I recently reviewed “Gettysburg” as #46 in the 100 Greatest War Movies list. It gave me the idea to reread the book The Killer Angels by Michael Shaara to compare the book to the movie. The novel came out in 1974 and was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction a year later. In 1993, Ted Turner released the movie “Gettysburg” based on the book. The film was written by Ronald Maxwell.
The movie parallels the book extremely closely. Almost all of Maxwell’s dialogue is word for word from the book. All of the scenes are from the book. I have seen few movies that are more faithful to their source material than “Gettysburg”. Since the book is a Pulitzer Prize winner, this makes the script for the movie outstanding. If you have not seen the movie, read my review at . Since the movie is so close to the book, I’ll concentrate on what the movie leaves out.
The book delves much more into Lee’s heart condition. This leads to exhaustion and poor decisions. The movie has little on this theme. It also goes further in some scenes. For instance, the book goes beyond the death of Reynolds on the first day. We read about Lee sending orders to take Cemetery Hill “if practicable”. This makes Lee’s reaction to Trimble’s complaint of Ewell’s lack of initiative more understandable. The novel includes an entire chapter on Lee’s thoughts during the first day. The movie limits itself to getting in the minds of Longstreet and Chamberlain. The book gives more back-story for their characters. We learn that Chamberlain’s father had referred to man as a “murdering angel” and he had turned it into an oration entitled “the Killer Angels”. (The movie script has Kilrain using the phrase.) Similar to Lee’s heart condition, Shaara explains that Longstreet’s moroseness is partly attributable to the deaths of his three children.
The book has a whole chapter on Longstreet talking to Fremantle including the need for trench warfare. Later, they discuss tactics. Lee meets with Ewell and Early to discuss the situation at the end of the first day. The movie deletes this and picks up with Trimble’s rant. Fremantle, who appears briefly in the movie, gets his own chapter where he likens the South to England. He (and Shaara) conveniently overlook that England was very anti-slavery. Both the book and the movie sympathize with the South and push the “states’ rights” argument.
The book spends more time on Longstreet’s thoughts which helps when viewing the movie to understand where he is coming from. Not that the movie is totally unclear on this. We also learn Longstreet’s reaction to the second days’ fighting after he visits Hood in the hospital. It turns out that he is not a big fan of Stuart.
Several scenes in the movie get post scripts in the book. For instance, we find out what Chamberlain is thinking the morning after.
Basically, if you watch the movie you do not really need to read the book with one big caveat. The chapters on Pickett’s Charge are amazing at taking you into the action. The movie does not give a good idea of what the men are experiencing. Although the viewpoint is General Armistead’s, he is on foot leading his brigade. This means we get a foot soldiers perspective of the carnage.
My advice would be to watch the movie and read the chapters on Pickett's Charge.