Centennial by James Michener
"Centennial" is a fictional story of the American West by James Michener. The book was released in 1974 to celebrate the upcoming American Bicentennial, and James Michener chose to use the fictional town of Centennial, Colorado as the symbolic focal point of his storytelling. There was also a superb film version of this book shown on television as a 12-episode miniseries during 1978 and 1979.
In my opinion, both the book and the film are still as enjoyable now as they were when they were brand new. They do not feel "dated" in any way whatsoever. Like many of Michener's historical sagas, there is an abundance of actual history conveyed via fictional characters and plots that seem quite plausible.
Repeated reading and viewing are perhaps the best practical measures of how interesting a book or movie truly is, and within our own family I can certainly attest that there is genuine excitement whenever we are getting ready to watch "Centennial" again. Despite the length of the book (usually in excess of 900 pages depending on size of pages and print), it is also an appealing candidate to read multiple times. Whenever I see reviews of either the book or the miniseries, there is usually a similar mention of watching or reading it "again and again."
A Bicentennial Historical Saga and the Oregon Trail
It might be impossible to adequately summarize "Centennial" without either (1) giving away too much detail for someone who has not yet experienced the book and miniseries or (2) providing too much information for a book review. When I was trying to decide which key characters to include in the numbered list below, I had to edit myself at every step in order to keep the list at its current length.
The primary story starts in the 18th century. The book also provides an interesting amount of historical background that goes back over 100 million years. (The miniseries greatly condenses the period prior to the 1700s.) The saga eventually winds its way to the 1970s.
Of all the accounts I have seen either in fictional books or movies, I believe that "Centennial" provides the best comprehensive storytelling about the settling of the American West. Anybody interested in the Oregon Trail will find that "Centennial" includes many relevant references to that story. But the story of "Centennial" is primarily about places like Colorado that some people would have passed on their way to Oregon.
Here are two memorable quotes from the book and miniseries:
- "Only the rocks live forever."
- "We have to look to the past and get back to some basic principles if there's going to be any future worth having."
James Michener Introduces Centennial
Centennial Has Its Share of Heroes and Villains
This is my condensed summary of the key characters. Many summaries of both the book and miniseries list about 30 principal characters. The miniseries had over 100 cast members with speaking parts. Mark Harmon's screen career started about five years before his role in "Centennial" as Captain John McIntosh. George Clooney's debut was as an extra in one of the scenes. It is remarkable how many actors and actresses from "Centennial" are regularly seen in both current and recent films. Unfortunately some of them are no longer with us, but they do live on in "Centennial."
I have listed the character first and then the actor/actress portraying that character in the television miniseries.
- Lame Beaver (Michael Ansara)
- Pasquinel (Robert Conrad)
- Clay Basket (Barbara Carrera)
- Alexander McKeag (Richard Chamberlain)
- Levi Zendt (Gregory Harrison)
- Elly Zahm (Stephanie Zimbalist)
- Oliver Seccombe (Timothy Dalton)
- Herman Bockweiss (Raymond Burr)
- Lise Bockweiss (Sally Kellerman)
- Hans Brumbaugh (Alex Karras)
- Charlotte Buckland (Lynn Redgrave)
- John Skimmerhorn (Cliff De Young)
- R.J. Poteet (Dennis Weaver)
- Jim Lloyd (William Atherton)
- Lucinda McKeag (Cristina Raines)
- Major Maxwell Mercy (Chad Everett)
- Jacques Pasquinel (Stephen McHattie)
- Sheriff Axel Dumire (Brian Keith)
- Mervin Wendell (Anthony Zerbe)
- Sidney Andermann (Sharon Gless)
- Professor Lewis Vernor (Andy Griffith)
- Paul Garrett (David Janssen, who is also the narrator of the miniseries)
The earth is something you protect every day of the year.— Paul Garrett in "Centennial"
Many people thought that "Centennial" would never make it to DVD because (1) there were some legal issues impacting the release and (2) it simply had been so long since the original television broadcast. But it finally happened July 29, 2008. Since Amazon keeps track of stuff like this, I can tell you that I ordered the DVD set August 1, 2008. The picture and sound quality is truly exceptional, and it has the look and feel of a movie just filmed rather than over 35 years ago.
James Michener's books tend to be long and packed with an incredible amount of detail. It is not easy to translate such details and lengthy history to a traditional movie. Fortunately a lengthy miniseries format was adopted for "Centennial." At the time, it was one of the costliest television productions ever filmed. The cost was due to several factors that all contributed to a superb final product:
1 — Extensive on-location filming
2 — A large cast that included many well-known actors and actresses
3 — The eventual broadcast was just over 26 hours (one of the longest miniseries at the time or since)
How much did the "Centennial" television production cost at the time (1978) and what would that be in today's dollars? The answer (as reported on IMDb): $25 million at the time and $90 million in today's dollars.
With production costs like that, the DVD collection is truly a bargain.
How Good Was the Miniseries?
Two typical remarks by viewers of the "Centennial" miniseries that was originally shown starting about four years after the book was published (I agree with both):
- "The most moving piece of television I have ever seen."
- "One of the best things ever shown on television."
Centennial: The Best Literary Work by James Michener?
One of the best things about "Centennial" is that there is such a superb film version of the book. If you have not read the book or seen the miniseries, I strongly encourage you to do both. My personal recommendation as to which order you should do this (reading or viewing): flip a coin and enjoy the adventure!
Many reviewers and readers have commented that "Centennial" is the best literary work by James Michener. I would agree, but I believe that its lasting reputation is made even stronger by the exceptional quality of the television miniseries. Many people were introduced to Michener's work by watching the television film — and then they were compelled to read the book.
Learning from Fictional History
Some fiction is more historically accurate than others, so "your results may vary" if you hope to learn history by reading fictional history books. "Centennial" by James Michener provides an excellent learning opportunity for those interested in the settling of the American West. What also moves "Centennial" into a class almost by itself is the stellar miniseries.
Visual images in today's digital photography and video age are often the key to a memorable learning experience. The combination of a well-written book and a well-produced television miniseries might be more than we could ask for, so let's take advantage of it!
It is obvious to many of us how special it was to combine the experience of reading the superb series of Harry Potter books by J. K. Rowling with watching the superb series of movies. But I digress, as it would probably be a massive stretch to classify Harry Potter as historical fiction, wouldn't it?
Nevertheless, the total visual experience of the Harry Potter movies is similar in length to the Centennial miniseries. Altogether Harry Potter's visual movie story required about 20 hours while the Centennial total was 26 hours. Since Centennial was one book in comparison to a series of Harry Potter books, you can see that the Centennial miniseries had the luxury of enough time to develop plenty of rich historical detail.
Centennial provides an exceptional journey that is full of historical learning opportunities. Enjoy the ride. It is a journey that I highly recommend be repeated periodically.
James Michener on 1959 Guest Panel for "What's My Line?"
Reflections from a Superb Storyteller and Writer
This book is a refreshing combination of a candid autobiography and thoughts about life and writing.
For those who do not realize it, James Michener did not become a writer until he was 40 years old.
James Michener published over 40 literary works during his writing career. Most were historical fiction sagas covering multi-generational periods. Some of the best-known of his other books:
— The Source
— Tales of the South Pacific
On a closing note, it is interesting to examine the location of the fictional Centennial. There is currently a real town in Colorado called Centennial, but it was not established until 2001 (many years after the book was written). By making some assumptions and interpretations about timelines and other historical references, the fictional Centennial would be somewhere between Greeley and Kersey, Colorado. This is made even more plausible when I learned that James Michener spent some years growing up in Greeley, Colorado.
In the story, the fictional name of Centennial was given to the town as a way of honoring the American centennial in 1876 (the same year that Colorado became a state).
I'm not a very good writer, but I'm an excellent rewriter.— James Michener
© 2013 Stephen Bush