20151227: Book vs. Film – A River Runs Through It

Inspired by the Montana scenery of our recent trip, I picked up Norman Maclean’s “A River Runs Through It” book (novella) and re-watched Robert Redford’s movie of the same name. I wanted to see to what degree the movie kept the book’s principles intact. My conclusion: the movie did a good job in sentiment and truth of storyline, but doesn’t provide the author’s personal interpretation or string the vignettes into a comprehensive story; they are used more for humorous effect and character development of Paul, not Norman.

As viewers we aren’t given clues about why Mclean might have chosen to tell us those particularly selected stories and not others. We are, while soaking our eyes in lovely cinematography and Brad Pitt’s wide smile, searching for the moral of the story. What is this movie trying to tell us? The swelling of music during a pregnant pause might be a hint, but we aren’t aided along in a cohesive manner like we are in the book, because we’re not privy to Norman’s thoughts and interpretations.

Notwithstanding I agree with Siskel and Ebert’s positive review (below) except on one point. I don’t see this as a story about the upbringing of children  – the Maclean brothers’ 1920s Presbyterian upbringing provides background with which to assess the expectations placed upon them, and therefore the way of life that shaped their world, but this story is not about parents. It’s about brothers: obligation and love.

Maclean wrote his book late in life when he had the perspective of 40-odd years of remembrance of and reconciliation with the event of his brother’s death. The movie is about Paul; the book is about Norman. While the movie retains much of the original text verbatim I found myself waiting for Norman to share more of himself the way he does in his writing.

Siskel & Ebert are right that the movie could have been about anything, that the metaphor didn’t have to be fly fishing per se. However I insist that a large part of the beauty, aesthetic and rhythm of the book is certainly about fishing. Not just about types of trout and fly selection theory and casting techniques to contrast the difference in the brothers, but also about the scale of rivers and the rage and ebb of their flow, the history of their glacial creation and a deep intellectual and spiritual appreciation for the pace of water and life within it and without. These themes are most definitely integrally woven into Maclean’s storytelling.

Redford said in a 1991 interview with the Bozeman Chronicle that he hoped the movie would spur people to protect rivers.

Even if I hadn’t cared for the story, in the book I learnt a lot about the Montana landscape. I found it funny how the Macleans were acutely aware of the Continental Divide, which way the land was sloping, invisible boundaries – this itself seemed a metaphor. (Scott is always jokingly complaining to me, “does every trip you take have to be to the Divide?”. I love the idea of straddling the apex of land, a massive ridge in the earth, a “scar of past geological trauma” as one BBC documentary puts it.)

Aside: the book is set on the Blackfoot and Elkhorn rivers; the movie is filmed on the Gallatin, Yellowstone and Boulder rivers.

Now that I’ve revisited A River Runs Through It, might be time for another movie vs. book, like say, Seven Years In Tibet. Or Cheryl Strayed’s “Wild”, Bill Bryson’s “A Walk in the Woods”, Jon Krakauer’s “Into the Wild”… Well, I’ll always be biased. If the book came first, the book is always going to better. Always.


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