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Where the Red Fern Grows is the heartwarming and adventurous tale for all ages about a young boy and his quest for his own red-bone hound hunting dogs. Set in the Ozark Mountains during the Great Depression, Billy Coleman works hard and saves his earnings for 2 years to achieve his dream of buying two coonhound pups. He develops a new trust in God as he faces overwhelming challenges in adventure and tragedy roaming the river bottoms of Cherokee country with "Old Dan" and "Little Ann." The movie follows the inseparable trio as they romp relentlessly through the Ozarks, trying to tree the elusive "Ghost" raccoon. Their efforts prove victorious as they win the coveted gold cup in the annual coon-hunt contest, capture wily ghost coons and bravely fight a mountain lion. Through these adventures Billy realizes the meaning of true friendship, loyalty, integrity and heroics, in this timeless and poignant coming of age story. Written by
Now here's a book that has never really gotten grand movie treatment. Maybe it's the fact that the book has so many elements to it that are hard to portray in movie form, such as heavy characterization and animal thoughts/beliefs, but it just seems that all the movies fall a little short.
This movie version is clearly the best of a mediocre bunch, however. The casting is about as well done as could be expected. Stewart Peterson, in the first and perhaps the best role of his short career, is perfect as Billy. I also liked Jack Ging's portrayal of Billy's father.
On the flip side, Beverly Garland, a heavily experienced actress at the time this movie was filmed, was horrible as Billy's mother. In the book, Billy is a borderline "mama's boy". His mother is written as overly-affectionate, constantly hugging and kissing him, much to his chagrin. In the movie, however, she spends nearly every scene chasing him with mops and threatening to whip him when he wants to finish cutting the tree down! To be honest, I question whether Garland had read the book, because she basically replayed her TV show "cowboy's wife" characters in the movie.
A lot of the gorier sections of the book are cut down. It's hard for kids nowadays to think that a book could be more gruesome than a movie, but that is clearly the case here. The ax scene, in particular, is almost comically chopped down, no pun intended. The ending, however, is nearly as gut-wrenching in the movie as the book. Whenever I teach this book to 7th/8th graders, it's neck-and-neck for which draws more tears.
From an artistic standpoint, some of the 70's film-making peculiarities are interesting, such as the fact that most of Billy's "night-time" scenes take place in broad daylight, even while Billy carries around a lit lantern! Overall, it's a passable movie and does follow the book quite closely. For teachers such as myself, there is no other option. The 90's version is an absolute mess, and this movie has enough nostalgic charm to keep its datedness in check. In other words, you won't feel guilty showing it to students!
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