In 1993, the film producing career of Nicholas Evans was entering full lunar eclipse. Circumstances were getting darker by the day.
Evans, 43, living in England, had been “awhile between projects” and his latest scripts were “gathering dust.”
Financially, Evans was at the end of his rope. He was broke and had started to arrange for a second mortgage just to keep afloat.
Then, one of his friends told him an intriguing story about a man who had a striking ability to calm severely disturbed horses. It was the first time Evans heard the term “horse whisperer.”
The tale renewed a lifelong interest Evans had in the American West: his only real connection to the area had been through 1950’s television series like Wagon Train, Gunsmoke, and Rawhide. The cowboy culture and mysterious process of horse healing might have storytelling possibilities.
Evans, who died August 9, 2022 at the age of 72, was about to embark on a unique literary adventure.
After preliminary research, he flew to America and drove around California, Colorado, New Mexico, and Montana to soak up the genuine ranch atmosphere. He talked extensively with several men who were familiar with rehabbing horses.
Inspired by what he learned, Evans returned to England, and within a few months, completed 250 pages of a novel that would become The Horse Whisperer. Evans gave the draft, plus an outline of the second half of the proposed novel, to his agent, Caradoc King. If King didn’t like the material, Evans was ready to walk away from the project.
It quickly became apparent to Evans and King that the manuscript was solid paydirt. Publishers couldn’t elbow their way to the front of the line with offers fast enough.
Dell Publishing won the race with an advance of $3.15 million, a record for a first novel; movie rights were purchased by a group including Robert Redford for another record $3 million. These staggering sums far surpassed anything Evans anticipated: he thought he would be lucky to receive $50,000 from Hollywood.
While the financial windfall hit, Evans was blindsided by a life-threatening curve ball. He was diagnosed with malignant skin cancer; he believed he might have only a few months to live. He thought he was writing the second half of the book under a possible death sentence.
Happily for Evans, corrective surgery resolved the health dilemma, and the finished novel became one of the biggest best sellers in history. More than 20 million copies were purchased. It was a number one best seller in 16 countries and has been translated into 36 languages. With the term “whisperer,” he popularized a concept that now is part of the general lexicon.
The Robert Redford film, the first he both starred in and directed, was released in 1998. It did a very respectable $187 million box office.
Although reaping jackpot remuneration, Evans’ work did not receive approbation from many critics. It was called cliched, hopelessly melodramatic, contrived, a manipulative tug on the heartstrings. The New York Times’ critic judged it “hooey.”
Given the substantial advances Evans received, it might have been suspected that The Horse Whisperer would be held to a high standard— but some of the reaction bordered on hostile.
How could a book slammed by much of the literary community sell all over the world in such preposterously high numbers?
If you are looking for Jane Austen, F. Scott Fitzgerald, or Gabriel Garcia Marquez, try another aisle at the bookstore. Whisperer was accepted by the public on its own terms: Evans did not set out to achieve a landmark literary masterpiece. He told a good yarn about the power of redemption. The sweeping Western setting and the mythical nature of the horse whisperer made it all the more endearing — as Robert Redford said, “people want to believe there is such a man in the world as Tom Booker (the name of the lead character).”
Evans said that the book isn’t just about horses: “it’s about us and how easy it is for all of us to get lost and clouded and separated from the things in life that really matter. And, how if we get lucky, a pure and selfless love can save us.”
As far as the enduring pull of the book, Evans had a thoughtful appraisal. “I have long wondered what it was about this story that connected with so many people,” he stated. “If I knew, I’d bottle it…with The Horse Whisperer I could see the story laid out before me, like stepping stones across a river. All I had to do was put one foot in front of the other. This is the only time this has ever happened to me.”
At the time of his death, Evans had written four other bestselling novels, but none approached the seismic shift of The Horse Whisperer.