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Paul's Case

CritiqueQuotesText • At the movies

The Troll Garden first editionCollection, first edition
Publication details ▽ Publication details △

A Study in Temperament

First publication
1905 in McClure's Magazine

First publication in book
1905 in The Troll Garden

Literature form


Writing language

Author's country
United States

Approx. 9,000 words

Paul's Case scene
Paul (Eric Roberts) lives the cultured high life briefly after escaping to New York in Paul's Case.

A gift for fans of the story

Paul's Case (1980): Director Lamont Johnson; writer Ron Cowen; featuring Eric Roberts, Lindsay Crouse, Michael Higgins, Tom Stewart

As excellent as it is, the televised film based on Willa Cather's most famous story, Paul's Case, is really only of interest to those who have read the story. Unlike most adaptations of short literary works, it resists opening up the drama by adding plots and subplots or giving more back story—to make a  crowd-pleasing movie out of it.

If anything, this short (54-minute) flick made for PBS cuts back on some of Cather's narrative, especially after the titular lad runs off to New York City.

It instead dwells on Paul's dreary life in Pittsburgh where he is raised. The camera lingers on the boy's face as he becomes entranced with the little bit of art he can find: paintings in the lobby of the theatre where he has an after-school job, a soprano's aria on stage, young actors whose cultured lifestyle he envies.

And the face of a young Eric Roberts, long before he became the grizzled journeyman of film and television we've come to know, is worth watching with waves of enthusiasm, ennui, brashness and self-consciousness washing over it. If you read the story and were left wondering what was really going on with that boy—was he autistic? overly sensitive? suppressed gay? just selfish and self-absorbed?—this depiction will....

Well, it probably won't settle the issue for you. Paul is still somewhat of an odd duck, although it does become clear that he wants to live a life of high-class luxury as much as, as if not more than, a life in the arts.

Scenes from the trailer for Paul's Case, televised film of 1980.

The meeting with his father, who has come after him in New York, and the gallivanting about town with his affluent new-found friend are severely curtailed in this version of the story.

The denouement comes pretty well as Cather wrote it. Except the very last moments are not related from Paul's point of view as in the story. As a passing train blows its whistle, the camera pulls away into the snowy woods and up into the sky, leaving us to imagine what Paul has just done.

It's all done very tastefully and sincerely, sticking to the original material—a gift for admirers of Cather's story.

— Eric


CritiqueQuotesText • At the movies