...then I saw the film.
Again, in fairness; I had doubts that ANY film under 2 hours would begin to do justice to the novel. I was right. I had suspicions that perhaps Paul Newman and Henry Fonda weren't quite, well, BIG AND TOUGH ENOUGH to do due justice to the Henry and Hank Stamper father/son team. I was almost right -- physically, they weren't the looming figures that roared across Kesey's pages. But Newman and Fonda ain't bad either, not by a long shot. Their abilities almost obscure the fact that they don't fully seem like lifelong lumberjacks from the wild coast of Oregon in the middle 20th century. They seem like superb Hollywood actors who are acting like lumberjacks. But that's OK, too. Fonda and Newman break even in my book, in terms of how they portray the fictional characters. I can't fault actors for scenes that aren't there, and my biggest problem with the film was a lack of depth -- the novel has several parallel, ongoing story lines that all weave together with magic and drama. By nature, cinema is a more linear story-telling device in that regard. Kesey's magnificent command of language, and voice, and perspective, and verb tenses helps to define this sprawling masterpiece -- that's a tough sell on the big (or little) screen.
I wish the cutting room had eaten a little less footage. The romance between Lee and Viv is, essentially, missing in action. And with it, the dramatic narrative that powers much of the core of the novel.
On the positive side, Richard Jaekel was excellent as Joby -- to the extent that he was on-screen. I found myself looking for his Christian aphorisms and life's-only-gettin'-better outlook, and finding less than I'd hoped for. Sure, he seems jolly enough half the time -- but I found myself wondering if that was because I KNEW he was supposed to be happy and full of Biblical jibberish. Again, the novel vs. the cinema -- and again, cinema fails where 600+ pages of copy succeed. The drowning scene, in fairness, is unforgettable. Of course, it was that way in Kesey's novel, too.
I'm glad to know Ken worked with Paul, as the film evolved. That Ken found the final product more successful than One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest-The Movie is a mixed blessing. I agreed with Ken about Cuckoo's Nest and Jack Nicholson (although I love Jack's work, too). I wish Ken were alive today, and perhaps he could shed some light on what he felt worked best in this film.
The Union sub-plot was touched on, but not fully explored. Same with the 'suicide'/death of Willard the theater owner (we never even learn he has a laundromat or a wife or any of the rich details that make him unforgettable in the book). Same with the love triangle. Same with the Stamper family history. The film was good, unquestionably, but not nearly as profound nor as deep as the novel.
With that said; go out and read the novel, and THEN sit down and watch the film. My vote goes for a RESTORED DVD RELEASE with whatever worthy footage was sacrificed for the Faux God of Running Time! This is an admittedly complex and far-reaching tale, and one that's hard put to do justice to itself in 112 minutes, give or take.
As is often the case, a great movie doesn't do justice to a great novel. In this case, it was almost impossible to succeed along those lines (Hey, does anybody PREFER the cinematic Moby Dick to the Melville novel? Case closed!).
On balance, Paul Newman and Henry Fonda and Lee Remick and Richard Jaekel in a Ken Kesey story...!? Does it GET better than that? Only Ken Kesey could have authored a novel that surpassed this film, talent and all. And he did! Check them both out -- book and film.
You'll be glad you did.