Love, Death and Fly-Fishing

Few books could be considered less likely movie material than Norman Maclean's now classic novella, "A River Runs Through It." Maclean's ruminative recollection of his Montana youth is a meditation on fly-fishing, religion, art and family. At the heart of it is the author's relationship with his "beautiful," self-destructive brother, Paul, and with his father, a Presbyterian minister who taught Maclean to write and to fish. The novella, written when he was in his 70s, was Maclean's attempt to grapple with the mystery of his brother's death. But it's not the story itself, which is told in a roundabout fashion, that makes it so moving, it's the extraordinary prose-as hard and luminous as a rock dredged up from a riverbed.

Robert Redford obviously fell in love with Maclean's craggy, lyrical American voice, and you can feel his affection in his voice-over reading of big chunks of the text. The eloquence of the narration, however, points up the almost inevitable limitations of the movie, which can only illustrate the surface of the tale. Working with screenwriter Richard Friedenberg, and the great cinematographer Philippe Rousselot, Redford puts Maclean's story into straightforward chronological form (spanning 1910-1935) and does an honorable job emulating the author's unsentimental, laconically witty style. A River Runs Through It is made with reverence and taste, but it only fitfully comes fully alive as a film. Tom Skerritt, uncharacteristically actorish, prissily scratches the surface of the father's role. As Paul, who became a Montana newspaperman and a great fisherman and drank and gambled himself into trouble, Brad Pitt has glamour and charisma, but he can't show the demons pulling this golden boy apart. Craig Sheffer is the serious, Dartmouth-educated Norman, who returns home to meet his future wife, Jessie (Emily Lloyd). It's a rather thankless, reactive part, and Sheffer spends most of his time looking dour and concerned.

If the leads seem less than ideally cast, all the small roles come to vivid life. The most sustained (and funniest) sequence shows the visit of Jessie's wastrel brother (Stephen Shellen), a glad-hander putting on Hollywood airs who picks up a local hooker, Old Rawhide (wonderfully played by Susan Traylor), and brings her along on a disastrous fishing expedition with the Maclean brothers. It's not surprising that these one-dimensional characters are more at home in a movie than Maclean's complex protagonists. Redford should be commended for bucking the high-concept tide; at its best the movie achieves a quiet power. But he has set himself a near impossible task. The difference between Maclean's prose and Redford's images is the difference between the beautiful and the pretty.