The Catcher in the Fly

Never having been particularly enamored of fly fishing, male bonding, or Presbyterianism, I did not read Norman Maclean's autobiographical novella, A River Runs Through It, until very recently -- and only then to coincide with the film version directed by Robert Redford and at the prodding of some friends who spoke highly of it. Maclean's story is undoubtedly a solid, beautifully crafted piece of writing, and I can see why the book was a leading contender for the Pulitzer when it appeared in 1976. (There was no fiction prize that year, incidentally; a special category was introduced and that multicultural granddaddy, the late Alex Haley, won instead for Roots.) The short work is a faithful act of reminiscence depicting the early stirrings of a Scottish-American family in Missoula, Montana, during the first three decades of the century. The elderly Norman remembers his free-spirited younger brother, Paul, and a metaphorically fertile apprenticeship under a stern though benevolent minister father as each related to one another at home, in church, and on the river. "In our family, there was no clear line between religion and fly fishing" reads the loaded opening line. It is no overstatement.

A River Runs Through It concurrently sustains two moods, one celebratory, the other elegiac. First, there's a toast to the fly fisherman's art, one that basks in the most extraordinarily precise detail; readers ignorant of the minutiae of the sport are bound to be captivated by the author's sure-footedness in outlining the many subtleties and variables of the casting-and-catching craft. Additionally, Maclean panegyrizes his Scottish kin, their cultural definition and maturity, their passion -- however contained in expression -- for ritual, and their unspoken love of nature, that mysterious force which, as the narrator intones near the close, connects all human experience.

But the story is also a threnody for a lost place and time and for the memory of the fallen Paul Maclean, the "beautiful" brother who strays from the path of virtue, drinks, gambles, womanizes, and dies prematurely. The vocation of fly fishing and the private reservoir of family affections are becomingly, and often surpassingly, poetic in their retelling. "Then in the arctic half-light of the canyon," ruminates Norman, "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." At its best, the writing matches the flowing motion, crystalline trasparency, and simplicity of river water.

But these are the same attributes that render it, to this reader at least, somewhat flavorless. Maclean's reserve as a writer and man, his gentlemanly detachment in allowing the tragic elements of his story -- and there are many -- to speak for themselves, belongs to another generation. (To a fault, Maclean is true to his inherited Scottish-immigrant sensibility.) The protracted section when Paul and Norman are obliged to take along the latter's pathetic brother-in-law, Neal, on a fishing expedition -- a violation of a strictly observed ethos -- is the single exception, and here there's sparkle and spice in the storytelling. Especially vivid is the portrait of Old Rawhide, Neal's strumpetty companion, the former beauty queen of Wolf Creek, who "did not intend to spend the rest of her life as a disappointed athlete, so she would shack up one winter with a fancy roper and the next winter with a steer wrestler." But elsewhere, notwithstanding the author's carefully spun and often bewitching "outdoor" writing, there's a surfeit of blandness.

Economical of length and emotion, it's not the kind of story that lends itself to adaptation to film, which begs the question: Why has Robert Redford directed A River Runs Through It? The more compelling question could well be: How did he get it made? When Maclean first attempted having the collection of Western stories published, he received the following rejection from a publisher: "These stories have trees in them." And while the medium of film basks in the reflected glory of magnificent natural settings, movies about the great outdoors don't make for easy pitches inside Hollywood studio offices -- particularly a turn-of-the-century family saga about things "that come by grace," such as trout and eternal salvation.

Richard Friedenberg has provided a fine screenplay, one more faithful to the letter of the story than perhaps to its spirit. Augmenting the concise skeleton of a plot with research into the Maclean family history, the result has a well-roundedness that counters some of the strange leaps of chronology in the book. For example, we witness in terrific detail the dynamics of the Maclean home -- the minister overseeing the education of young Norman in his study, the reticently communicative understanding between the brothers -- and later the wooing and winning of Norman's wife-to-be.

The panoramic vistas of the Big Blackfoot River (actually filmed at three rivers: the Gallatin, the Yellowstone, and the Boulder), where paragraph after paragraph of the story takes flight, are undeniably eye-catching, thanks to Philippe Rousselot's cinematography. Yet it's a testament to Maclean's skills that his penmanship outperforms the camera in conveying the magical multiformity of nature and the sublime reflectiveness of the fisherman's craft. What the film does rather better is capture the flavor of the period -- especially such details as the dark-lit interiors of the Maclean home, the slow-moving jalopies driven across dirt roads, and the women wearing bobbed hairstyles and knee-length skirts typical of the Twenties.

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