A River Runs Through It (Print)

A River Runs Through It and Other Stories

By Norman Maclean

University of Chicago Press, 1976

ISBN: 0-226-50055-1

I am invariably disappointed by movies “based on” a book if I’ve read the book first. After seeing A River Runs Through It (Columbia Pictures, 1992) recently, I felt compelled to read the book by Norman Maclean upon which movie is based. I’m glad I did. Even for a clueless fly-fishing rookie like me, the book is charming in a bucolic and unpretentious sort of way. Moreover, the screenplay deliciously – and accurately – reflects the panache and élan of the print version. Indeed, prodigious chunks of the screenplay are lifted verbatim from this disarmingly simple novella of just over 100 pages, with a few minor differences.

Some Differences:

The chronology of events is slightly different. Norman’s wife Jessie appears much sooner in the book than in the movie. In fact, Norman and Jessie are married by page 9 and Norman meets his insufferable brother-in-law, Neal, at the train on page 29 well after Jessie becomes Mrs. Norman Maclean. In the movie this incident occurs before Norman and Jessie are married.

Also, Norman’s mother is a more full-bodied, three-dimensional character who makes chokecherry jelly for her boys and, along with Paul, was “the central attraction” of every family reunion (p. 78). Also receiving more attention in the book is the fishing fiasco with Neal, and how Neal got fried to a crisp under a hot Montana sun. In the movie, Paul’s pursuit and ultimate triumphant landing of the “unbelievable” fish occurs toward the end of the film. In the book, it’s Norman who catches the big fish in the Big Blackfoot River, and he does so early on – before page 22.

Additional minor differences include:

The timeline is slightly altered from book to movie. The opening lines in which an elderly Norman recalls his father’s advice to write down his stories occurs far back in the book, which opens with, “In our family, there was no clear line between religion and fly fishing….”

No mention is made of Norman attending Dartmouth or being offered a university professorship in Chicago in the book – plot devices invented for the movie.

Norman’s courtship of Jessie, a major movement within the movie, doesn’t appear in the book, where the couple is already married the first time we meet Jessie.

In the movie, both brothers seem evenly matched in their fly-fishing skills. In the boo,, Paul is “a master,” his skills far superior to Norman’s (see pp. 42 and 43).

Norman’s offer to “help” Paul, made while he’s driving an intoxicated Paul and his girlfriend home from a night on the town in the movie, is clumsily offered while the brothers are fishing in the print version.

Rev. Maclean’s “you can love completely without complete understanding” is a comment made to Norman in the book (p. 103), not part of a church sermon, as it appears in the movie.

Maclean’s wry wit and sandpaper humor are completely lost in the movie, probably due to its thematic focus and time constraints. In print, both are as fresh and flavorful as a stream-to-skillet Rainbow trout.


Rev. Maclean’s teaching techniques for casting are directly from the book, metronome and all (pages 2-4)

Paul vs. father in the Battle of the Oatmeal (p. 7)

Paul’s “shadow casting” technique (p. 21)

Norman’s clipped conversation with the Irish desk sergeant after Paul’s been jailed for a drunken fist-fight (pp. 23-25) is an abbreviated but verbatim version of what appears in the book.

Black Jack’s Bar appears on page 30 and “Old Rawhide” puts in her swarthy appearance on page 31.

Norman’s brother-in-law, Neal, spins fab fibs at the bar about tracking and trailing otters on page 33. (However, Neal doesn’t spend the night with Old Rawhide after picking her up at the bar, as implied in the movie. Instead, he wakes up at his mother’s with a hellacious hangover and a couple of annoyed brothers-in law who are raring to go fishing – and tolerate the family picnic that follows.

Neal stores his flies in a fly box; Paul uses his hat band

“Three things we’re never late for” in Montana include church, work and fishing, a line delivered by Brad Pitt in the movie as Paul, appears on page 34 in the book.

Rev. Maclean’s comment about Paul’s decision to change the spelling of the family name appears (ages 80 and 81)

“Three more years before I can think like a fish” – Brad Pitt as Paul in the movie; p. 101 in the book.

Rev. Maclean’s musings about how to help someone who won’t take help are recited by Tom Skerritt in the movie almost verbatim. (See p. 81)

Events surrounding Paul’s death, narrated by Robert Redford in the move, are word-for-word from the book (pp. 102 – 104). In print context, Rev. Maclean’s subsequent question about “which hand” of Paul’s had the broken bones makes more sense in the book because the author spend more time discussing casting technique and hand strength than the movie had time to develop.

Maclean provides additional details about intricacies of fly-fishing and casting that allow the uninitiated to better understand and more fully appreciate fly fishing as an art form. Readers are “hooked” without being drowned beneath mind-numbing minutia or tangled webs of technicalities. Maclean occasionally waxes lyrical with poetic descriptions such as :

“It was a beautiful stretch of water, either to a fisherman or a photographer, although each would have focused his equipment at a different point. It was a barely submerged waterfall. The reef of rock was about two feet under the water, so the whole river rose into one wave, shook itself into spray, then fell back on itself and turned blue. After it recovered from the shock, it came back to see how it had fallen.” (pp.16, 17)…

Below him was the multitudinous river, and, where the rock had parted it around him big-grained vapor rose. The mini-molecules of water left in the wake of his line made momentary loops of gossamer, disappearing so rapidly in the rising big-grained vapor that they had to be retained in memory to be visualized as loops. The spray emanating form him was finer-grained still and enclosed him in a halo himself. The images of himself and his line kept disappearing into the rising vapors of the river, which continually circled to the tops of the cliffs where, after becoming a wreath in the wind, they became rays of the sun. (p. 20)

The Story

Occasionally coarse, the story itself is gently nuanced with “four count rhythms,” “roll casting,” the difference between a “brook” and a “creek” or a “number four or six fly,” and “setting the hook.” The story moves along at a gracious pace, dignified without dragging. The text evinces a deep – albeit clumsy – bond of mutual affection and admiration between brothers. Maclean’s love of his Montana roots, his knowledge of the land, its people, scenery, culture, history, and fly-fishing – are keenly weft throughout the warp and woof of this narrative. It’s also clear that Norman “knew” his brother without fully understanding him.


As in the movie, the main characters in the print version of A River Runs Through It are cleanly drawn and genuine. Drawing readers into the story like moths to a flame, each character has his or her own special kind of luminosity. These people are gracious and yet sharp, gentle but not simple. They are linked but not necessarily connected. The Maclean family is at once close and yet distant, as if they’ve breathed in some mysterious quality of spaciousness from the Montana skies. Mother, father, and elder brother all know that Paul is in some kind of trouble, yet feel helpless to help him.

The theme of “help” pops up throughout the book like an overnight mushroom. Norman’s struggle to understand and help his brother is more emphatic in the book than in the movie (pp. 37, 38, 81). But what kind of help and how to give it are questions no one can fully answer. This is summed up sagely by Rev Maclean:

“You are too young to help anybody and I am too old, he said. ‘By help I don’t mean a courtesy like serving chokecherry jelly or giving money.

“Help,” he said, “is giving part of yourself to somebody who comes to accept it willingly and needs it badly.” (p. 81)

A Caveat

As the movie winds down, Robert Redford as Norman narrates a beautiful soliloquy about how he knew he was watching “perfection” as Paul landed a fine trout, and how he also knew, “just as purely, just as clearly” that “the moment couldn’t last.”  It’s a touching, heartfelt line heavy with emotion and a sense of impending doom.  One minor detail – a major disappointment: this passage was drawn up solely for the movie.  It doesn’t appear in the book.  I wish it did.  It’s a powerful, poignant moment that segues smoothly from one scene and emotion to the next.

Worthwhile Read?

A River Runs Through It is a satisfying print story that’s been faithfully represented on the big screen. In both media you can hear the river roar, smell the beer, feel the baking afternoon sun or the cool splash of water on a hot, thirsty day as you watch a fish rise and grab an expertly tied “general,” feel him jerk the line and run with it.

As for the book, is Norman Maclean Shakespeare? Nope. Does he need to be? Naw. Will A River Runs Through It make the NY Times bestseller list? Doubtful. Is this story worth the read? Yep. In fact, A River Runs Through It almost makes me want to “get the horse collar off my neck,” wade into the Big Blackfoot and learn how to cast myself. Almost.


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