Terms of Endearment is one of those movies that everyone's seen, or heard about, or wanted to watch. But before Shirley MacLaine and Debra Winger made it an iconic film, it was a pretty popular book...and it was a different story.
Larry McMurtry published Terms in 1975. It begins with Aurora Greenway, an attractive and very controlling woman. She has many boyfriends, but her life is thrown into crisis when she discovers that her young daughter Emma is pregnant. Emma married the wrong man, and will now bear his child. This makes Aurora a grandmother, and this is upsetting. After a date with a gentleman caller known as The General, Aurora hits Vernon with her car.
He becomes another boyfriend, and he becomes as besotted with her as the others. She won't marry him, or any of them. The novel follows Aurora's various dates and love affairs, as well as drama with her maid Rosie. Emma goes into labor the same night Rosie's husband is stabbed. This first part of the book takes place over a 6-month time span.
Then, shockingly, the novel fast-forwards a decade...and suddenly switches to a different point of view. Emma is now the focus, and her marriage to Flap has degenerated terribly. She's had many affairs, but won't leave him. Then, Emma gets cancer and suddenly dies.
It's a strange way to end the plot, and a bit meandering. Why did we go see Emma's death? Why does the tone of the story change? One can only guess, but it's worth reading the novel because it is well-written. McMurtry is particularly good with dialogue, and Aurora is an inherently likable character.
But the book is not much like the movie. The movie is based on, perhaps, the first quarter of the book...and it's got Jack Nicholson.
Terms of Endearment became a movie in 1983, and it still appears on cable at least once a year. It's still talked about, and spoofed, and referenced. It's that good.
Viewers are introduced immediately to Aurora Greenway, who seemingly drives her husband to despair because she is so over-protective of their infant daughter, Emma. Many years later Emma is a young, somewhat rebellious and fun-loving girl who will do anything to escape her smothering mother...even marry Flap, whom Aurora despises.
Emma is very happy to marry him, and even to move into a miserable shack of a home with him. Flap is a scholar, a teaching professor, and he's never going to make a ton of money. Aurora is heartbroken when he gets a job far away from their Texas home, and Emma is forced to move away.
They begin to talk on the phone every day, and the years pass. Flap and Emma have a son, then another. But marital problems make life difficult. Much of the trouble seems to stem from their lack of money; they borrow often from Aurora. Emma gives birth to a daughter, but nothing gets better for the family.
She meets a very nice man, also married (played by John Lithgow), and has an affair. This she tells to Aurora, because she tells Aurora everything. But when Emma discovers that Flap has been having an affiar of his own -- and much more serious -- she goes back to Texas. Flap calls to coax her back to their new home in Nebraska, and Emma and the children go.
Then she gets cancer and dies. That part remains the same. While Emma is living her life, Aurora is living hers. The General becomes the Astronaut instead, actually Garrett Breedlove (Nicholson), Aurora's new neighbor. He alone seems immune to her charms, and he alone seems to ruffle her feathers where other suitors cannot. Nicholson's character is nothing like The General from the book. He dumps Aurora after seeing Emma and the three grandchildren, but unexpectedly flies to Nebraska while Emma is sick with cancer.
Aurora forcibly explains to Flap that she will be raising the three children henceforth. At the wake following Emma's funeral, Garrett assumes a fatherly role toward Tommy, Emma's oldest boy.
The film was highly successful and went on to become a modern classic. It won 5 Oscars and great acclaim for strong performances from the principle and supporting cast.
What Got Adapted?
When the book begins, Emma and Flap have already been married for two years and he's already a total jerk. In the movie, we get to see Emma right after graduation. We get to see her marry Flap, and smiling, and totally in love. They're passionate for each other. None of that is in the book.
Also not in the book is one of Shirley MacLaine's most famous scenes in her epic body of work. In the scene, Aurora Greenway gives everyone in the hospital hell because they've forgotten Emma's pain medication. It's wrenching...and it's original to the movie.
So you should watch the movie. If you love Aurora and want to know much more about her, read the book. Otherwise...well, watch the movie again.