Tonight I witnessed a terribly familiar tragedy.
Occasionally you will find a book or, if you are really lucky, an author that manages to capture an essential part of your soul. For me, David James Duncan is that author. It seems that every piece he has written somehow feels core to my being, like I intuitively connect with its purpose. Perhaps it is the wandering idealism or simple conservation ethic that lies at the heart of each piece. Maybe I enjoy the simultaneously subtle and intense social criticisms. It could be as simple as I love to fish and be outdoors. Whatever it is, the fact remains that I hold books like The River Why and The Brothers K in the utmost esteem. Enter the tragedy.
Last week, I discovered that The River Why had been made into a movie. I almost didn’t watch it; after all, we all know the book is always better. But I had to, because sometimes they get it right. When it goes well, you feel victorious. When it goes badly, and most often it does, it goes very badly. This went badly.
Contrary to most complaints with adapted films, I wish they had not stayed so close to the original. The film insists on touching the high points of action in the book but lacks the physical and emotional space necessary to effectively develop the characters. Instead of cramming needless scenes into the script simply to match up with the Duncan’s narrative, Matthew Leutwyler would have fared better doing more with less. The story is about the existential homelessness of a young fisherman who seeks out his identity on the bank of a river. The book could afford to introduce the neighbor children and the dead fisherman. The book was able to expound upon the paradoxical marriage of Ma and H2O, both past and present. The book could meander through the relationships with Bill Bob and Titus, to say nothing of the incomparable Eddy. The book wasn’t limited to 101 minutes.
To be fair, Leutwyler didn’t get a lot of help from his cast. Zach Gilford led the way as Gus, and honestly, I didn’t believe him from the start. Of course I am biased toward the book and this may seem a bit trite, but he was just too clean and pretty. The self-exiled fisherman seeking a pure solitary existence was somehow always well dressed. Additionally, while some his scenes with Titus were alright, those with Eddy were downright brutal. I felt as though I were watching a middle school play or a George Bush speech where the first and only goal is to say the correct words in the proper sequence.
In support, I didn’t find Amber Heard to be all that bad (her scene at the press conference aside), and I was expecting her to be after Drive Angry. It could simply be that she was always the more superior actor in most of the scenes and therefore looked better by default. William Hurt could play a cold and distant father without any effort, and he proves it here. It wasn’t a terrible performance, just unremarkable. Dallas Roberts had a few good moments, the best being around the pool table, but the scene died as soon as Gilford starting talking again.
In my mind, the biggest flaw was trying to take what is primarily a character-driven story and reducing it down to a series of events. It is entirely possible that Leutwyler had this in mind but simply did not have the talent to pull it off. No matter the reason, in the end the spirit of the book failed to rise to the surface of the film. I can’t say I was surprised. It was exactly what I expected, and I guess that is why I was so disappointed. I convinced myself that if David James Duncan was involved it would have to be at least good, if not great. I guess that’s why my favorite part was the complete absence of his name anywhere in the credits.