The outlook was grim as I called bookstore after bookstore in search of a copy of Newton Thornburg’s 1976 masterpiece Cutter and Bone. Even though the author lived here for a handful of years and set the novel in Santa Barbara, most bookstore employees didn’t recognize the title. They only began to catch on when prompted by my mention of Cutter’s Way, the novel’s 1981 film incarnation that starred Jeff Bridges and John Heard and featured extravagant scenes of Santa Barbara during Fiesta. Unfortunately, this film has come to overshadow Thornburg’s work, and many people who’ve seen the movie don’t want to read the book. But after finally finding the book at the public library and devouring it in a matter of days, I can say that’s too bad-these people don’t know what they are missing.
Cutter and Bone is the chilling account of two men’s attempt to catch a killer and bring him to justice. Richard Bone, the aptly named executive and family man-turned-gigolo, witnesses a man stuffing a woman’s corpse into an alleyway trashcan. Bone tells his handicapped Vietnam veteran friend Cutter that the killer might have been conglomerate tycoon J.J. Wolfe, and the two get roped into a wildly idealistic and sloppily planned quest to bring Wolfe to justice. Set against the devastatingly painted backdrop of post-Vietnam War America, Thornburg’s story laments losses sustained by its characters and the country at large. But by the last chapters, the novel commits itself to an essential pessimism that leaves the reader with an ending bereft of hope.
Thornburg, now 80, lives near his remaining family in the Seattle area. Despite having suffered from a stroke in recent years, Thornburg with the help of his daughter, let me interview him and ask him questions about his novel, living in Santa Barbara, and his opinion of the film. The book, although a brilliant painting of the post-war period, was less than flattering in its portrayal of Santa Barbara, so I wondered what the hometown response was. “Old-time locals did not like it. I think they were worried about Santa Barbara’s reputation,” explained Thornburg. But, he clarified, “It is not intended to be representative of Santa Barbara’s reputation. I was not worried about that.”
When it comes down to it, Thornburg said the location of the novel was somewhat inconsequential to the plot, and that it “could have been anywhere.” But “we lived [in Santa Barbara] at the time,” he explained. “It seemed such a unique and foreign place-high-class compared to the Midwest.” So he chose to use Santa Barbara because he enjoyed living here, and the reader, Thornburg explained, “Should be able to tell by my writing that I was impressed by Santa Barbara and the coast.”
Though the novel does contain wonderfully specific descriptions of various parts of Santa Barbara’s geography and culture, it seems that Ivan Passer and Jeffrey Alan Fiskin, director and writer of Cutter’s Way, were even more taken with our beautiful city than Thornburg. Filmed on site in Santa Barbara, the movie-which is being screened for free at the S.B. Courthouse on Wednesday, August 27-has gratuitous reminders of its location, from a shot of the brightly lit “El Encanto” sign to scenes of the Dos Pueblos High School marching band in a parade that wasn’t even part of the novel. Thornburg admits to mixed feelings about the film. “I always thought the characterization and cast was good,” said the author, referring to Bridges’s and Heard’s accurate performances of Bone and Cutter. But “the plot broke down halfway through,” said Thornburg. And that’s an understatement.
Having read the novel first and then watched the film, I initially thought the adaptation to the silver screen looked good: The characters were right, the chilling sense of foreboding was there, and it seemed that the only fault of the director was an over-infatuation with Santa Barbara, specifically the decadent Old Spanish Days Fiesta backdrop. But as soon as the film’s protagonists returned to Santa Barbara to find the killer instead of following him across the country according the novel’s plot, I realized that the director’s love of Santa Barbara was a fatal flaw. Ultimately, the end was so different that it was hard to imagine any relation to Thornburg’s work, although I might never have noticed how extreme and outrageous the final half hour of the film was without having first read the book.
Nonetheless, the film is entertaining and worth a little under two hours of your time. So bring your blankets and lawn chairs, head down to the Courthouse Sunken Gardens on Wednesday by 8 p.m., and enjoy both a summer evening and a pretty good film for free. But one precautionary word of wisdom: Once you’ve seen the film, don’t make the mistake that everyone else does-make sure to go read the book. I’ve already returned my copy to the public library, so the chances are good that you can find it there.
Cutter’s Way, based on Newton Thornburg’s novel Cutter and Bone, is being screened for free by the Santa Barbara Convention and Visitor’s Bureau at the Courthouse Sunken Gardens on Wednesday, August 27, at 8 p.m.