James Dickey’s first novel, Deliverance, is an adventure story of a three-day canoe trip in the rugged wilderness of southern Appalachia, in which four suburbanites are brutalized both by the sheer force of the river and by violent and degenerate mountain men.
Although James Dickey, an Atlanta native, never identified Georgia as the book’s setting, the city from which the four men come was widely assumed to have been Atlanta. The river where most of the book’s action takes place, the Cahulawassee, closely resembles the Chattooga River, which forms the border between Georgia and South Carolina in the former’s northeasternmost corner in Rabun County.
Only a few months after the book’s publication in March 1970, a film adaptation confirmed its Georgia setting by filming on location in Rabun County and on the Chattooga. Released in 1972, the film became one of the most popular of the year. Both book and movie had much to do with confirming to a national audience the hillbilly stereotypes that had long plagued southern Appalachia. The film, in particular, stands as the most degrading depiction of southern mountaineers ever put on film and led to strong protests both by north Georgians and by Appalachian scholars.
Dickey, already a well-regarded poet, conceived the idea for the book after his involvement in a traumatic canoe accident on the Coosawattee River in the early 1960s. His story centers on four middle-aged suburbanites who head north for a weekend of whitewater canoeing on a wild river shortly before the completion of a new dam that would make it inaccessible. Three of the men, including Ed Gentry, who is the narrator and Dickey’s alter ego, are inexperienced in the ways of the wilderness, and they defer to Lewis Medlock, a seasoned outdoorsman and survivalist, who plans the trip and leads the group. Once underway the novice adventurers encounter not only a far more physically challenging and dangerous river than they were prepared for but also some equally threatening local inhabitants. The novel’s centerpiece is an attack and sexual assault by two mountaineers on the banks of the river that leads to a series of murders, including that of one of the four Atlantans. Their ever-escalating struggle for survival becomes a moral dilemma as well, as the would-be adventurers find themselves forced to cover up their ordeal when they reach the town of Aintry at the river’s end.
The novel has been interpreted in a variety of ways, most of which focus on the tensions wrought when the sensibilities of modern suburbia are pitted against the more elemental values of the natural world or the primitivism of rural mountain life. The four men bring to their adventure different attitudes and assumptions. For Lewis and Ed, in particular, the challenges they face in defending themselves, individually and collectively, serve as a deliverance not only from the hostile forces of man and nature but also from their own mental and psychological shortcomings as the products of a soft, comfortable, materialistic culture.
The book faced a mixed reception initially. Deliverance was widely acknowledged as a compelling adventure story, but some critics found its violence excessive and its stereotypical portrayal of mountain people demeaning and simplistic. It was an unqualified success commercially and became a best-seller.
Dickey anticipated a film adaptation of his book well before it was finished, and he did not have to wait long for that process to begin. Warner Brothers purchased the rights before the book’s publication, and production began in the summer of 1971. Directed by British director John Boorman, who cowrote the script with Dickey, the film starred Burt Reynolds and Jon Voight, both established stars, as Lewis and Ed respectively. Ronny Cox and Ned Beatty were cast as the other two adventurers, and Dickey himself played the small role of the skeptical sheriff investigating the canoers’ story in Aintry. During the filming in Rabun County tensions developed between the Hollywood film crew and local residents and between Dickey and Boorman. Two versions of those encounters have been published: that of local residents interviewed by Foxfire students, fully described by J. W. Williamson in his book Hillbillyland (1995), and that of Dickey’s son, Christopher, in his memoir about his relationship with his father, Summer of Deliverance (1998).
Fueled by Burt Reynolds’s box-office drawing power and the novel’s recent popularity, the film was an immediate hit, both commercially and critically, with Rabun County residents among the few who were offended by its depictions of demented mountaineers, which were even more graphic than those conveyed in Dickey’s prose. The movie’s theme song, “Dueling Banjos,” became a hit, although the albino boy playing half of the duet further accentuated the degeneracy of Georgia mountaineers. The film was nominated for an Academy Award as the year’s best picture, and Boorman was nominated as best director, though in a year dominated by The Godfather and Cabaret, none of the actors were recognized, nor was Dickey as screenwriter.