When Lonesome Dove was published, in 1985, western movies were in one of their periodic eclipses. A decade or so of preachy revisionist movies like Doc and Soldier Blue had drained away their mythic vitality, and whatever spark of interest was left had been snuffed out by the debacle of Heaven’s Gate. I remember being surprised when Kurt Luedtke, who was about to win an Academy Award for his screenplay for Out of Africa, told me that the project he most wanted to do next was an adaptation of Larry McMurtry’s 843-page novel. I had loved the book but couldn’t quite believe in the possibility of a big studio western in a period dominated by edgy urban dramas and gross-out college comedies. Besides, even a novice screenwriter like me understood that there was way too much story in Lonesome Dove to render into a feature movie of even blockbuster length.
When, in the end, my friend Bill Wittliff was hired to produce and adapt the book as a miniseries, I still had my doubts. A television screen seemed like a perversely small frame for a story of such unparalleled openness. And if I had known then what I know now—after almost twenty years of writing movies and miniseries for television—I would have despaired. The budget restrictions of television, the squeamishness of network executives and sponsors about depicting violence or unwholesome situations, their desperate fear that