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Why You Should Read A River Runs Through It But Not Watch The Movie

By Edited Nov 13, 2013 0 0

Of necessity the movie must accomplish the same transfer of experience in a shorter and less easily stylized manner, but the author's writing style is more than a pleasant frosting in the case of A River Runs Through It. It is MacLean's concept of his own storytelling voice; of the temperament through which he watched his life progress. It is an essential window into Norman's mindset, and once the reader is ushered into this rough, rustic, uniquely pious and likely foreign value system and made to share Norman's vantage, he can infer a closer realization of Norman's experience than can the movie-goer upon whom the brothers' characterizations are forced. Some of their depth seems lost in the movie, too delicate for the heavier handed and more hurried medium of film to suggest into being. We watch the brothers MacLean fly thoughtlessly into trouble. The movie conveys their sense of adventure but makes less pronounced their complex grounding in family and religion and nature. The movie, compressed by the exigencies of time, shows their unexplained recklessness which is too easily interpreted as pure foolishness, and is missing the element that in the book makes clear the brothers' distinct revelry stems from their unusual immersion in life. The movie gives us all the action and none of the inner reflection that the prose so skillfully hints at. The book sometimes grants us peeks into Norman's mysticism which are manifest in the text's more poetic moments.

I find the multimedia are constrictive parameters instead of liberating modes of expression in this case. No taped scene or studio-constructed sound is more artful or complete than MacLean's own descriptions of the land he so thoroughly knew (though surely the sweeping scenes of children totally encapsulated by blooming mountains curse all city dwellers with pangs of longing) and any facet of a cinematic remaking that does not improve upon the literary bedrock is nothing but a detraction. Pitt, true to his name, is a sinkhole that draws off attention and yet does not possess the depth necessary to realize the true Paul.

Paul the first was a character of unique breadth, like that of an extended number scale, whose fullness of living spanned two extremes, from his taciturnity to his excesses of skill and thrill seeking. That Norman's own meter of personality had a shorter range was both the defining difference between the two brother's and the central vitality of the book. Norman's relative modesty allowed him to succeed in the capitalistic sense and to walk a straighter path but it also gave him an awed appreciation of his younger brother's artistry; of that boldness and vigor which was both the organic impetus for all of Paul's subtle greatness and his downfall. Though Norman and his father cowered on the shady shore together, they both agreed the farther reaching Paul was beautiful for his inborn talent and drive despite his faults; for the kind of grace these eccentricities afforded him; the grace of enjoying god whom is omnipresent: simultaneously in all surrounding nature and within fallen but gifted men whose talents are a sort of blessing. The interplay of these contrasting personalities is something I have failed to grapple with long enough to force out its full meaning yet, if I am having difficulty extracting that piece of the book's meaning, I would not even know that such a piece of storytelling was being offered had I only watched the movie. Many such subtle elements which are inextricable from the true version of the story are totally absent in the movie. The pivotal element whose absence in the film form I most keenly feel is Paul's artistry and all the determination/stubbornness that comes with the territory. Stating simply in a voice over that Paul is an artist does not even begin to approach the realization of this central facet of his character. He rose steady as the sun, shrugging the last night's ribaldry to rejuvenate himself in stream and sermon, in purling and preaching. Pitt just plays a playboy that can fish well. That which the book entwines together effortlessly is taped together dutifully yet less gracefully by the movie, for the medium demands a setting of scene, several characterizations, and a forceful foreshadowing of Paul's later troubles, each in the small space allotted by a continuous slideshow. It is pragmatically difficult to make the movie as complete a story as the book.

A comparison between the book and the film is a comparison between the needle work of a tapestry and that of Frankenstein's monster. MacLean's is measured and controlled prose. It reminds me of O'Brien's in the way it seems swollen with the unspoken but MacLean's especially smacks of omniscience: the points in which he steps out of telling the tale to tell of tale telling and of feeling his life become a story solidifies his sense of method. How do you communicate this through film? MacLean was piling sensation on sensation to create a faithful retelling of feeling. Indeed the ending feels inevitable and needs little further treatment once Paul eats it, as Norman has fully rendered his own viewpoint of his brother's life in story form by the time we hear the approach of the funereal bassoon. Such devices are not easily translated into film form.

I will concentrate on the MacLean brothers' formative years, because I noticed great disparities between the book's version of these and the movie's. In both forms Mr. MacLean is early established to be a directly involved and attentive father, though the softness of MacLean's opening pages, rife with pleasant words with a tone echoic of fond reminiscence, do not evoke a dry or dogmatic preacher. Our first encounter with Tom Skerrit however finds him abruptly instructing two brothers that seem focused out of fear, not reverence or respect. Here again the swiftness of film interferes. The essence of father MacLean's paternity must be shown and quickly and, just like a river, something innately beautiful in a rush turns ugly quickly. His craggy face and cold stare clashed against the bemused and genial fisherman/shepherd that had been carefully casting his lines in my imagination ever since his first introduction in idyllic prose. Furthermore, movie Norman receives an unequivocally favored treatment and, because there is no obvious distinction between the brothers besides age and because father MacLean makes no visible attempt to assist Paul academically as he does Norman, the eventual divergence of the sibling's tastes and behavior feels artificial and underdeveloped. In the movie, the brothers do not share in the perfunctory tasks that precede play, and Paul is more of a tag-a-long, even once physically rejected by Norman when he and Norman spy on a brothel (yet another ridiculously implausible and overdone method of displaying their playfulness). In the book, Paul and Norman's sharing in the recitation of the catechism, covering each other's fumbles, is the kind of quiet fact that tells more than could any full feature film that does not continuously quote from the novel that inspired it.

The movie makes it seem as though father MacLean just played eeni meeni myni mo and chose by whim which of his son's would be the hero and which would be the problem. The book does a far superior job of firming up a rich plot from which the rest of the story will grow: the father and his art and teachings are inextricable with god, the father is handing down the best he has to offer, in nature, its appreciation and his own practices: a terrestrial tendency toward a grace regained. In the book, Paul is the beautiful aberration, closer to the sublime for living fully albeit dangerously. Though I must admit I always prefer the book to the movie, I don't think the movie makers quite pulled this off. There are several instances in which Norman is seen staring confusedly and warily at Paul. Here I am thinking of Paul’s plan to shoot the rapids and the time after Norman’s long absence when Paul takes leave of his friends to go drink and gamble. In the scope of film, Norman’s pensive pauses are significant. They connote inner turmoil. Yet they will never attain the depth of those written passages that achieve a much fuller version of the same effect. The prose's foreshadowing that does not appear foreshadowing, as when Paul swims out with one arm and burdened with equipment to stand like a shining statue on a rock, speaks more thoroughly of Norman’s mingling of fear and awe. He knows that Paul’s greatest strength will be his weakness, that his boldness will lead him to a sort of greatness and to trouble, but while the movie flashes a blithe Pitt who is initially the only man willing to go rafting in a canoe and says, “tough!” the book builds a full scene and says, “impetuous irrepressible vim, beautiful as fire is.”


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