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Robert Redford’s film adaption of Norman Maclean’s “A River Runs Through It”

Robert Redford’s film adaption of Norman Maclean’s “A River Runs Through It” is brimming with powerful allegorical overtones and Biblical and other allusions, as well as magnificent imagery.

“A River Runs Through It” is a wonderful adaptation of the novel of N. McLean about two very different brothers who are living and growing up in the majestic mountains of Montana on the eve of the 1st World War. The film shows times of the practically disappeared American West, while the director carefully recreates the old-fashioned family portrait, while keeping close to the literary source.

The film is set in the U.S. at the beginning of XXth century in a small town on the river Big Blackfoot River, Montana. Two brothers, Norman and Paul, grow up in a strict family of a Presbyterian minister; in the morning they usually study Biblical commandments at School, and during the day they enjoy their hobby – fishing. This is the story of one family, so simply and sincerely told by the elder brother, a serious and reasonable, unlike the younger Paul (Brad Pitt). They are so different – one as a bright flash, overshadowing everything, and the other is a warm smooth glow, which you do not notice, but can’t do without it. Both brothers are very real, while Paul is amazingly unusual: very impressive and very bright boy’s character. And while the fates of the brothers were formed in different ways: a serious and responsible Norman becomes a professor of literature, and Paul works as a reporter for a local newspaper, who loves go to bars and play cards. And both of them, apart from the general family and blood ties, are bound by an ineradicable passion for fishing “on the fly.”

In this story there are no sharp turns, tipping points, entangled intrigue and holding in suspense mysteries. The charm of that time is expressed in the quiet small town, lost among the natural splendor, family trips to church on Sundays, mandatory picnic, dancing on the Independence day … And for sure fishing, which is the kind of philosophy. Once the older Norman says: Like many fly fishermen in western Montana where the summer days are almost Arctic in length, I often do not start fishing until the cool of the evening. Then in the Arctic half-light of the canyon, all existence fades to a being with my soul and memories and the sounds of the Big Blackfoot River and a four-count rhythm and the hope that a fish will rise. Eventually, all things merge into one, and a river runs through it. The river was cut by the world’s great flood and runs over rocks from the basement of time. On some of those rocks are timeless raindrops. Under the rocks are the words, and some of the words are theirs. I am haunted by waters.” (Maclean 1992)

One does not want to leave this quiet and beautiful place, but some rebellious natures like Paul are difficult to meet the adopted way of life, and they choose another road. The main line of the film lies in self-determination of the younger brother, the assessment of his place in the family and life. These reflections reach an apogee closer to the finale, in a scene from the last fishing when he is clearly feeling that he did not live up to his brother in the course of life, bitterly observes the progress of fishing. Fishing was the only case in which he – younger brother – has achieved excellence and superiority, and that proves that he deserves to be on par with his brother in the eyes of his father. Despite the seemingly inevitable narrative, typical of most screen adaptations of this kind, the film gathers the epic scale and goes to the level of thinking about life, about which we can say, taking advantage of the beautiful phrase: “My father was very sure about certain matters pertaining to the universe. To him, all good things – trout as well as eternal salvation – came by grace; and grace comes by art; and art does not come easy”. (Maclean 1992)

That is, the film shows that love for fishing on the “fly”, used in the film as a metaphor, emphasizes the high purity of simple life, when in life the simplest things are graceful as an art form: music, mountains, woods, the noise river and fishing create the grace of life.

The mood of the film is a quiet life, step by step, day by day, and this is not the story of one family, and not the history of the state, but the story of life itself. And it makes the film more deep than it seems at first glance. The director Redford is deeply imbued with the idea of the author of the novel, who is experiencing “nostalgia” for those times when people were living in close with the nature. The movie, probably, will remain one of the best in this relevant topic.

Works cited:

Cooper David B., Reed, L. “Filming the Beauty of Words”. The Record, October 13, 1992.
Maclean, Norman. “A River Runs Through It”. A River Runs Through It and Other Stories. New York, New York: Pocket Books, 1992