Writer Norman Maclean published the short story collection A River Runs Through It in 1976 at age 74. Comprised of three long “short stories,” including the eponymous novella “A River Runs Through It,” it’s a minor American classic, filled with memorable and carefully phrased passages that evoke the majesty of nature and a metaphysical meditation on life from the perspective of a man of advanced age. It’s a work of art that could only have been written by a man who had already lived most of his life, looking back with a mixture of sentimentality and sadness at the events that contributed to his perspective of the world.
Although it was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize in Fiction in 1977, ultimately the Pulitzer board decided not to award any prize that year. Though unfortunate, it seems to be a fitting non-tribute in itself: besides two scholarly articles, Maclean hadn’t published any work before this one, and in fact would only have one other collection (of non-fiction) published posthumously, two years after his death. He had written A River Runs Through It after his retirement at the encouragement of his children, based on the stories of his life he had told them. The book has since become a highly regarded example of semi-autobiographical fiction, and the three stories that comprise the book are fine works of literature in and of themselves with descriptions of nature unmatched since Thoreau and Hemingway.
Robert Redford, who as a director had always picked his projects carefully, chose to adapt Maclean’s story “A River Runs Through It” for the screen. Possibly because he recognized its beautiful visual potential, being set in the grand unspoiled nature of Missoula, Montana, or that it was set in the interwar period as a coming of age drama that would produce a unique narrative, or that the tone of the story–of wistful nostalgia, the sadness of a lack of communication and understanding in a family, or the metaphysical questions the story raises–was ripe for the cinematic treatment. Perhaps it was all three. With all of these dynamic elements present, A River Runs Through It presented the potential for a masterpiece–and in this, Redford wildly succeeded.
A River Runs Through It – A Perfect Movie
“In our family, there was no clear line between religion and fly-fishing.”
Set in the interwar period just before the Depression, approximately 1926, A River Runs Through It is narrated by Norman Maclean (Robert Redford) as an old man telling the story of the summer between finishing his Masters degree at Dartmouth and taking a position in Chicago as a professor, when he stayed with his family in Missoula, Montana. After six years of absence, he finds his father–Presbyterian Reverend John Maclean (Tom Skerritt)–as emotionally distant as always while his younger brother Paul (Brad Pitt), a notable reporter and fly fisherman, has become an increasingly troubled gambler who’s gotten deeper and deeper in debt with the local card sharks.
Young Norman (played by Craig Sheffer) also finds love that summer with Jessie Burns (Emily Lloyd), a young would-be flapper that enjoys Norman’s stories about Chicago and introduces him to her eccentric family and troubled sibling, Neal, who is visiting from California. The film is episodic in nature, drifting from one story to another concerning the adventures and tragedies of that summer that unfold during Norman’s time back in Montana.
Weaved throughout the narration are exquisitely shot and narrated sequences of the brothers Maclean fly-fishing, with the most rhapsodic passages dedicated to Paul’s poetic technique. Framed within the majestic Montana nature of bubbling brooks and green leaves that shadow and illuminate the deep-cut canyons the brothers fish in, Redford translates the beautiful, carefully crafted descriptions Maclean had put so much consideration in his own story to bring it to vivid, visual life on-screen.
A Paradox of Emotions
In A River Runs Through It, Maclean-as-narrator is much more open and expressive as an old man than the figure depicted on-screen as a young man. One could chalk this up to age and experience–and that he’s the narrator looking back on his life with a certain wisdom that he lacked as a young man–that infuses the film with a paradoxical feeling of momentous passion and elegance and a cloistered repression of emotion.
This is never more evident than in the spectacular scenes of fly-fishing, in which the physicality and activity of fishing is portrayed with a sumptuous pathos that enriches the viewer’s understanding of the Maclean family–of the buttoned-up and distant Reverend father, the cautious but aware Norman, and the free-wheeling, reckless Paul–better than any scene of dialogue.
The family’s expression of their emotions through fly fishing hinges on a larger metaphor that seeps its way into their very souls as a metaphor for life itself. As their Presbyterian father passed down to them, “As a Presbyterian, my father believed that man by nature was a damn mess. And that only by picking up God’s rhythms, were we able to regain power and beauty. To him, all good things, trout as well as eternal salvation, come by Grace. And Grace comes by art. And art does not come easy.” And so the sons learned to cast, “Presbyterian-style,” which is by a metronome.
Even in the face of tragedy and death, the Maclean men can only express their feelings for each other through their shared appreciation of fishing. “As time passed, my father struggled for more to hold on to, asking me again and again: had I told him everything. And I finally said to him, “maybe all I know about Paul is that he was a fine fisherman.” “You know more than that,” my father said; “he was beautiful.” And that was the last time we spoke of my brother’s death.” Unable to directly express their complex and, at times, frustrated feelings, the only expression they have is through the metaphor of fishing.
And when Redford cast his lens towards nature is when A River Runs Through It sings. Some of the most gorgeous images of the American landscape ever captured can be found in this film, with figures of small boys, brothers, and family dwarfed by the massive pines and endless babbling river they stand among. Although this is an expressive film, like the Maclean family it restrains its emotions to pinpoints–scenes that speak louder than the characters would of their relationships and feelings towards each other. In a culminating scene, after the Maclean boys and their father fish together and witness Paul fighting for a perfect catch, the three sit triumphant on the riverbank together, laughing and finding a perfect moment in time, letting the strife and problems they fear are awaiting Paul behind. Redford’s sad narration intrudes upon this moment, as Maclean as an old man understands: “And I knew just as surely, just as clearly, that life is not a work of art, and that the moment could not last.”
A River Runs Through It is ultimately a paradox because it depicts to the viewer a moment in the distant past that’s depicted as such: we’re watching the memories of an old man as he looks back on events that had passed decades before in a world completely different from the one he finds himself in the present day. It’s history we’re watching as a living document, and the sad, knowing narrative of a man’s life as he tells the story.
“Why is it the people who need the most help…won’t take it?”
One aspect of A River Runs Through It that many can identify with is the difficulty of having a troubled relative. Although set in the past–now coming on 100 years away from the present–the sadness and tragedy that comes with a troubled sibling, whether their fatal vice be gambling or drugs or drinking or just being a mess in general is the emotional core of the film. There is no happy ending for this problem in either the story or film, as Paul ends up murdered by those he owes money to from gambling, and overall Paul’s behavior and attitude towards his own problems–particularly with how he hides his problematic behavior from his family–is easily recognizable to anyone that has a problem relative.
Norman’s relationship to his brother is mirrored by his love interest’s brother, Neal, who also has some unidentified psychological problem that’s similarly brushed under the carpet by her family. A large theme of the film is how repressed feelings in a family can do more harm than good, and how politely ignoring serious problems family members have can do more harm than good–or at the very least don’t help matters.
The Macleans obviously love each other but don’t have the words to express their feelings. The closest that any of the family ever comes to addressing Paul’s problems is during a warm moment the family experiences over Sunday dinner, when the mother almost says something to Paul about his problems, only to be quickly cut off by Paul and the opportunity to politely bring up the issue passes.
Especially for those with troubled relations, A River Runs Through It can be haunting–particularly since Paul comes to such a tragic end. No family member wants to see a family member come to such a sad conclusion, but sometimes this tragic end is unavoidable. Even if you’re able to bring up their issues, sometimes that’s not enough. Sometimes nothing’s enough and that person you love just disappears, only to live on in your memory. Maybe, like Maclean, if you have the talent you can create a moving elegy in their honor, and maybe that’s the best you can hope for in the end.
Time, Wisdom, Life, and Death
Ultimately what A River Runs Through It depicts is how beautiful and sad and surprising and unknowable life as an experience can be. Although Norman is the storyteller, his brother Paul is the instigator of the action in the story; even when the narrative focuses exclusively on Norman, it’s his brother’s character and choices that shapes the story and its outcome. From Paul’s foolhardy notion that they could shoot the notoriously dangerous rapids in a stolen rowboat (to which his brother accompanies him out of fraternal duty) to meeting up with his brother at a speakeasy that hints at the danger Paul is in with the local gambling institutions, to ultimately the unstoppable tragedy that ends up shaping Norman’s wistful and nostalgic tale, A River Runs Through It filters its story through the knowing lens of age, and with the philosophical tone that the distance of time and experience can imbue one’s biography.
As stated, Maclean wrote his story in old age with the same wisdom the film expresses through its narration. The opening scene states as much, of course framing the story with the words of his father: “Long ago, when I was a young man, my father said to me… “Norman, you like to write stories?” And I said, “Yes, I do.” Then he said, “Someday, when you’re ready… you might tell our family story. Only then will you understand what happened and why.” Norman seemed to have understood the magnitude of setting his life’s story down on paper for all to read, and if one has read the text of “A River Runs Through It” they can grasp the momentous effort that Maclean put into writing it, placing each word and sentence down with carefulness and surety to capture his own vivid memory of the past.
This speaks to the remarkable nature of the film itself in that captures Maclean’s gravitas, and it not only serves the film but makes it. Perhaps A River Runs Through It is such a fantastic film simply because its source material was so remarkable and clear. Maclean’s story is infused with sadness, nostalgia, and metaphysical questions that are not easily answered. As the narrator winds his story down, the closing lines of the film–just as in the book–are remarkable and endless in their summation of the human condition–of experience, life, death, and time itself.
“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.”
The film is colorful and alive throughout its runtime, populated by fully fleshed characters from another time and place, all active and engaged in the business of living. But Redford’s narration as Maclean comes from another time and place, of the future that is looking back at this (to us) present. Will this be how we recollect our lives when we are old–of a vibrant youth filled with adventures that we see as part of shaping our larger life story? Of moments in time that we appreciate in the present but only understand their importance when looking back on them in the future?