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Oklahoma City: A Different Story

June 11, 1995|JUDITH FREEMAN | Judith Freeman's new novel will be published by Pantheon next year

In 1991 I published a novel called "Set for Life," a book that in part dealt with a group of white supremacists living in northern Idaho. As a novelist, I was mostly interested in telling a story. But as always, I was also concerned with place and time, with the social conditions that form a backdrop to any story.

What happened to "Set for Life" following its publication forms an interesting story of its own, I think, in light of the bombing in Oklahoma City.

"Set for Life" tells the tale of Phil Doucet, an ailing, elderly man who befriends a 16-year-old runaway named Louise. Louise has fled a hateful environment, a step-father and mother who are white supremacists. She's on the run when her path crosses Phil's, and he offers her shelter. It's really the story of an unlikely friendship, of redemption one might say, and of two vastly different moral spheres intersecting.

"Set for Life" won a Western Heritage Award from the Cowboy Hall of Fame, for Best Western Novel published that year. The awards ceremonies were held in Oklahoma City and lasted an entire weekend, with cocktail parties, dinners, an outing to the local racetrack and lots of celebrating. My husband and I flew out for the weekend, and my editor from New York joined us.

It was kind of like the Cowboy Academy Awards. The ceremony itself, which was held in the Hall of Great Westerners, featured Ben Johnson and Richard Farnsworth as presenters. Jack Palance was on hand to receive a special award. Riders of the Purple Sage serenaded the audience. Awards in various categories, such as film, video, music and nonfiction as well as fiction writing were given out. It was all great fun. Both my editor and I walked away with Bronze Wrangler Awards--remarkably beautiful statues of a cowboy on a horse that weigh in at about 20 pounds.

Now there are a lot of different kinds of literary awards given out all the time, and the Bronze Wrangler doesn't immediately leap to mind as the most prestigious. But I have to say I was deeply moved to receive it, for a couple of reasons. The first is sentimental: My great-grandfather, William Jordan Flake, an Arizona rancher and colonizer, was one of the original Westerners to be inducted into the Cowboy Hall of Fame. I liked standing in a room with his name there on a plaque on the wall and receiving my own award. At that moment, I felt a deep connection to family as well as the West and the culture that I love.

But I was also thrilled that a book such as "Set for Life" could win such an award, that a novel that dealt even in small part with white supremacists in Idaho could receive such recognition from what one might think of as a rather conservative group. Yet there seemed to be a rather open attitude that year: The film that won, "A Thousand Pieces of Gold," was about Chinese girls sold into prostitution in early Western gold mining towns, and the nonfiction award went to "It's Your Misfortune and None of My Own," an excellent revisionist history of the West by the historian Richard White.

A year later, enter Hollywood. I received a call from my agent one day, saying a production company wished to option "Set for Life" to make a television movie. As every writer knows, movie options rarely materialize into anything, so I didn't get too excited. I took the money and waited.

Slowly however, over the next year and a half, the movie of "Set for Life" did materialize. Filming began last summer--not in Idaho, where the story is set, but in North Carolina, with Andy Griffith playing the elderly widower, Phil Doucet.

During the making of the movie, I was neither consulted, nor did I get any response to my requests to see a script. Instead, last September, three days before the movie was to air, I received a video of the finished movie and I sat down to watch it with my husband in the living room of our ranch house in Idaho.

I can only describe that experience as an education, the sort of education that many novelists before me must have received about what happens to your book when it becomes a movie. Everything had been changed. To begin with, the title was now "A Gift of Love." Characters had been combined and given new backgrounds and motivations. I didn't recognize one word of dialogue. I could only sense a faint penumbra of my original story beneath the movie unfolding before me. It wasn't that it was such a bad movie; it was just a television movie, with all the leveling that implies.

But it was toward the end of the film that I got my greatest shock, when Phil discovers who Louise really is. In the movie version, Louise has run away, not from her white supremacist parents, but from a father who has been raping her since she was 8 years old.

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