A Tale of Two Victors

We are all sexual beings. It seems to be America’s dirty little secret until we need to sell more, in which case, the age-old motto “sex sells” rules supreme. Regardless, as much as Americans may exploit the fact, it remains as true as the days are long that sexuality appeals to audiences everywhere. We see this philosophy alive and well in the ads we are subjected to daily and, more specifically, in the films that grace our movie theaters. In literature, the use of sexuality is not nearly as glamorized as in film. In books, sexuality is often viewed as a necessary aspect of the characters that are created. The character’s attitudes towards sexuality help to flesh out the world in which they live. As a result, the sex factor in both books and film often seem to work against one another, but to simply say that is to oversimplify a complex relationship. In The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fist Fight in Heaven and its 1997 film adaptation Smoke Signals, we see the employment of sexuality, or a lack of sexuality, in interesting ways that can be viewed as in direct conflict with one another. Nevertheless, the relationship of sexuality in literature and film and the enhanced or diminished roles of sexuality in their filmic adaptations remains a crucial aspect of the stories of The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fight Fight in Heaven.
Sherman Alexie’s collection of short stories displays a variety of emotions that he describes beautifully through out them all. Specifically, these emotions are detailed through narrative exposition and inner thoughts mainly, due to the personal nature of most feelings. Alexie makes it a point to never declare any feeling of his characters invalid or irrational, developing a well-rounded and emotionally in-depth portrait of his characters. However, Alexie stresses very early on that love is an important aspect of these characters. Although the concept of love in the first short story “Every Little Hurricane” is far from a sexual one, it’s important to understand how love and sex directly affect one another. With this story, Alexie illustrates one of the purest forms of love through the eyes of a son, longing for the love of his parents. Victor’s relationship with his parents is detailed throughout several other short stories and we see the complexity of the character as developed through this relationship, particularly with his father. His father is the central focus of several other important stories in fleshing out Victor as who he is. Those stories, namely “Because My Father Always Said He Was the Only Indian Who Saw Jimi Hendrix Play ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’ at Woodstock” and “This is What It Means To say ‘Phoenix, Arizona’”, illustrate Victor’s struggles with the loss of his father as a figure in his life and with the eventual total loss of his father, but regardless, we see how profoundly Victor witnessed his parent’s relationship which, inevitably, led to the shaping of his own, albeit distorted, ideas of romantic and sexual norms.
Sex is something that’s only discussed when, as stated earlier, instrumental to fleshing out the character. Victor is only understood as a sexual being as a way of illustrating the damage that reservation life and his own parents’ relationship have affected him. This is seen in the story “All I Wanted To Do Was Dance” when Victor’s relationship with an undisclosed woman is examined. As readers we see the emotional involvement that Victor has with this woman through his internal thought and through the writing. However, Victor has difficulty communicating this in his interaction with other characters. To most of the people that exist in this literary world, Victor is merely a lost cause who drinks himself in and out of love, but having the benefit of being inside Victor’s head, we see how he struggles to emotionally connect to this woman without drinking. “He looked into the crowd for approval, saw his mother and father. He waved and they waved back. Smile and Indian teeth. They were both drunk. Everything familiar and welcome. Everything beautiful.” (87) We see Victor’s struggle to fight against everything he’s known. His parents were drunks before him, and as a result, he drinks because of his parents. Not only because of his parents’ own drinking habits, but because his view of what a normal and healthy relationship is so skewed by what his parents felt before him. The inner torment and struggle to rebel against this learned behavior is what makes Victor such a real and relatable character.
The movie Smoke Signals, unfortunately, has a great deal working against it. Alexie was forced to make choices in penning the script for the film, which resulted in the exclusion of more internal changes that the character of Victor undergoes. This manifests itself in the exclusion of any element of any sexuality from the film. In fact, there are very few women in the film at all. As we discussed in class, the lack of women may have been merely because there are very few Indian actresses, but still, there is a real emphasis on the importance of women in the book. Nevertheless, the idea of love and sexuality, which is a crucial element of the book, is almost entirely left out of the film. Although there are innuendos that indicate that Victor may have developed some sort of attraction to Suzy Song, there is no actual acting upon these feelings, so to say that Victor is attracted to Suzy is entirely subjective. The way that he interacts with Suzy and how he asks her to tell him stories about his father suggests the sort of love for her that he had for his father, which is a complex and far from sexual one. He sees in Suzy the elements of his father that he would like to remember fondly and therefore asks her to help him remember his father as a kind and gentle man, instead of the man who broke his heart when he left him. Aside from his interaction with Suzy Song, we see Victor engage with very few women and certainly none in a sexual sense.
This lack of sexuality does a great disservice to the character of Victor. His change in the film is almost minimal and I honestly believe that it is because of this exclusion of sexuality and/or love in the film. While the film illustrates the impact that his father’s abandonment had on him, through the usage of key flashbacks and the stories of Suzy Song, his parents’ relationship is hardly given any attention as it is in the book. The dissolution of his parent’s marriage hardly affects Victor in shaping his romantic and/or sexual notions, but it certainly does have an impact on him. It is because his father leaves him that Victor struggles to find a sense of self-worth. “How do we forgive our fathers? Maybe in a dream. Do we forgive our fathers for leaving us too often, or forever, when we were little?… Do we forgive our fathers in our age, or in theirs? Or in their deaths, saying it to them or not saying it?” The importance of the father figure is an important idea in the book and the movie, but in the novel, Victor is shaped more by his parents’ relationship than just his father leaving. This is explained in the book by using more memories that have to do with both his father and his mother whereas Victor’s mother is of little importance in the movie. In Smoke Signals, Victor allows the single event of his father leaving to shape him, whereas in the book, his mother and father’s interaction is just as crucial as his father leaving him. As a result, what we are left with is two different ideas of who Victor really is. In the movie we see him as a young man trying to figure out who he is while working through his daddy issues instead of the complicated man he becomes in the book.
As I said before, there were some choices that had to be made in bringing The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fight Fight in Heaven to the screen. It seems that Alexie was more focused on establishing Victor’s identity as a fatherless son and his struggle to come to terms with that than on staying true to his own book. The lack of sexuality and love emphasizes Victor’s emotional immaturity which is unfortunately only a fraction of Victor’s character in the book. However, these two texts must be understood as representative of entirely different mediums. After all, the novel has the benefit of internal thought and exposition where as the film was forced to be almost entirely visual. This leads to two very different understandings of the importance of sexuality and love in these separate texts, resulting in two very different Victors.

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