Wild at Heart – the book and the movie

By Pamela Tarajcak

In 1990, David Lynch debuted his Palme d’Or winning film, Wild at Heart. Lynch fans all know that the film was based on a novel of the same name by Barry Gifford. Interestingly, upon reading the slim novel and watching the film successively, is that, though the major plotlines and characterizations of the main players remain quite similar, there are some startling changes and nuances that separate the two. Some work better than others, while some differences are understandable within their own media.

Lynch stayed true, mostly, to the major plot of the story. Ne’er-do-well Sailor Ripley (played in the film by Nicolas Cage) is released from prison after a two-year sentence for second degree manslaughter for the killing of Bobby Ray Lemon. Reuniting with his love, toney and sassy Lula Fortune (Laura Dern), the two set out on the road to head to California, breaking Sailor’s parole. Because Marietta Fortune (Diane Ladd), Lula’s mother, doesn’t want Sailor and Lula to be together, she hires sweet Johnnie Farraugut (Harry Dean Stanton) to find her and bring her home. Running out of money in Big Tuna, Texas finds Lula pregnant and Sailor joining with the ‘black angel’ Bobby Peru (Willem Dafoe) and his girl, Perdita Durango, (Isabella Rossellini) to rob a feed store, resulting in Sailor’s re-arrest, Bobby’s lurid demise, and Lula’s reunion with her mom, who has eventually caught up with her daughter.

Even some of the characterizations remain the same. Lula is still quite a bubblegum vamp whose brains do work quite differently. Sailor is an old-school throwback who enjoys a level of freedom and individuality. As a couple, they both respect each other and treat each other as complete equals. Johnnie is still a complete sweetheart of a man. Bobby Peru is still an evil creep, though less so in the book than in the film.

Other events have some nuanced differences. In both media, Uncle Pooch (Marvin Kaplan) does rape Lula. In the film though, Marietta found out and three months after, Uncle Pooch died in a car crash. Lula is also pregnant from this encounter, and has an abortion. Lula is clearly traumatized by the whole event. In the book, Marietta never found out. At the end of the crime, Uncle Pooch just leaves and Lula resumes making her sandwich. She does not get pregnant from this and continues to receive gifts from Uncle Pooch on all major holidays and on her birthday. Nor does he ever touch her again and only dies within very recent memory as of the commencement of the book. In this way, Lynch achingly showed the trauma such an assault causes whereas Gifford’s blase Lula is a hit and miss.

Sailor’s mom and dad are both dead from various illnesses while Sailor was still a child. Clyde Fortune did die in a fire in both media. “He got lead-poisoned from cleanin’ the old paint off our house without usin’ a mask. Mama said his brain just fell apart in pieces. Started he couldn’t remember things? Got real violent? Finally in the middle of one night he poured kerosene over himself and lit a match. Near burned down the house with me and Mama asleep upstairs. We got out just in time. It was a year before I met you.” (11). Gifford takes that event at face value. Things just happened the way Lula described, no more, no less. Lynch changes this to be something more despicable. Marietta and a character only name-dropped in the books but fleshed out to an extraordinary villain in the film, Marcello Santos (J. E. Freeman) plan an arson/murder of Clyde because they were both having an affair and something to do with the finances.

There are many dialogs that remain the same. Sailor and Lula have frank talks about their previous sex lives and how they feel about each other. Lula still remains worried about the ozone layer (which is entirely reminiscent of Candie’s version layer talk in Twin Peaks, Season 3). She is also disgusted by talk radio and news on one certain stretch of road, though book Lula handles her disgust far more calmly than film Lula’s little meltdown.

More extraordinary changes occur with four characters: Cousin Dell (Crispin Glover), Bobby Peru, and the subtraction of two characters in the film. Gifford wrote Cousin Dell as a completely mentally healthy person, a welder, who at one point has a mental breakdown that leads to many of the behaviors Lynch depicts in the film. Gifford also writes that it was Dell, and not Pooch, who impregnates Lula which leads to her abortion in the book. This happens when Lula was seventeen. Shortly after that is when book Dell devolves into madness. Lynch’s streamlining of Dell turns him into a Johnny Horne type character, which is okay. It is far more acceptable that Lynch did not make him yet another older relative who preyed on Lula at an impressionable age.

Events surrounding Bobby Peru also change in both media. Though both media present Bobby as a “dark angel” and eventually has him trick Sailor into the feed store robbery, there is one encounter that the book never had in it but was a Lynch addition. Peru’s sexual assault on Lula in her motel room is never in the book. Was the addition to make Peru almost another Frank Booth/BOB analog so present in many Lynch films? Was it to show Lula’s strength of will and ability to defend herself? Was it to provide a rock-bottom moment for the young couple? Maybe it was all three.

There are also several characters who are present in one media but not the other. The book contains two characters whose loss in Lynch’s film makes the film just a little weaker, and could serve to confirm a well-held and yet untrue bias that Lynch hates women. Beaney and Dalceda (nicknamed Dal) are friends of Lula and Marietta respectively. Lula’s conversation with Beaney about Sailor getting out of prison opens the book (not the actual attack by Lemon). Dal and Marietta have conversations sprinkled throughout the book, many of which serve to show how Dal is a sensible influence on Marietta. She gives straight talk to Marietta just when Marietta needs it. In the chapter entitled “Old Noise,” Marietta and Dal talk on the phone and Dal tries to convince Marietta that Lula is okay and that Marietta should worry about her own life and maybe hook up with that Farragut or Santos. She also reminds Marietta how in love she was with Clyde and how much they enjoyed each other’s company. She reminds Marietta “You’re just shit scared Lula feels the same way about Sailor as you did with Clyde.” (78). In that way, these two characters allow the Fortune women not to exist in isolation from other women. Also, Dal’s presence humanizes Marietta by making her more just a desperate mother and less the Wicked Witch of the East who is part of a vast conspiracy against Lula’s happiness. Dal is in many ways the Albert Rosenfield for Marietta. She shoots straight with lots of wisecracks, but does it from a place of love.

This vast conspiracy and other connected plot points provide the major differences between the two media. The film presents a vast underworld conspiracy to create a heightened paranoia and tenseness that is simply not present in the book. The aforementioned killing of Clyde by Santos and Marietta is just part of a larger conspiracy in the film. Marietta tries to seduce Sailor (an event that never occurred in the book, Marietta is far too disgusted with the lowlife, period). Marietta also calls Santos to kill Sailor. Santos then calls a Mr. Reindeer(W. Morgan Shepperd), another solely film character, who through the deliverance of two silver dollars arranges hits against Sailor (Bobby Peru is supposed to do the job at the feed store) and Johnnie (to be performed by Juana Durango) because Santos, afraid what Johnnie will discover about Clyde’s death, wants Farragut out of the way. Gifford wrote none of this. In fact, at the end, since there is no hit put out against Johnnie, and the fact that Santos is only named in the book, Johnnie lives and is the one who is at Marietta’s side when she picks up Lula in West Texas. Therefore, there is no Juana Durango (Grace Zabriskie) in at least the first book of the series or her voodoo practitioner gang. Perdita doesn’t know Sailor at all in the book until she meets him the first time for the feed store robbery. So the only real tension that the book has is will Sailor and Lula make it out West or will something bad or Marietta, whichever comes first, catch up with them? There is more tension in the film with the inclusion of this underworld conspiracy created as a domino effect from Clyde’s death. Neither difference is more preferable. Books don’t really need heightened tension to work. So the lack of this conspiracy does not make the book weaker. It probably would have complicated the plot of the book to convolution. But the tension is needed in the film to give some sort of connection between largely unconnected incidents. So both changes perform well within the media in which they have to reside.

Since Johnnie Farragut doesn’t die, the reader gets to spend more time with him and learn more about him. He is an amateur writer of short stories. Two chapters contain digressions from the plot as the reader reads a Johnnie Farragut original. Since Johnnie does live, that changes the ending of the book. Johnnie’s (and Dal’s) mediating and rationalizing influence on Marietta makes Marietta’s endgame just a bit different. Though at the end of both media, Marietta still doesn’t want Lula to be with Sailor, book Marietta does the work within herself to understand her daughter’s needs more. She learns to love her daughter not manipulate her. At the end of their last conversation together as Lula is about to pick up Sailor, the book ends with them saying “I love you” and not a phone slam as Lynch depicts Marietta still trying to crazily, negatively control Lula. Book Marietta is far more acceptable and sane than in the film. A further example is that Book Marietta never smears lipstick all over her face (though this part was a Diane Ladd addition, it is still a memorable part of the film and speaks so much about the character). Book Marietta is more likeable and less pitiable or derisive. This leads to an eventual reconciliation of mother and daughter. Also, with Johnnie’s better ending, who doesn’t want more of that sweet man and to see him live and thrive?

Another major difference is the inclusion of the car crash, and dying young woman (played by Sherilyn Fenn) they tried to help, right before the young couple reach Big Tuna. This is not in the book. It has been well stated that this was supposed to be the turning point for the young couple and is seen, in a way, as a curse upon them, an entree into the dark. This is typical in Lynch films where there is one incident that introduces the main character to the dark, whether the Axxon N. door in INLAND EMPIRE, Silencio in Mulholland Drive, Dorothy’s apartment in Blue Velvet, and more. But because the book is not a Lynch film, it doesn’t need that kind of trigger event. The only thing that could come anywhere close to that is in the chapter entitled “Road Kid.” When Sailor and Lula pick up a weird hitchhiker kid who wants to head over to Alaska to be a sled driver and has a box of puppies with which he’s traveling. This makes Lula sick and she has Sailor pull over and drop him off. This quesiness could be the first signs that Gifford makes of Lula’s pregnancy.
The final major and well-known difference in plot is the ending. The book ends with Sailor realizing that Lula and Pace are doing fine without him so he leaves them. The last sentence of the novel was, “She let him go.” (146). The film has Lula and Sailor reuniting after an incident involving a vision of the Good Witch (Sheryl Lee) and a street gang. Both serve their purpose well; neither is more preferable than the other. In the book, Lula does become more independent, but the loss is in the happy ending of lover’s reunions. In the film, there is that happy ending element that is hardly present in many Lynch films.

Something to mention in the differences though also has to do with pacing. Oddly enough, Lynch speeds the film’s progress along by getting Sailor and Lula out on the road as fast as possible. Also the Powermad scene allows the young couple to get out of the Cape Fear Hotel room and about in society. The book has them have several conversations (until the chapter entitled “Rest of the World,” specifically) in that hotel room about quite a bit of different things. Therefore, Gifford takes plenty of time for the couple to start out on their road trip. Also in the book, there are more stops along the way to a dilapidated old hotel in Biloxi reminding Sailor of his Granddaddy’s old Confederate unit picture, a dancing joint in Nunez where we see Lula get a little jealous of Sailor talking with another woman, and lunch time in San Antonio where Lula and Sailor reveal their childhood ambitions to be a singer and a pilot respectively. Gifford has Johnnie beat them to New Orleans. For such a slim novel, Gifford really packs in the conversations and slows the pace. There are many “slice of life” conversations throughout the book where the main characters reveal more about their backstories, the main character reveals something about someone they knew in the past, or a character who either Farragut or the couple meet on the road is known a little deeper. All these conversations do show and tell how “the world is wild at heart and weird on top.” The odd events, like the car crash, Johnnie’s lurid demise at Juana’s hands, the events in New Orleans prove that quote in the film. Therefore, because print is printed and not viewed and film is seen and not read, both ways to demonstrate that the world is wild at heart is equally commendable.

The last two differences are motifs which Lynch includes and are absent from the book. These add richness to the characters and the world building that in a way makes the book just a little more mundane. These two motifs are well known and well examined in many articles about the film: Sailor’s Elvis obsession (and his snakeskin jacket) and the Wizard of Oz nods. These provide wonderful visuals and a surreal feel to the movie than the more gritty realist novel.

Through this analysis of both media it is obvious that though much of the major elements remain the same, the inherent differences of both media necessitated some marked changes. Though some changed elements remain more preferable in one element or the other, many are not unsatisfying either way. Both film and novel are excellent works that do show in their own respective ways how the “world is wild at heart and weird on top” and probably the only thing that could save it is the love between these two crazy kids.

The version of the book I quote from is:
Gifford, Barry. ​Sailor and Lula: The Complete Novels​. New York: Seven Stories Press, 2010. The Barnes and Noble Nook E-Book edition.

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