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Review of the book "A River Runs Through It" as it compares to the movie

Updated on July 26, 2013
The real Norman Mclean on Seeley Lake
The real Norman Mclean on Seeley Lake | Source

Book Review of "A River Runs Through It"

What does one call a piece such as this? To call it a review seems inappropriate; as though I am passing judgment on a master of an art to which I am barely cognizant of. Do I call it an ode? No, that would make it appear to be a declaration of love, or lament. Better to simply say, these are my thoughts, my feelings, on what to me is perhaps the greatest story written in my time. Lofty standards, I know; but in my estimation, the truth.

Many have seen the screen version of A River Runs Through It; millions, perhaps. I don’t know. But how many of you know it was a book first? Or more accurately, a short story in a book of short stories? Add to it that it was the first work completed and published by a man who long held a position as a professor at a university. For years, I was unaware of this, although I am, at times, a voracious reader of books. Once I found that it was available in print, my wife searched it out online and purchased it for me as a gift. She has been known to do that periodically. She loves me, and I am a very fortunate man indeed for that love.

Once received, I took my time. I chose to allow it to wash over me, as though I was standing in the river, feeling its power; its surges; its deep, still pools filled with promise for those willing to plunge headfirst into the depths. Prior to reading it, I watched the movie one more time, to better fix in my mind the story itself. Few are the movies which can stand the test of time against the written works which preceded them. Most pale by comparison once subjected to the standards which the writer brings forth. Michael Crichton was a tremendous talent, and his movies have traditionally been well received. You may have heard of some of them: Jurassic Park, Congo; Sphere; and my personal favorite, The Andromeda Strain. But as good as those movies have been, they are far removed from what he intended them to be, as they appear in print. I feel for those who know of him only by the movie versions of his works; he deserves you to better know him. Read his books. You will be pleasantly surprised.

A River Runs Through It is a story about a river, the Big Blackfoot River, to be exact. It revolves around one family, the Maclean’s. It is set in the early portions of the 1900’s, in and around the years stretching from the late teens to the early thirties. There are two sons, Norman, the writer, and Paul, his younger brother by three years. The setting is “the Montana of my youth”, and it is “a land with dew still on it”. If that doesn’t provide an image of beauty, serenity, and innocence, I don’t know what will.

Norman, the elder son, is of a more serious mind, and eventually goes away to school, at Dartmouth College. There he spends six years in study, and returns home with his degree. Paul chose to remain close to home, the better to catch the trout which have remained un-caught by him. When Norman meets Paul for the first time after returning home in the movie, they go fishing on their “family river”, the Big Blackfoot. As Norman attempts to reconnect with the river after such a long absence, he spies his brother, and realizes that, while he was away in study, his brother had stayed at home and became not only an expert at fly fishing, but an artist.

In watching the movie, then reading the book before watching the movie yet again, the reader becomes aware of subtle insights the director, Robert Redford, has put into play. In one particularly striking scene, Norman is called in the dead of night to get his brother out of jail. Paul has been dancing and drinking with an Indian woman they call Monaseta, and was forced to defend her honor. They both wind up in jail, and Norman gets them out. In the book, Norman remarks about Paul’s large right hand, which in his constant fly fishing has grown overly large and powerful. In this scene, Paul uses the hand to cover his face while standing in the cell, as though he is hiding behind it and doesn’t wish to be seen. Or perhaps he is using it to re-direct the viewer to the hand, as it is powerful and majestic in its ability to convey the art of fly fishing, rather than to be seen as someone inside a jail cell. If you watch the movie, this takes place in the car while Norman is driving them home. Paul, played by Brad Pitt, is sitting in the rear seat, and Redford has skillfully placed the light directly on Pitt’s right hand as it covers his face. You see the hand, you hear the voice, but you are unable to clearly make out the man.

Paul eventually meets with a tragic death, for reasons not fully understood by his parents. As his Father said, “he was beautiful” and in the end, that is what you are left with. If you read closely, and pay attention to the subtle moments Maclean has placed for us, you may come to realize that, while the Big Blackfoot is indeed a river running through the Montana of his youth, the river running though the story is in fact the river of love and compassion felt for a brother and son who is not capable of living in the world he was thrust into, and because of that, meets his fate early in life. The early portions of the story are likened to the head of a pool, full of life and promise of what could be. The middle, or pool portion, is deep, dark, and mysterious in its depths, full of questions not easily answered. The final portion is the tail of the pool, the segment where the river, or story, gathers itself again, ready to move forward, leaving behind those people or portions of the river it must, and carrying forward that which is most cherished. The love of this family bonds them closely together, but yet they are unable to help the one they most dearly wish to help. The statement “It is those we live with and love and should know who elude us” says more than most members of a family can understand or recognize.

The ending of the story is the most poignant moment in print I have ever had the pleasure of reading. The words harken back to the very beginning of the story, thereby bringing full circle the deep meanings hidden within the words. The final words are mesmerizing in their simplicity and depth. Each time I read them, I think about what they mean to me, and wonder what they meant to Norman Maclean. He was a man I would have enjoyed knowing.


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    • JungGal51 profile image


      7 years ago

      Nicely done-a favorite of mine as well.

    • Mr Archer profile imageAUTHOR

      Mr Archer 

      7 years ago from Missouri

      The book is one of the greatest reads I have ever had the enjoyment of reading. I highly recommend it.

      Regarding the movie and your father in law, I can see how it wuld be painful, but the love was so very evident in the way they treated each other. Although, perhaps that was painful to your father in law, as he never experienced this. I never thought of this, that someone would see the opposite of what was portrayed due to their upbringing.

      In this case, I think the movie and book compliment each other perfectly. I truly love them both.

    • Marie Flint profile image

      Marie Flint 

      7 years ago from Jacksonville, FL USA

      I suggest you call this type of piece a "comparative essay." It still comes under the hub's format of "article," of course.

      I saw the movie "A River Runs Through It" with Robert Redford once. I had rented a video for Father's Day and hosted my husband and father-in-law.

      The most poignant moment for me was when the actor-father was scolding his two sons for damaging the neighbor's canoe. My father-in-law remarked, somewhat angrily and chagrined, "Who got this [movie]? . . . tryin' to have a little fun."

      At that moment, I realized my father-in-law's reaction related to the relationship he had with his father, who had served as a Presbyterian minister. The relationship had been strained, and my father-in-law, who was born in 1910, had lost his mother when he was only ten years old. I almost wished I had picked a more paternally nourishing movie for this man.

      The scenery of the river and forest was beautiful, though, but I agree with you--the movie never lives up to the book. Maybe, someday, I'll read this one.

    • Mr Archer profile imageAUTHOR

      Mr Archer 

      7 years ago from Missouri

      Thank you, Zipper. I had never thought of Paul as a metaphor of the river itself. Great recognition! Thank you for stopping by and taking the time to both read and comment. Take care!

    • ZipperConstantine profile image


      7 years ago from United States

      An excellent review. I would also like to mention that Paul was wild and free like a river. His love, innocence and freedom made him a gift to mankind.

    • Mr Archer profile imageAUTHOR

      Mr Archer 

      8 years ago from Missouri

      The story is not long, only perhaps a little over 100 pages.The book contains two other stories: Logging, pimping, and your pal Jim; and The Ranger, The Cook, and A Hole in the Sky, which was made into a movie starring Sam Elliott. They are very enjoyable stories, but River is the best. Enjoy!

    • Jools99 profile image

      Jools Hogg 

      8 years ago from North-East UK

      Interesting review - I have not read the book but really enjoyed the movie. I may seek out the book after this review.


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