I’m hoping you’ll see “News of the World,” the new Tom Hanks movie based on the award-winning novel of the same name by Paulette Jiles, a poet, novelist and memoirist who lives on a hilltop near Utopia in the Hill Country. The novel was a National Book Award finalist in 2016, and the movie likely will win awards, as well.
“News of the World” is the story of Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd (Hanks), a 72-year-old widower who makes a meager living by reading newspaper articles to paying audiences (a dime apiece) in frontier towns across North Texas. Born in Georgia, Kidd was a teenage private during the War of 1812 and was made a captain during the Mexican War. Before the Civil War, and before his wife’s death, he worked as a printer in San Antonio.
In Wichita Falls one night, he reluctantly agrees to ferry a 10-year-old girl who may be named Johanna Leonberger to German-immigrant relatives near Castroville, west of San Antonio. Unable to speak English or German, the little girl had been abducted four years earlier by Kiowa raiders who also killed her parents. “News of the World” is the story of their daunting 400-mile journey.
A New York Times reviewer described “News of the World” as [an] exquisite book about the joys of freedom. . . . pure adventure in the wilds of an untamed Texas; and the reconciling of vastly different cultures.” A Washington Post film critic described the movie as “an extraordinarily moving drama.”
Several reviewers have picked up on the movie — and the book’s — accurate depiction of a time in Texas history we often ignore: the chaotic, lawless, politically unstable Reconstruction era. The war last lasted five years, Reconstruction nine. Arguably, those nine years were harder on Texas than the war itself.
“There was anarchy in Texas in 1870 and every man did what was right in his own eyes,” Jiles writes.
That anarchy included Texas under military rule; former freed slaves desperately trying to secure their hard-won freedom in the face of KKK terrorism; bands of brigands and outlaw gangs ruling areas of North and East Texas; chaos in Austin as a Republican governor tried to implement the three Civil War amendments while disenfranchised former Confederates resisted. It was a hard time in this state.
Jiles also is intrigued — and so are her readers, I suspect — by the phenomenon of child captives on the Texas frontier. As she points out in a note at the end of the novel, almost all of them apparently became Indian. Those rescued — like Cynthia Ann Parker, like the little girl in her novel — almost always longed to return to their adoptive families, even when they had been with their Indian families less than a year. Most never really readjusted.
The reviewers are right, about the book and the movie, directed and co-adapted by Paul Greengrass. Hanks is as compelling as he was in another Greengrass-directed movie, “Captain Phillips,” and the 10-year-old Johanna, a German child actress named Helena Zengel, is luminous. For Texas audiences, though, it’s the terrain that’s miscast.
Kidd picks up his charge in Wichita Falls. Their journey in a used excursion wagon Kidd buys in Wichita Falls takes them southward to Dallas, Meridian, Cranfills Gap, Lampasas and into the Hill Country at Llano. He continues southward to Kerrville, Bandera, Castroville and finally D-Hanis, a few miles west of Castroville. Down through the heart of Texas, they travel along rocky, hard-packed trails through treeless plains, past rugged mountains and distant mesas.
This “vast nothingness,” as one reviewer described it, “looks a whole lot like New Mexico. Because it is.
Jiles’s Texas is the one familiar to her fellow Texans — “a tangled country of short, sharp hills” in North Texas, “the lifts and falls of the prairie country of Central Texas” and “bluebonnets by the acre” in the Hill Country. These days, though, New Mexico, Oklahoma and Louisiana — “all of our bookends,” in the words of Rick Ferguson, executive director of the Houston Film Commission — are stand-ins for Texas.
For years, Texas, like most states, has had an incentive program to entice filmmakers, but beginning in the 2017 legislative session, a handful of Republican lawmakers set out to drastically curtail the program. A couple of them have tried to kill the Texas Film Commission outright. Money could be better spent elsewhere, they argue.
While Texas has retreated, other states and cities have gotten more aggressive. They’re offering rebates to production companies of up to 20 percent of money spent in the state or city.
New Mexico has been particularly aggressive since the runaway success of “Breaking Bad,” the crime drama TV series that ran on AMC from January 2008 through September 2013. Our neighbor to the west not only offers a generous incentive program but also a state-of-the-art production facility in Albuquerque.
That’s why the rolling, often green pastureland around Waco in a six-part Paramount mini-series about the Branch Davidian siege looked as flat and arid as the plains east of Albuquerque. It’s why “Hell or High Water,” a 2016 best-picture nominee starring Jeff Bridges and Gil Birmingham, purports to take place in small-town West Texas but is actually small-town New Mexico.
“I was disappointed they didn’t film in the Hill Country,” Jiles told me by email last week. “I don’t know what kind of deals Georgia and New Mexico made with the film companies — tax breaks I suppose. Still, it was a good movie. I think Tom Hanks and Helena Zengel’s performances were superb.”
So, we can argue about whether Texas ought to be enticing moviemakers to the Lone Star State. Maybe lawmakers will address the issue again this session. Meanwhile, as we ponder how New Mexico might recreate Galveston, the setting for Jiles’s latest novel, “Simon the Fiddler,” go read her wonderful “News of the World.” Watch the movie too. Just try to ignore those craggy mountains west of Dallas.