A new film about fly fishing -- and
much much more

Smithsonian, September 1992

Robert Redford's version of A River Runs Through It is about to plunge audiences into the life and works of Norman Maclean.


EVERYBODY WHO thinks about such things remembers Hemingway's Big Two-hearted River. And, in The Sun Also Rises, the wonderful scene in which Jake Barnes and Bill Gorton catch trout on the Irati River and "utilize" the wine of northern Spain. But since then, partly because hardly anybody writes well enough about fishing to transcend the subject, partly because the reputations of fiction writers have for so long been in the custody of Eastern cityfolk and academics, at least in the public mind fly fishing and what passes for serious literature have rarely intersected.

That is until 1976, when Norman Maclean's A River Runs Through It came along. It has an unforgettable and now much-quoted first sentence: "In our family, there was no clear line between religion and fly fishing." Also a view, in succinct paraphrase of his Scottish Presbyterian father, that "man by nature was a mess," that "all good things - trout as well as eternal salvation - come by grace and grace comes by art and art does not come easy." The book, in fact, only seems to be about fly fishing. It is really an elegy for an age gone by and a much loved brother gone bad. But the Big Blackfoot River in western Montana is its medium - and carries much of its message - and it treats fly fishing as a beautiful and even a redemptive art.

The story takes the form of a surpassingly skillful memoir, artfully fictionalized here and there, delicately shaded in darks and lights by the sharp edges of perfectly recollected detail. A rarity in any age, Maclean has a voice entirely his own, equally accommodating to low comedy and high seriousness. On the stream with him, a reader may one moment find himself listening to a fish story as it might be told in a Montana bunkhouse, with rainbows the size of speedboats churning around the Blackfoot and striking at flies like something escaped from Jaws. The next moment the cadences of his prose and the sound of the running river seem to flow toward the mysterious heart of the world. In an oblique echo of the 23d Psalm, it closes with the words "I am haunted by waters."

At the heart of Maclean's world was family: the father a minister, the mother hardly heard from, and Norman's brash and engaging younger brother, Paul. The two boys grew up together in Missoula, Montana, before, during and after World War I. Missoula was a tough town, full of lumberjacks, back-alley fistfights, ladies of the night - and fishermen. Stores sold silk­wound, bamboo Montague (pronounced MONTAIG in those parts) fishing rods for $3.80 and kept bundles of tips handy to replace those splintered by the big rainbows that got away. As Norman tells it, Paul soon became a ladies' man, a dare­devil street fighter, a master fisherman and a guy who would bet on anything, preferably himself. Both boys were tough. It was a Maclean maxim that "if it looks like a fight is coming, get in the first punch."

Norman, the slighter of the two, had to work at being tough and, in the best Western fashion, acted tougher than he was. Paul was three years younger but heavier; in fighting as in everything else - except in asking for or taking help - a natural who simply knew that he was tougher than anyone.

The story builds softly to a sudden offstage tragedy that Maclean was to mourn for a lifetime, perhaps not only with a brother's sorrow but with a brother's guilt. When Paul is beaten to death, ostensibly in a fight over unpaid gambling debts, father and son ask each other: "Do you think I could have helped him?" And Maclean writes, "How can a question be answered that asks a lifetime of questions." Clearly Maclean, who did not write the book until he was 73, had asked himself the question over and over. For years, out fishing with his son, John (now a Chicago newspaper­man), he called the boy "Paul."

Just as clearly, A River Runs Through It is some kind of literary wonder, the kind of story that rings in the heart of memory yet demands to be read again. Serious critics were soon calling it a masterpiece, among them Alfred Kazin, whose book On Native Grounds was one of the first critical studies to take modern American prose seriously. As River's reputation - and sales - grew, literate fly fishermen (whom the literati tend to treat as if they'd had prefrontal lobotomies) enjoyed themselves considerably.

Norman Maclean might have come from darkest Montana. As a boy he would come home to sleep after a bloody Saturday-night fight. His father would wake him the next morning and ask how he'd done. If he'd won, the minister would say, "Good. Take it easy. Sleep it off." If he'd lost, it was, "Get out of bed and over to church. Shame on you." In old age, as he evolved into a celebrity, he was sometimes savage-tongued and truculent.

Nobody in academe or out of it, however, was going to patronize the man as some poor poetaster of the hook-and-bullet press. This Western roughneck was also a neo-Aristotelian scholar-critic, famous for his analysis of lyric poetry. His father, he once said, wanted him "to be a tough guy," and his mother wanted him "to be a flower girl. So I ended being a tough flower girl." He also became a tough, inspiring teacher, but one capable, like his father, "of using the word 'beautiful' as a part of natural speech." Before writing River, he had taught Shakespeare and the Romantic Poets at the University of Chicago for more than 40 years. Three times he won the Quantrell Award as the university's greatest teacher; no other professor at Chicago had ever done that.

River soon became a cult book, not only among outdoors men and fisher­folk, but for all sorts of readers. Gossip about its bizarre birth and shaky launching helped sales. It had been rejected by commercial publishers, once because it had "trees in it." The University of Chicago Press finally published it out of deference to Maclean but, it was said, never having published any new fiction before, initially knew little about promoting or selling such a volume. Publicity continued when the judges nominated it for the Pulitzer Prize in 1977, but the Pulitzer Advisory Board, as it often does for eccentric reasons, exercised its right to overrule.

Then the question arose: Could it, would it, should it ever be made into a movie? And if so, how? The first part of that question has been answered. A film version of A River Runs Through It is being released this fall. At the same time, more or less riding piggyback on it, a new edition of the book will appear, a mass paperback from Pocket Books. This month, too, the University of Chicago Press will bring out Macleah's final work, Young Men and Fire, another sort of elegy about smokejumpers who parachuted to their deaths in a Montana forest fire in 1949.

Two years after Maclean's death and 16 years after River, all sorts of people will be introduced again to a remarkable writer, a remarkable book and the remarkable lifelong grief that gave rise to it.

Where the possibility of a film was concerned, however, for years the prognosis seemed hopeless. Much of River's action involved dry fly fishing, a highly repetitive and individualistic sport. The book's magic derived not from action but from Maclean's resounding prose. There were no major female characters. What dialogue there was came muffled by Scottish reticence. The story's dramatic climax, for instance, is delivered by Paul in just seven words: "I'll never leave Montana. Let's go fishing."

In addition to the problems of the material, Maclean seemed to be rejecting any and all movie offers. He demanded, so it was rumored, the kind of control that Hollywood just doesn't give. Several film companies sent lawyers with offers. One group, Maclean complained, tried for 18 months to buy the rights without ever reading the book. Of film people generally, he remarked with characteristic ferocity, "Now there is a bunch that eats what they find run over on the road."

Enter, finally, Robert Redford. At 55, time has at last printed some crow's-feet at the corners of his eyes. Still, he suggests the golden boy in The Way We Were and a dozen other roles, some kind of Sundance Kid out of Southern California whose looks and charm have made everything come easy. The impression is misleading. He is a serious fellow who for years has put money, effort, time, and talent into protecting the lands and waters of the West, and of the world.

He is also the film personality who, more than any other, has worked at ways to do - and help other people do - films that don't fall into Hollywood's increasingly pile-driving, heavy-breathing mode. Utah's annual Sundance Film Festival, a function of the Sundance Institute which Redford created, has become the showcase for the best original film work done in the United States. In addition to being a superstar, over the past ten years or so Redford has become a prizewinning director-producer, a sort of one-man, Yankee Merchant-Ivory team, translating into film complex and subtle American fiction, notably John Nichols' engaging but interminable New Mexican novel The Milagro Beanfield War and Judith Guest's Ordinary People, which won four Academy Awards, including one for him as best director.

Norman Maclean liked what he heard about Ordinary People. Like the book, the film explored the guilt of a surviving brother and the kind of punishment that loving families that can't talk about private grief often inflict on themselves. Redford grew up in a Scotch-Irish family full of emotionally charged silence and is sensitive to such matters. When I talked to him he seemed to identify with Paul. Since the 1960s, many families have watched helplessly as sons and brothers, gifted, charming, full of life and energy, simply drifted off into inner darkness - sometimes to be subtracted from the world entirely. "Did you have a son or a brother in danger like that?" I asked.

"I was that son," he said. "I was that brother."

And he went on to say that in his family, silence was used as a weapon of disapproval. As a small boy he had been given to understand that he was bad. His scoutmaster father kicked him out of his own troop. "I did dangerous things," he said. "School made no sense to me." It was athletics that saved him, he says. And a baseball scholarship to the University of Colorado, though he quit there and went to France to study art. But Redford also sees the old-fashioned habit of shutting up about your problems as a source of inner strength, part and parcel of a stoical frontier toughness, now vanishing into the past, that younger generations "can hardly relate to."

He has a point. These are whiny times, full of easy emotions easily shared in public. Every TV sitcom seems to have as its denouement a scene in which father and son (or whoever) throw their arms around each other and yell "I love you, Dad!" or "I love you, Son!" Compare Maclean's lines: "In our family men folk did not go around saying they loved each other." When he gave Maclean's book to writer Richard Friedenberg, whom he hoped would do the script, Redford said, "This is my family." Friedenberg recalls with a laugh, "It wasn't my family. In my family, everybody talked and yelled about their feelings all the time."

Friedenberg regards all the charged emotional restraint between Paul and the family as "pre-Freudian." Today, he says, "we'd have gotten him into AA or some kind of group therapy." ("Heck," commented Redford to me, "in some families they'd have sat around the kitchen table and cried with him.") Because Friedenberg had written The Promise, a 1986 television drama about two brothers that was later sprinkled heavily with Emmy awards, River seemed a good fit. But because the book offered so little of the dramatic dialogue that a successful film needs, initially he wanted to turn down the assignment. "I can't do this film, Bob," he kidded Redford. "Jews don't fish."

Happily, Redford persuaded him. Then they both began months of digging into the life and times and works of Norman Maclean. Their aim: to find enough more or less true and dramatic material to let them make a film that would work and still meet with the old man's approval.

Redford wanted to call attention to the plight of rivers - he belongs to the American Rivers Association and is on the board of trustees of the Natural Resources Defense Council. But essentially, like some 400,000 or so other people who have bought the book (it has gone to four editions and 18 re­printings) he had simply fallen in love with Maclean's words. And precisely because he is Redford, he could raise money for the film and at the same time make a deal with Maclean that Hollywood probably wouldn't have given to the late William Shakespeare. Says Redford's producer, Patrick Markey, "If I'd turned up at a studio with a literary property like that, they'd have said, 'Are you kidding?'"

It was agreed that in the early stages Maclean would be consulted repeatedly. He would get a chance to approve, disapprove and discuss changes in the first script. At any point he could drop out, and they would both forget the whole thing. "But," says Redford, "if once we both agreed to the script, then he agreed to get the hell out and let me make the film."

Friedenberg started researching in 1988. Maclean was old, sick and desperately trying to finish Young Men and Fire. Friedenberg interviewed him as best he could, listened to tapes of his University of Chicago lectures (Maclean used to tell students that studying poetry without understanding rhythm and metrics was like "going to the senior prom and not being able to dance"). He talked to the family and pored over Maclean's high school and college yearbooks (Dartmouth, 1924), read old newspaper stories in Montana, searched through Maclean scrapbooks. He chatted with old Montana friends like George Croonenberghs, mentioned in River as friend and fly tier. Now a retired railroad engineer, he still ties great flies and was one of Norman's closest friends and fishing companions.

These fishing expeditions yielded all sorts of material, some of it used - though heightened - in the film, some not. In the film, but not in the book, the brothers, egged on by the infectiously fearless Paul, risk life and limb "shooting-the-chutes" on the Big Blackfoot at night in a "borrowed" rowboat. The height of the waterfalls involved, created from footage shot on five rivers by Patrick Markey's roving camera units, makes the adventure seem crazy enough to suggest Paul's character. In real life, though, George Croonenberghs told me, the boys, with considerably less danger, ran the river after dark in a duck boat while fishing, turned over in heavy rapids and lost their rods.

For reasons of taste, some memorable book moments have been rendered less salty. At the end of the famous outing with Neal, the bait­fishing phony, and Old Rawhide, the semipro prostitute, Paul-in-the­film does not kick the lady's bare sunburned posterior, symmetrically tatooed with the letters LO VE. Paul­in-the-book did so. Some incidents have been brilliantly expanded. In the book when Norman has to get Paul and his date, a sulky, beautiful Indian girl, out of jail, it is because Paul hit a guy in a restaurant who yelled "Wahoo!" at her. (Until the late 1950s stores and restaurants in some Montana towns bore signs saying: "No dogs or Indians allowed.") In the film that scene is preceded by one in which Paul comes off as masterful and politically correct by getting the girl into a Prohibition speakeasy over the objections of a management that officially doesn't serve Indians.

Maclean was pleased with the scenes that gave more boyhood detail. Nor did he object to Redford and Company's biggest change: to provide the film with a major female character, probably essential to box office appeal, by making Norman's meeting with and courtship of his real-life wife, Jessie Burns, an important element in the story. In the book, the two have been married six or seven years, and she gets about three speaking lines.

The shift meant moving the film's principal action back from the late 1930s, when Paul in fact was killed, to circa 1926, when Jessie and Norman met - actually in a snowstorm. A Fourth of July dance and fireworks fitted the film better, there being little fly fishing in Montana in winter. Besides, the Fourth of July doings gave director Redford an additional chance to dwell lovingly upon one of his considerable interests, the Americana of the Western past.

The Croonenberghs, who knew Jessie well, described her to me as "a redhead, tall, smart and funny," a woman daring by temperament, like Paul. A scene from the movie (true) shows her trying to scare the wits out of Norman by turning her Model T touring car off a blocked road, up onto some tracks of the Northern Pacific railroad, and then treating him to a neck-jolting, tooth-rattling ride across a high trestle and into a tunnel­through which unscheduled freight trains ran.

If you are Merchant-Ivory trying to make a perfect film out of a celebrated English novel like Howards End, you already have something very like sumptuous Edwardian England at your fingertips: splendid town houses with creamy facades, the delights of Fortnum & Mason at Christmas time, richly caparisoned horses that seem to have stepped out of a James Tissot painting, legions of actors experienced in nuance.

Trying to make a perfectly faithful film out of this Western masterpiece, all that Redford needed as background was an accurately grungy little 1920s logging and mining town, and he pretty much had to knock it together himself. What he and much praised French cinematographer Philippe Rousselot did have at their fingertips were plenty of mountain rivers and some of the best high­country scenery in the world.

As it turned out, neither Missoula (now too big) nor the Big Blackfoot was much help. The Blackfoot has too much timber cutting nearby for beautiful panoramic shots of wilderness. For fishing scenes Redford chose the Gallatin, 200 miles away, a wilder stream that flows out of Yellowstone. Nearby Livingston, Montana (pop. 7,000), looked more like the Missoula of Maclean's youth. Even so, Redford and Markey had to have false fronts and an extra story added on to a couple of blocks of East Callender Street. They also buried the street's surface under layers of dirt and sand. (Except for the dirt, many local folk figured East Callender looked better that way.) Redford is a stickler for detail. Besides, he was going to begin the film as a sepia documentary, using photographs of pre-World War I Missoula, and things had to match.

Teams of researchers had already rifled the local museum for photographs and artifacts when, two summers ago, Redford and Company arrived to occupy (and preoccupy) Livingston for three months. They tried out local people for crowd scenes (at $4.50 an hour) and even cast a local 6-year-old, Vann Gravage, in the considerable role of Paul as a small boy. An elementary school served as the jail. The Redeemer Lutheran Church, with some face-lifting behind the pulpit, stood in for the Reverend Maclean's Presbyterian setting. Redford hired the entire civic center, hard by the Yellowstone River, and the Maclean house was built inside it, with ingenious sliding walls to help with camera work.

Despite the piscatorial hauteur that Maclean sometimes displays in the book, Norman and Paul had a much simpler approach to fly fishing than the exquisitely equipped anglers of today are used to. They waded the Big Blackfoot in khaki pants and wornout logging boots. They fished with huge flies - Nos. 2, 4 and 6, mostly. Their gut leaders were never finer than what today we'd call 1x. They carried no nets. "We'd just work 'em in to the bank," says George Croonenberghs, "and jump on 'em." They took their limit most every time out (25 fish in those days), and they didn't always properly kill the fish they took, either - at least in the book Norman makes a depressing reference to trout "thumping" in his creel.

Markey is a fly fisherman, however. So is Redford. With half the fly­fishing population of America figuratively (and, it sometimes seemed, literally) looking over their shoulder, they were determined to make everything authentic. In Livingston, Montana, in the summer of 1991, trout experts were practically unlimited. Not to mention master casters and fish biologists and stream improvers and students of antique gear and representatives of fly-fishing schools and equipment houses.

There were people to teach the young actors Craig Sheffer and Brad Pitt, who played Norman and Paul, how to cast. One teacher, the film's fishing adviser, John Bailey, who runs his late father's nationally known fishing and outdoor supply store in town, recalls that he got nowhere until he told the actors that how you cast reflects your personality. There was even a mechanical trout, a 22-inch rainbow named Fernando, made of lead and fiberglass. When placed at a properly adjusted depth, it could be made to roll up to the surface for the cameramen as if slashing at a fly. Fernando could also "dimple," the proud wife of Fernando's inventor told me, denoting the movement of a big fish when, rising slowly, it just barely touches the surface of a quiet pool.

Most perplexing of all were representatives of the Humane Society of the United States, on hand to see that no trout suffered injury or death. The fish in the film were trucked from a hatchery or private ponds to the Gallatin in specially cooled and aerated water, then placed in the stream in wire pens. No barbed hooks could be used on them, even in action, so Bailey finally worked out a method of painlessly attaching monofilament to their jaws. (Some were slightly drugged to slow them down.) Mostly, it was discovered, the best stand-in for a fighting trout in fast water is a quart milk carton partly filled with rocks; attached to rod and line, it veers erratically back and forth under the surface.

Even the great trout that Paul chases downstream, lands and joyfully holds up near the film's end came to no harm. It was held (briefly) by the jaw but without harming the gills - much safer, Bailey insists, than any other way. During the shooting, whenever it looked peaked, the fish was returned to aerated water for R&R.

Fly fishermen, who will no doubt flock to the film when it is released, can expect to be soothed by the sound and sight of Rousselot's visions of rushing waters. They will see some fishing. A close-up of a fly being tied on by the brown-spotted hands of Maclean as old man and narrator. Trout striking and being played. An example of a roll cast, which occurs when, because of cramped quarters behind him, Norman can't have any back cast, a process he likens in the book to depriving "a pitcher of his wind-up." A moment of what fly fishermen know as "matching the hatch" occurs, too, as Norman scrapes a stone fly off his neck, sees a hatch of them in the air, selects an artificial model from his fly box, lays it out upon troubled waters and hooks into a big fish while Paul still has nothing.

Though Redford reveled in every inch of it, much of the fishing footage had to be left on the cutting room floor. He had a much more complex problem in dramatic balance than in making sure the film did not come informally labeled "For Fishermen Only," The problem involved casting, but of a different kind - in this. case the question of who would play Paul, and how. And this in turn involved, as it would for any filmmaker, a troublesome and even mysterious lack of balance in the book.

It is Maclean's convention in River that the family never really know or talk about what Paul does when he is away from them, though it is briefly conveyed that he has a hair-trigger temper, fights too much, drinks, has a packstring of women, and sometimes consorts with crooks and gamblers.

Norman once explained, "Unless you can see and feel about my brother as his father and brother did, I have no story to tell about him." That's why, in the book, a reader never sees Paul except through Norman's selective and artful memory of the moments they shared together. It is Maclean's book, after all, and he makes it work convincingly. Except for rumored offstage doings and Paul's occasional talks about scrapes he's in, the reader takes Paul as Norman presents him, as a generous, headstrong but loving and often considerate son and brother.

In dealing with Redford, Maclean refused to answer questions about Paul. In fact, Paul was not killed in Montana but followed Norman to Dartmouth (class of 1928), something both book and film avoid. In the mid­'30s, under what family pressure no one knows, he moved to Chicago and was killed there in 1938 - not over gambling debts but on a Saturday night when, according to one report to the police, he may have been looking for a fight. River, Maclean kept insisting to Redford, was "the story of a deeply loving family that did not understand each other and could not offer help or ask for it." Nothing more. And any film he approved should be the same.

Film (any film) and fiction (any fiction) both require a mix of show and tell. But film requires far more showing than telling. Maclean was terrified that simply in trying to personify the character of Paul successfully, Redford would have to branch out into the dark side of Paul's life. Essentially Redford agreed with Maclean. And he understood that, though River derives considerable validity from being mostly true, it is only a fragment of the truth, one that Maclean could live with and wanted the world to remember. Maclean taught the Romantic Poets, after all. As Shelley for his dead friend and rival Keats in "Adonais," so Norman for his lost brother, Paul.

"Anyway," says Redford, "it didn't make stylistic sense to go into the anatomy of the man's destruction." But that didn't make the problem of dramatic balance go away. Anyone who has read the book knows that for the film to work, whoever plays Paul must be handsome, magnetic, full of life and energy, and infectiously radiant, though touched by shadows: a character who, playing opposite someone playing Norman, threatens to run away with a story meant to be Norman's. In Ordinary People, with a stroke of casting genius, Redford chose America's brisk and beautiful comedic sweetheart Mary Tyler Moore to play a mother rendered almost lethal by controlled grief. With River he gave his show a brilliant burst of life by casting as Paul the boyish Brad Pitt, the larcenous young hitchhiker in Thelma and Louise who charms the pants off Thelma (played by Geena Davis).

The film begins as a combination of frontier documentary and scrap­book ramble through the family past, with Maclean's words deftly used as voice-over, getting us through the look of the town they roved in as little kids. Paul refuses to eat his oatmeal. Mornings, Norman stays home from school with his father to learn to write "short" and without self-indulgent adjectives or adverbs. Essay topics must be done at 200 words, then shrunk to 100, then (if accepted by the Reverend) are tossed away. A bit older, Norman goes on to summers lumberjacking and firefighting for the U.S. Forest Service, Paul to life­guarding at a local pool where all the girls hang out.

The real drama doesn't begin until 1926. Norman is home from Dartmouth, where he has done graduate work and taught, as well, and doesn't know what he'll do with his life. In a sense, Paul, by then a successful reporter in Helena and a local fishing celebrity, has surpassed his big brother. And Redford skillfully puts a slight edge on their brotherly competition - not only in catching fish and girls, where Paul will always be miles ahead, but in winning the Reverend's approval.

He also sharpens Norman's always understated reservations about Paul's doings, even small but significant things like drinking in the morning at his newspaper office, not coming home to be with the family when Norman returns from Dartmouth, or leaving one of their mother's dinners early to see some cronies. This thread of disapproval and incipient anger reaches a head when, on the night Norman announces that he will marry Jessie Burns, by way of celebration Paul takes him to a gambling joint. This does not happen in the book.

Except for a boyhood fistfight, this is the nearest thing to a dramatic conflict between the two that the film provides. The seismic fluctuations in their relationship - clearly a deep but uneasy love - are recorded mainly by pauses, hesitations, glances. The brothers learned to listen to what each other didn't say. If your senses are still reeling from the sledgehammer pace of Terminator II, such things may fly by unnoticed. And in truth, Redford has hewed so faithfully to Maclean's splendid language that it helps to have a sharp ear, variously tuned to silences, understatements, throwaway lines and the occasional Delphic utterance.

How far the Redford-Maclean style is from most contemporary films came to me during a moment, perhaps the moment, of Norman's triumph in the search for his father's approval. He has word of a job at the University of Chicago, heads toward the Reverend's study with the news, and hears his father reciting poetry to himself. At a pause, Norman chimes in. His father listens. Then they both proceed together. Can it be? These two characters are running bits of Wordsworth by each, other, a poet, one should note, whose works Norman taught for decades. The poem is "Intimations of Immortality," one of the Reverend's favorites. The lines they quote begin, " ... But trailing clouds of glory ... " and end, "Thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears."

It is in the handling of Brad Pitt as Paul that Redford manages to do most for the somehow caring yet careless character that Maclean's brother has to be. In the film he is a winning physical presence: a boy-man seemingly with limitless reserves of energy, a son who can dance his mother around and hug her as Norman never could, and bring jokey life to a family dinner. Paul is the kind of guy every little brother would like to have as a big brother. In Paul's tones of voice and the expression of his eyes, often seen close up, can be read, like reflections in shifting water, the tiniest fleeting resences of jealousy giving way to generosity over Norman's good fortune, of sorrow manfully driven out by joy and humor. Until, for one shattering instant outside the gambling hall, Paul's eyes give away the desperation that will destroy him.

Looking back on the film now that is finished, Redford is satisfied. He feels he has kept his word to Maclean but admits to mixed feelings about the fact that Norman did not live to see it done. "I think he would have been pleased," he says, then adds, "he was so tough and critical he might not be." Those people I've talked to who knew Norman Maclean are convinced that whatever agreement he made with Redford, had he been healthy and around during the shooting, it would have been impossible to complete the film.

How A River Runs Through It will fare at the box office, only audiences and the Byzantine vagaries of today's film distribution system can decide. It is a remarkably faithful rendering into a film of one of the least likely books for the purpose imaginable, a book so powerful in its feeling that a film can hardly hope to match it. Rivers run through it, though, so it is beautiful not only to see but to hear. It was done with care and art for purposes having more to do with affection and knowledge than with commerce. Anyone who sees it, like anyone who reads Norman Maclean's book, runs some risk of being haunted by waters.


Additional reading:

  • A River Runs Through It and other Stories by Norman Maclean. University of Chicago Press. 1976
  • American Authors Series: Norman Maclean. University of Chicago Press. 1988