In The Lone Ranger, Johnny Depp’s Tonto spoke with a white horse and fed birdseed to the dead crow on his head; in Twilight, a gang of Quileute Indians shape-shift into wolves. Hollywood still likes to portray Native Americans as mythical creatures, crazy people, or the enemy, but a new production team has high hopes of breaking that bad habit with Soul Catcher, a new major motion picture based on a 1972 novel by science fiction writer Frank Herbert, author of the Dune series.
In Soul Catcher, Herbert depicted Natives, and in particular the main character Katsuk, as less than heroic, arguably crazy, and the enemy.
The book takes place in the cold, damp, dense Northwest forest, and draws upon a true tragic event of many years ago, when a young Quileute girl was violated by white loggers and later committed suicide. This as well as historic colonization references are the impetus for the main character’s violent behavior. But it was the book’s ending that really upset at least one tribal member, Howard Hansen, whose relationship with Herbert inspired the book.
The ending is culturally contrary to Native traditions, especially for a person prone to visions as Katsuk, which caused a falling out between Herbert and Hansen. According to Dimitri Villard, the new film project’s producer, “It is my understanding they had a big argument. Howie Hansen insisted that the ending is not the way Katsuk (the main character) would have behaved in this context.”
Villard has enlisted the assistance of Quielete tribal member Hansen, who along with the production team will rework the ending of the film to be culturally appropriate. Villard also promises to keep the dark and suspenseful tone of the story with an ending that will keep audiences guessing.
The book has so many negative representations of Natives that the producer may find himself treading a thin line to create the movie he hopes to achieve. “On one hand you don’t want to alienate the Frank Herbert fans who run in the millions, and at the same time, to have the ending that he wrote is not cinematically acceptable,” Villard said. “I think it is one of the reasons the film was never made.” He hopes that with Hansen as a consultant, the film will be “more reflective of how things might have happened on a more realistic level, even though it is fiction.”
Rene Haynes, well-known casting agent for Native actors, has been signed to the project. “After reading the novel, I have several people in mind for Katsuk—but only in the abstract at this point,” she said. “While we have the beginnings of a list, until we have a director on board, this important role will not be decided. I’m really looking forward to the audition process for Soul Catcher.” She added that Katsuk “is going to be an amazing role.”
Herbert’s estate is thrilled, even with the proposed changes. “Our family is tremendously excited at the possibilities of a Soul Catcher film project,” said Brian Herbert, son and biographer of Frank Herbert. “The novel has been pursued by other filmmakers in the past; and with Dimitri and his team, we’re confident my father’s only, and perhaps most important, non-science fiction book will finally make it to the big screen.”
If Villard can wrangle the right director and screenwriter, this could be a groundbreaking film for Natives and for Hollywood. Villard is currently talking to several A-list film directors, and whomever is selected will be closely involved with the development of the screenplay.
Production could begin anywhere from six to 18 months from now. Villard will be working with the Sundance Institute, Quileute tribal members, and other advisors. “Howie knows Frank was trying to make a point but everyone in the tribe feels this way (about the needed changes),” Villard said. “We have a strong statement and Howie is willing to spend a lot of time on the project.”
Frank Herbert’s books often focused on ecological issues, untapped human potential, genetics, and human relationships, according to a statement issued by the film company. His book Dune was developed into a major film, directed by David Lynch, and later made into a television mini-series which developed a huge cult following.