Don’t let craggy Central Texas mountains deter you from ‘Information of the World’
Hope you see News of the World, Tom Hanks’ new film based on the award-winning novel of the same name by Paulette Jiles, a poet, writer, and memoir who lives on a hill near Utopia, USA Hill country. The novel was a 2016 National Book Award finalist, and the film is likely to win awards too.
News of the World is the story of Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd (Hanks), a 72-year-old widower who makes a living reading newspaper articles in front of a paying audience (one cent each) in border towns in North Texas. Georgia-born Kidd was a teenage private individual during the War of 1812 and was named a captain during the Mexican War. Before the Civil War and before the death of his wife, he worked as a printer in San Antonio.
One night in Wichita Falls, he reluctantly agrees to take a 10-year-old girl, possibly called Johanna Leonberger, to relatives of German immigrants near Castroville, west of San Antonio. The little girl knew neither English nor German and had been kidnapped four years earlier by Kiowa attackers who had also killed her parents. “News of the World” is the story of their vast 400-mile journey.
A New York Times reviewer described the News of the World as [an] exquisite book on the joys of freedom. . . . pure adventure in the wilds of untamed Texas; and the reconciliation of very different cultures. “A Washington Post film critic described the film as” an extraordinarily moving drama “.
Several reviewers have picked up the accurate portrayal of a time in Texas history that we often ignore: the chaotic, lawless, politically unstable era of reconstruction. The war lasted five years, the reconstruction nine years. Those nine years were arguably more difficult for 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.
This anarchy included Texas under military rule; former freed slaves desperately trying to secure their hard-won freedom in the face of KKK terrorism; Gangs of robbers and outlawed gangs rule areas in North and East Texas; The chaos in Austin as the Republican governor tried to implement the three changes to the Civil War, while disenfranchised former Confederates resisted. It was a difficult time in this state.
Jiles is also fascinated – and I suspect her readers too – by the phenomenon of child prisoners on the Texas border. As she points out in a note at the end of the novel, it appears that almost all of them became Indian. The rescued – like Cynthia Ann Parker, like the little girl in her novel – almost always longed to return to their adoptive families, even if they had been with their Indian families for less than a year. Most were never really hired.
The reviewers are right about the book and film, which were directed and co-adapted by Paul Greengrass. Hanks is just as compelling as in another Greengrass-directed film, “Captain Phillips,” and 10-year-old Johanna, a German child actress named Helena Zengel, is luminous. For the Texan audience, however, it is the terrain that is miscast.
Kidd takes his charge in Wichita Falls. Her journey in a used excursion vehicle that Kidd buys in Wichita Falls takes her south to Dallas, Meridian, Cranfills Gap, Lampasas and the hill country near Llano. He continues south to Kerrville, Bandera, Castroville and finally to D-Hanis, a few miles west of Castroville. Down in the heart of Texas, they ride on rocky, busy trails through treeless plains, past rugged mountains and distant mesas.
This “vast nothing,” as one reviewer described it, “looks very much like New Mexico. Because it is.
Jiles’ Texas is the one her Texans are familiar with – “a jumble of short, sharp hills” in north Texas, “the elevators and falls of the prairie lands of central Texas,” and “bluebonnets by the acre” in the hill country. These days, New Mexico, Oklahoma, and Louisiana – “all of our bookends,” said Rick Ferguson, executive director of the Houston Film Commission – are deputies for Texas.
Like most states, Texas has had an incentive program for years to attract filmmakers. However, as of the 2017 legislature, a handful of Republican lawmakers set about drastically restricting the program. Some of them tried to kill the Texas Film Commission immediately. Money could better be spent elsewhere, they argue.
As Texas has withdrawn, other states and cities have become more aggressive. They offer manufacturing companies discounts of up to 20 percent of the money spent in the state or city.
New Mexico has been particularly aggressive since the runaway hit of Breaking Bad, the crime drama television series that ran on AMC from January 2008 to September 2013. Our neighbor to the west not only offers a generous incentive program, but also a state-of-state – the ultra-modern production facility in Albuquerque.
That’s why the rolling, often green, grasslands around Waco looked as flat and arid as the plains east of Albuquerque in a six-part Paramount miniseries about the Siege of Branch Davidian. For this reason, Hell or High Water, a 2016 best picture nominee with Jeff Bridges and Gil Birmingham, claims to be set in the small town of West Texas, but is actually the small town of New Mexico.
“I was disappointed they didn’t shoot in Hill Country,” Jiles told me via email last week. “I don’t know what business Georgia and New Mexico did with the movie companies – tax breaks, I suppose. Still, it was a good movie. I think Tom Hanks and Helena Zengel did a great job. “
So we can argue about whether Texas should lure filmmakers to the Lone Star State. Perhaps the legislature will raise the issue again at this session. As we ponder how New Mexico might recreate Galveston, the setting of Jile’s latest novel, “Simon the Fiddler,” check out their wonderful News of the World. Also watch the movie. Just try to ignore those rugged mountains west of Dallas.