02 June 2007

Away From Her/The Bear Came Over the Mountain

A few months ago, one of my reading groups selected Alice Munro's collection of short stories, Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage for its monthly selection. I had the book on my shelves for a few years, but had never finished reading it. About a year ago, one issue of The Virginia Quarterly Review had featured Munro and I found the articles interesting. I was looking forward to discussing Munro's work with the group.

I was surprised that nobody in the group liked Munro. How could they not? I thought. I passionately made my case for Munro: the clearly defined characters, succinct, accurate description that vividly creates an image, a sparseness of setting that perfectly echos not only the physical but also the emotional landscape, stories about women that are true to the core. They all agreed, but still, they found Munro's work to be depressing in its achingly raw truthfulness. My fellow readers found the women characters to be real, but they didn't want to live their lives. Reading one story after the other was too much.

I can understand that sentiment. I like reading one or two stories at a time, not an entire collection. Maybe that's why it takes me a few years to work my way through a collection of short stories. Munro's stories certainly demand such reading. Her stories are best read individually, and perhaps, with significant time in between each reading least the reader burn out from reading so much heartache, loneliness and real life.

By the time my book group met, I had not finished all of the stories in Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage, including the last one in the volume, "The Bear Came Over the Mountain". Soon after that meeting, I heard that this story was being made into a film. Away From Her opened recently and, based on its 95 rating on Rotten Tomatoes and the strength of Munro's work, I went to see it today. I think this is an excellent movie. Although the story is gut-wrenching at times, the film doesn't stoop to melodramatic sentiment. While the subject is similar, this isn't The Notebook.

Grant (Gordon Pinsent) and Fiona (Julie Christie) have been married for 45 years and Fiona is losing her mind to Alzheimer's Disease. Fiona enters a nursing home and is separated from Grant for the first time in their marriage. He is unable to visit for the first month. Rather than be confused as to why her husband hasn't visited, Fiona forgets her husband and falls in love with another patient. The movie, though, isn't just about Alzheimer's. It is about the curve balls that life throws at you and how you deal with it over time. It is about loss, and about love refined by the trials of a long marriage.

Directory Sarah Polley said this about the type of love portrayed in the movie:
It was the opposite kind of love than we usually celebrate in films, which is new love without knowledge and without hardship. It's the whole idea of love after life has had its way with you, and after you have kind of failed each other and things have gone off the rails. Yet love still somehow exists between them." - 2007 AP interview on "Away From Her", as quoted on
I think Polley achieves this in this film. The love between Grant and Fiona is immense; after Fiona forgets Grant, his love for her continues unabated.

Julie Christie's performance in the film is remarkable, as are the performances of Gorden Pinsent and Olympia Dukakas. Like the characters in Munro's story, the characters in the film realistically struggle with their lives. Dialog is used in the movie to convey ideas presented in the short story as dreams or past events, but the screenplay nicely handles these without being too preachy. The scenery in the film plays a part too; shots of the cold, snowy Canadian countryside seem to echo Christie's character's confusion and loneliness.

After I returned from the movie this afternoon, I retrieved Munro's book from the bookshelves and read "The Bear Came Over the Mountain". Although a few insignificant changes were made-- necessitated most likely by the medium --
the film is true to the story. Like Munro's story, the film is stark, yet compelling in the manner in which Munro accurately depicts the plight of Alzheimer's patients. The screenplay is also true in sticking to the same narrative as Munro's story, with one small exception that I found jarring. Towards the end of the film, the nurse who has been helpful to Grant throughout his wife's stay at the nursing home, condemns his past affairs. While Grant is remorseful about it, he had put it in the past until his wife's deteriorating memory begins to focus things in the past. Kristy, the nurse, pointedly tells him that his behavior is typically male, that maybe his life only seemed okay to him, but not to his wife. This seemed out of character for the nurse to say, given her nurturing to both her patients and to Grant. At first I thought these words were exactly what one would expect a Munro character to speak. But, this scene is not in the story. On reflecting on it after reading the story, I think that this scene states explicitly what Munro's stories typically only imply. In that regard, it seemed out of place, but not entirely out of context with the story.

I would recommend seeing this movie and reading Munro's story.


Dorothy W. said...

I think I'd like to see this movie -- I didn't realize it was based on a Munro story. I don't like reading a bunch of stories back to back either, although I don't like to take more than a month or two to read a collection; but I definitely won't read more than one a day. You do need time to savor them, I think.

Anonymous said...

I liked your comment. Munro's stories are different from classic short stories in that they have, as many have noted, novelistic complexity and, it seems, novelistic pacing. They also end, often, in nuance and mystery. If ambiguity implies two equally plausible but mutually exclusive meanings, Munro often generates a whole field of potential implications. She is a writer's writer. Not for most.

Anonymous said...

Just saw the movie last night, and re-read the story.

I liked your commentary.

It's a shame your book club doesn't appreciate Alice Munro. A real shame.