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Why blaming Brad Pitt for crowded trout streams is just plain wrong.
by Dennis King
From the April 2008 issue.

I am haunted by movies. For 20 years, when I was a full-time film critic at the daily newspaper in Tulsa, Oklahoma, movies were my passionate vocation. And since fly fishing and reading were my equally passionate avocations, it came by grace that one particular movie, drawn from a stately novella sacred to trout fishers all, should stand out among the thousands I waded through and reviewed.

A River Runs Through It, director Robert Redford’s elegiac 1992 adaptation of Norman Maclean’s beloved book, strikes me as virtually the only time Hollywood has gotten it right when it comes to angling with a fly rod. Cast over a hundred-plus years of movie history and you’ll be hard-pressed to find any other narrative film that even touches on fly fishing in such a substantive, authentic way.

Although image-conscious Hollywood has always had its fair share of off-screen fly-fishing movie stars—from Bing Crosby, Gary Cooper, and Clark Gable on up to Liam Neeson—for the most part cinema has never really gotten this most visually graceful of sports.

Which is why it puzzles and pains me that Redford’s film is viewed with such knee-jerk scorn by so many anglers. Merely speak of The Movie in the company of fly fishers, and a united sneer goes up with lemminglike certainty. To many trout anglers, Maclean’s book is the sport’s holy writ, but the film adaptation is viewed as a pox.

It’s a paradox, really.

Fly fishing on film has largely been relegated to the obscure documentary tributaries, which run rich with arcane how-to titles, fly-tying instructionals, travelogue pieces to exotic locales and storied rivers, boisterous chronicles of trout bumming, and macho collections of “fish porn.” But the thrust of these is reportorial, not literary. Odd for a pastime that’s inspired such a fertile tradition of the written word.

Narrative storytelling on the big screen, the character- and plot-driven kind practiced by mainstream theatrical movies, rarely ventures into trout waters. And when feature-length movies do go a-fishing, they seem to pay little heed to the niceties of detail or distinctions in angling styles.

Director Howard Hawks’s 1964 Man’s Favorite Sport?, featuring Rock Hudson as a vaunted angling expert for the venerable old Abercrombie & Fitch, is a miscast romantic farce filled with rich old fogies chunking hardware in a fishing tournament. And with leggy Paula Prentiss in the picture, the question mark in the title more than implies that man’s favorite sport is not about catching fish at all.

The mirthless 1997 comedy Gone Fishin’ features two hapless Mutt-and-Jeff yahoos from Jersey (Joe Pesci and Danny Glover) hauling a bass boat to the Everglades. En route they encounter purloined jewels, murder, slapstick mayhem, and hippie-dippy bass master Willie Nelson, but they never get around to any actual fishing.

A 2002 British import offers up the promising title Flyfishing, but it’s merely a double-entendre tease for a dodgy sex comedy about two blokes who go to work for a male escort service. There’s nary a fly nor a fish in sight.

And from earlier last year, the romantic trifle Catch and Release aims for a Rocky Mountain high and briefly co-opts fly fishing as a saccharine metaphor for love and loss. And in the process it takes a snarky, wrong-headed swipe at the sport’s most successful philosophy of resource conservation.

Anywhere else fly fishing shows up in the movies, it’s usually as background filler to paint some character as a robust outdoorsman—most likely one who rigs his reel upside down and flops his line around like a soggy noodle.

So if anglers have a collective gripe to level at the movies, it should be over such sloppy slights and misrepresentations. That and the overall lack of attention paid by feature filmmakers to the inherent art, drama, comedy, and beauty of angling.

Those are not sins you can pin on A River Runs Through It.

Certainly Redford and company took literary license in bringing Maclean’s story coherently to the screen. They nipped some text, expanded some characters, shifted some events, and created new dialogue and scenes to channel the contemplative plotline into a visual flow. All those artistic liberties served to underscore in tangible ways the book’s deeply internal themes of Scottish Calvinist reserve, of the painful complexity of family communication, of brotherly love and competition, and of the poetic tragedy of the doomed.

With the picturesque Gallatin and Yellowstone rivers subbing for the Big Blackfoot (which the filmmakers found visually marred by mining and timbering scars and commercial development), the film looks gorgeous. And with real-life guide John Dietsch and rod artist Jason Borger standing in for the actors, throwing lovely backlit loops and performing those magical shadow-casting maneuvers, it often resembles one of those glossy magazine ads for high-end fly rods. Cinematographer Philippe Rousselot, in fact, won an Academy Award for the film’s ravishing composition. And among skeptics, writer Jonathan Raban observed that the film looks like “a feature-length Ralph Lauren window display.”

Sure, Redford’s film is dressed in period finery and populated by impossibly handsome movie stars (pretty boy Brad Pitt reportedly had never touched a fly rod before taking the role of Paul,

Norman’s fated brother, despite being raised in some pretty prolific trout country around Springfield, Missouri). And certainly the film is painted in soft sepia tones of nostalgia and dreamy earnestness that might appear decidedly quaint in this age of glaring irony, when fly fishing seems mired in a contentious environment of politics, commercialism, and competition.

But behind the film’s artsy sheen and wistful idealism beat Maclean’s sinewy words, and his sturdy philosophy of sporting behavior and no-nonsense individualism that all thoughtful fly fishers would live up to if they could.

Even though the moviemakers perform all the usual cinematic trickery to make flawed, chaotic reality look like perfect, ordered fiction, Maclean’s bittersweet story transcends issues of artifice and style. Like all fine literature, it bears the mark of myth rooted in real life, and even in its transfer from page to screen it hews to an unassuming authority that makes it feel timeless and true. Indeed, it speaks softly but carries a big stick.

Perhaps the most compelling defense of The Movie might be that it had the blessing of Maclean himself. Although the aging author’s health was failing as preliminary work on the film began, Maclean forged a painstaking relationship of trust with Redford that allowed him to track the progress and contribute insights to the writing of the script by Richard Friedenberg.

Sadly, Maclean died in August of 1990 at age 87, 10 months before shooting of the film began. But the author’s son, John, also a fly fisher and writer, has said that although his father was dismayed over the tourist swarms the book brought to his beloved Big Blackfoot, he very much desired that the film be made. In fact, in his final days Maclean had even come to refer to the project as “my movie.”

In the end analysis, the moviemakers surely did the author proud. While no book-to-movie translation is ever exact, Redford’s vision of A River Runs Through It honors the spirit of Maclean’s stoical reminiscence and holds faithful to its ideal of a life in-formed and enlarged by fly fishing.

Still, since its release some 15 years ago, the film has been a lightning rod for all manner of anglers’ angst.

To hear the scorners speak, The Movie is singularly responsible for the Hollywoodization of Montana, the increasing privatization of once-open waters, the glut of tourist anglers on rivers, the coarsening of stream etiquette, the decimation of fish populations, the rise in acid rain, the spread of whirling disease, and a host of other fishermen’s tribulations short of a plague of locusts and a biblical shower of frogs.

The reasons for this acrimony are probably rooted in many impulses, some logical, some contradictory: the rugged individualist’s skepticism of all things Hollywood; a priggish suspicion of newcomers; a certain enlightened self-interest; a mulish resistance to the inevitable forces of change.

We who wield long rods are all landed gentry in our hearts, and we like to think that fly fishing—with its brain-addling detail, its arcane historical lore, its befuddling Latinate lingo, and its physical/intellectual rigors—is our own private preserve. Its rough romantic mystique makes us special, colorfully eccentric, apart from the madding crowd.

But by putting a gloss on Maclean’s spare, lyrical prose and parading it in golden images for the popcorn-munching masses of the nation’s multiplexes, Hollywood somehow betrayed a primordial covenant and exposed our hallowed waters to a decidedly unsavory mob: trendy “lifestyle” followers, idle rich with too much time and cash on their hands, corporate climbers seeking an alternative to golfing, grasping gadget freaks who spend more hours perusing the aisles of Orvis than stalking the sylvan banks of trout streams.

Our image of this crass newcomer is of a boorish but dapper bigfoot tromping around in dangly, overstuffed vest, clumsily wielding $700 worth of fast-action graphite. He mucks up stream bottoms, puts down fish for a hundred yards up- and downriver, and generally pisses off all us gnarly, old-school vets. Blame The Movie for crowding up the rivers with all these effete poseurs with their macho Brad Pitt fantasies.

That’s the going argument of The Movie haters, anyway. Never mind that for the sport to prosper we need earnest rookies and new blood to fuel the muscle of all those windmill-tilting conservation groups battling despoilers and lobbying for habitat protection and sane resource management.

Never mind that we need new generations of anglers to support a burgeoning commercial infrastructure. We need all those product developers, feather-and-fur alchemists, genius rod builders, crazy inventors, and tackle manufacturers to advance the science that keeps all our gadgets, gizmos, and gear on the cutting edge. We need all those wizened fishing guides, friendly lodge keepers, and mom-and-pop fly-shop merchants that live by and enliven the sport and keep it grounded.

And never mind that fishing among young people, the sport’s future, is a dwindling game. A recent New York Times article reports that a U.S. Fish & Wildlife Department study shows “a minus-20 percent change from 1990 to 2005 in children who had ever participated in fishing, with declines occurring nationwide.” Furthermore, the Times reports, applications for fishing licenses have been decreasing nationwide for more than a decade.

Ours is indeed a sport in flux. But is it from a gluttony of popularity or a threat of creeping irrelevance?

And never mind that The Movie celebrates this rugged yet delicate, trendy yet time-burnished sport in the most humane way, and frames its age-old customs, sacraments, and tough ethics in the most alluring light. Like all good sports stories, it recognizes that the ritual of play so often exposes with compelling urgency those virtues and frailties, those triumphs and failings that make us fully human.

Despite all arguments in its defense, the film version of A River Runs Through It will perhaps always have a polarizing effect on fly fishers.

It’s nothing new, really. Anglers are born romantics but congenital contrarians. And certain among us will always be cranky about the encroachment of other anglers on our precious, idealized waters.

Way back in 1598—just a century after Dame Juliana published her Treatise, and as the collegial Izaak Walton was barely out of nappies—the suitably named English satirist Thomas Bastard gave voice to the curmudge zonly impulses that underlie our sport’s pastoral surfaces and expressed a dyspeptic regard for newcomers that holds true to this day:

Fishing, if the fisher may protest,

Of pleasures is the sweet’st of sports the best,
Of exercises the most excellent,
Of recreations the most innocent,
But now the sport is marde, and wott ye why,
Fishes decrease, and fishers multiply.

And poor old Bastard didn’t even have The Movie to blame.

After 35 years as a newspaperman at the Tulsa World and other Oklahoma publications, Dennis King left bass and crappie country for the freestone streams and cagey brook trout of the Poconos. He lives with his wife, Suzan and two Labrador retrievers in Dingmans Ferry, Pennsylvania, hard by the banks of the Delaware, where he fishes, reads, and is currently writing a stage play on fathers, sons, and angling, titled A Trout in the Milk.
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