The Power of Tom Savage

Alumni11 MIN READ

Favored at the Oscars, the movie The Power of the Dog is bringing overdue attention to the Colby author who wrote the original novel.

Thomas Savage ’40 wrote The Power of the Dog in 1967. A movie based on his novel is a top contender at the Academy Awards on Sunday night. Photograph by John E. Woodman Jr.
By Stephen Collins ’74
March 24, 2022

Assuming The Power of the Dog wins Oscars March 27—it has the most nominations, with 12—it might feel like redemption for one of Colby’s most critically acclaimed but overlooked authors, were he still alive: Thomas Savage, Class of 1940. 

Years ago Savage wrote in Colby’s Alumnus magazine about skipping classes to write. Among the 13 books he published (one of which sold three quarters of a million copies), The Power of the Dog was his fifth, published in 1967. Though often cited as his best, the gothic Western’s first printing sold at most 1,000 copies, according to the editor who championed a revival imprint in 2001.

Savage, who won a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1980, remained connected to the College throughout his career. In 1954, following publication of his third book, he received an honorary master’s degree at commencement. He corresponded with Dean Ernest Marriner and reviewed Marriner’s History of Colby College for the Alumnus in 1963. 

That essay recounts Marriner calling him to task for skipping classes and, after hearing “writing” as the excuse, asking to see Savage’s manuscript. After a long faceoff, Marriner said, “If you continue this writing, you can cut what classes you need to, so long as you don’t fail,” Savage recalled. The manuscript would become The Pass, published by Doubleday in 1944. “It was my first novel, draft one finished at Colby.”

Still photograph from the film The Power of the Dog
Benedict Cumberbatch as the unforgettable Phil Burbank in The Power of the Dog. The character in the movie reflects the real-life eccentric step-uncle of author Thomas Savage, who wrote the original novel. Kirsty Griffin/Netflix

Now a contender for Academy Awards for best picture, best actor, best director, best supporting actor and actress statues, among others, director Jane Campion’s The Power of the Dog is remarkably faithful to Savage’s narrative, a dark family drama set on a cattle ranch in southwestern Montana in the 1920s. 

Alan Weltzien, who wrote Savage West: The Life and Fiction of Thomas Savage (2020), has spent decades promoting Savage’s underappreciated fiction and literary reputation. He describes Savage’s childhood beginning at age 2, when his mother divorced and returned to her parents’ Idaho ranch, often taking the toddler into the hills herding sheep. 

When Savage was 5, his mother married Charlie Brenner, and mother and son moved from Idaho to Horse Prairie, Mont. Savage acknowledged that most of his characters were drawn from his life and family, and reviewers and Weltzien suggest there’s a lot of young Tom in The Power of the Dog character Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee in the movie)—a teenager who makes paper flowers and is called a sissy. Savage’s mother is represented in Rose (Kirsten Dunst) and his stepfather in George (Jesse Plemons). Phil Burbank, the unforgettable Benedict Cumberbatch character in the film, most reflects Savage’s eccentric step-uncle, Bill Brenner, according to Weltzien.

Associate Producer Phil Jones and director Jane Campion on the set of The Power of the Dog in New Zealand. Before making the movie, Campion visited Montana where author Thomas Savage grew up. Kirsty Griffin/Netflix

Savage rode and roped and branded cattle with the best of the cowboys, Weltzien writes. But as a closeted gay man he longed to escape ranching and rural Montana, and that internal conflict informs the Cumberbatch character as well. During two years at the University of Montana Savage sold his first magazine article, “The Bronc-Stomper,” for $75, and he impressed an English professor such that he was encouraged to correspond with his professor’s daughter, Elizabeth “Betty” Fitzgerald ’40, a Colby student.

Savage took a bus east, enrolled as a junior (making him and Betty the only students from west of the Mississippi when he arrived), and the relationship between the two gifted writers blossomed into marriage during their senior year, notwithstanding his acknowledgement during courtship that he was homosexual. Through five decades—despite rampant alcoholism in the family, occasional abuse, grim tragedies involving both sons, and a tumultuous two years when Savage decamped for an affair with children’s author Tomie dePaola—the husband and wife remained dedicated to one another until she died, in 1989, two months shy of their 50th anniversary.

Power of the Dog book cover
Power of the Dog book back cover
A first-edition of Thomas Savage’s novel The Power of the Dog, published in 1967, is in Colby’s Special Collections & Archives.

Weltzien credits Hubert “Jim” Merrick ’75, Colby Libraries’ reference and collections coordinator, for providing copious and important source material for the biography. After graduating—Elizabeth, Phi Beta Kappa, magna cum laude, and 1940 women’s class speaker; Tom with a prize for excellence interpreting Greek authors—Savage worked as an insurance claims adjuster, a rancher, a wartime shipyard welder, a railroad brakeman, and eventually a writing instructor at Suffolk and Brandeis universities in Massachusetts.

While teaching at Suffolk in 1948, Savage was rejected for a $500 loan to buy furniture. Later that month he received a $50,000 check from Columbia Pictures for the option to turn his second book, Lona Hanson (1948), into a film starring Rita Hayworth. Though the film never got off the ground, the book sold some 750,000 copies in a Pocket Book edition, Weltzien recounts.

His next novel, A Bargain With God (1953), like Lona Hanson published by Simon & Schuster, was the most commercially successful of all 13 works. It had a happy ending, and Savage judged it his worst book, but it brought in at least $65,000, according to Weltzien—more than $650,000 in today’s dollars.

Power of the Dog film poster
The Power of the Dog is up for a dozen Oscars on Sunday, including best picture. Thomas Savage ’40 wrote the novel on which the movie is based.

In 1955 he bought land on the Maine coast between Popham Beach and Reid state parks and moved the family north. Tom and Betty would remain there for 30 years. Both sons, Robert “Brassil” Savage ’68 and Russell Savage ’70 finished their bachelors’ degrees at Colby, and Betty taught in the English Department from 1963 to 1967. 

Savage died at age 88 in July 2003 in Virginia, where he moved late in life to be near his daughter. In reporting his death, the New York Times described him as a writer of “spare novels of the American West, without six-shooters and gunsmoke.”

Annie Proulx ’57, author of Brokeback Mountain, a short story about gay cowboys also made into an award-winning film, wrote an incisive afterword for the 2001 reissue of The Power of the Dog. She called Savage’s novel “a psychological study freighted with drama and tension, unusual in dealing with a topic rarely discussed in that period—repressed homosexuality displayed as homophobia in the masculine ranch world. It is a brilliant and tough book.”

In the 1970s Washington Post critic Jonathan Yardley wrote, “Over his long and notably productive career, [Savage] has shown himself to be a writer of real consequence. … It is a shame, bordering on an outrage, that so few readers discovered him.”

Biographer Alan Weltzien suggests there’s a lot of young Tom Savage in the character Peter, played by Kodi Smit-McPhee in the movie. Kirsty Griffin/Netflix

When asked about the treatment of sexuality in the movie version of The Power of the Dog, Lisa Arellano, former associate professor of women’s, gender, and sexuality studies at Colby and visiting professor at Mills College, said, “I love that this isn’t actually a gay cowboy story. It’s a story about the son—it’s about the boy’s relationship with his mother and his own vexed masculinity. … It’s not about a gay character trying to work out his own secret gayness. I find it an unusually smart piece of literature.” 

At the end of the film she thought, “Wow! I am fully surprised. That’s not where I thought it would be. And I’m now doubly surprised to learn this book dates from 1967.” As one who had not discovered Savage before the film, she was eager to dive into Savage’s fiction.

Savage’s biographer Weltzien, now professor of English emeritus at University of Montana Western, played host to film director Campion and producer Tanya Seghatchian in 2018. Campion “honors Thomas Savage so highly that they wanted to come at the beginning of the project and see all the home ground,” he said.

The movie was filmed in Campion’s New Zealand and is nominated for best cinematography. Touring the ranches where Savage grew up, the pair took countless photos of the landscape that plays an ominous force in Savage’s literature. “Campion, in her narrative, said she saw the dog formation [a touchstone in the story that few can see]. She thinks she was getting the blessing on high from Tom Savage.”

Benedict Cumberbatch, who stars as Phil Burbank in The Power of the Dog, called the book by Thomas Savage “one of the great American novels. It’s got everything.” Kirsty Griffin/Netflix

Journalist David Remnick interviewed Campion on the New Yorker Radio Hour and asked her how she viewed her film “against all those many, many, many either genre pictures or John Ford pictures—that whole long and complicated tradition.”

Campion said that her allegiance was to Savage’s particular story. “Here I had someone who really did grow up in the West, who was irritated by the romance of the West and found it to be not showing the best of men sometimes but the worst of them. He wrote a very particular tale. It’s not trying to say, ‘Oh, this is the West,’ but it is a counterpoint, I think, and a subversive one to the dominant I suppose fairytale of it.”

Savage was alive in 2001 to see The Power of the Dog and his 10th book, renamed The Sheep Queen, both reprinted, both acclaimed anew. But the man who eschewed happy endings died in 2003 before any of several attempts to turn The Power of the Dog into a film got traction, much less garnered 12 Oscar nominations.

Weltzien said that, after touring Savage country with Campion, he put a hand on her shoulder and said, “I hope you can remove the curse, because if you do, you’re going to bring this guy back. 

“Tom Savage of Colby College is finally getting his due,” Weltzien concluded.

There’s another Colby connection at the Oscars

Junko Goda ’01 interprets for producer Teruhisa Yamamoto as he accepts the Best International Film award for Drive My Car during the 2022 Film Independent Spirit Awards on March 6. Goda could be on the Oscar podium on Sunday night. (Photo by Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images)

Thomas Savage ’40 might not be the only Colby alum whose storytelling skills will be featured at the Oscars on Sunday.

Actor and filmmaker Junko Goda ’01 is the interpreter for Teruhisa Yamamoto, the Japanese producer of Drive My Car. The feature is nominated for four Oscars, including best picture alongside The Power of Dog, based on Savage’s novel.

Drive My Car is also up for best director, best adapted screenplay, and best international feature. Goda, who grew up in Chicago, is one of two interpreters working on the film team. She will interpret for Yamamoto if the film wins for best picture or best international feature.

Goda majored in biochemistry and minored in theater at Colby and has lived in Los Angeles for 15 years. She has worked as an actor, filmmaker, interpreter, and translator—and briefly in biochemistry—after graduating from Colby. She sees her work as an interpreter as an extension of theater and film.

“It’s about storytelling in different media and different capacities. That is how I summarize it in the broadest terms,” she said.

She has worked as an interpreter on other high-profile movies, including for production designer Yohei Taneda on Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight and on the animated feature In This Corner of the World. She also is involved in anime and martial arts.

Goda interpreted for Yamamoto at the Film Independent Spirit Awards in early March, when Drive My Car won for best international feature. She got the call about a week before the Spirit Awards, an unusually short amount of time to establish rapport with a client for such a high-profile series of events.

She and Yamamoto developed quick chemistry. “We have good momentum, good vibe, and good understanding,” she said. “He is creative, and I am a filmmaker and still an actor. I have been doing this a long time.”

She is excited about Sunday and is treating it as a workday. “Once I arrive at the Oscars, I will be in work mode. I will be able to focus. Leading up to it, my demons will start bugging me, which means I do not have enough sleep. I just need to get lots of sleep.”

—Bob Keyes