to randomly appear right before the end as a somewhat significant character than it is for that to happen in a book.

Travis also comes off as slightly more naive because of the way certain scenes are set up. For instance, in the book, he and his father have long climbed up a tree as a safety measure when they mark their hogs. In the movie, this is Bud’s idea. Likewise, Travis has to wander into the cornfield to realize that the raccoons are wrecking havoc, whereas in the book he already knows it will be an issue and is taking steps to remedy it before they cause too much trouble.

The changes work in the movie, though, because I don’t know that the audience could keep up with what was happening or why these things could be issues without characters spelling them out more directly, so having Travis unaware of them and needing them explained or pointed out to him works well for this and also make sense since he is a kid being asked to do much more than is usually expected of him to do alone. And these minor changes make it easier for them to do that naturally.

The most significant change in the story is the ending. If you’re reading this far, you know that Old Yeller dies. And in the movie it is heart-wrenching. But I think it is even more disturbing in the book. Because in the film, the family really tries to make sure Old Yeller doesn’t have the “hydrophobee.” They keep him penned up for days and innocently hope that he doesn’t start showing symptoms. It’s only when he is shown to irrevocably have rabies that they put him down.

Well, that doesn’t happen in the book.

In the book, as soon as Old Yeller has bravely fought off the wolf and saved the family and they realize that he has to be infected, he gets shot. There is no waiting period or attempt at reprieve for him.

I still remember the first time I read that. I had seen the movie. I knew that Old Yeller wasn’t making it out alive. I was already pretty depressed just thinking about that, but the way it was presented in the book was startling. It was like being punched in the face and still is.

But it works because, really, it makes sense that a frontier family in the 1860s would have that reaction. It also seems less cruel in the book, though no less startling, because they have already tried penning and saving their afflicted milk cow to no avail. So, they already know that penning up the animal and hoping for the best won’t amount to anything.

However, I also completely understand why this was omitted from the film. In the movie, the subplot about them already penning up the cow in hopes of her not being rabid is removed, which makes sense because it would be redundant. But removing that also takes away the audience’s ability to see why the family did what they did so immediately. It makes sense, then, that the movie transfers that delay over to Old Yeller.

On a further note, let’s be honest. Is any kid’s movie going to film the ending exactly the way it was in the book? Of course, they’re going to show the family trying to save their brave, loyal dog! I have a feeling if the movie had preserved the book’s exact approach to that scene, it would not be considered a classic family film. . . .

In any event, I think Old Yeller is a great example of a movie adaptation that does a wonderful job of staying faithful to its source material while still making practical changes that work well to account for a change in medium.

The verdict: A tie. Both the book and the movie do a great job of telling the same story.

As always, if you’re interested in learning more about either the book or the movie or putting them on hold, just follow this link to our online library catalog.

What are your thoughts on Old Yeller? Have you read the book? Was the movie part of your childhood? Tell us in the comments!

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Author: berryvillelibrary

"Growing a bigger, better library"

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