I hate reading. Always have. During my days as a student at Miami University, I curiously changed my major TO English Literature because I had discovered some magic in old colonial short stories. As the semesters went by, the books had more pages and less storytelling. Upon discovering that Miami offered Film Studies classes, I promptly rode my bike to the Registrar’s office to enroll…or, maybe more to get out of my obligations as an English Lit student. Phew.
Therefore, I’m reviewing The River Why, the film – not the bestselling novel.
Before we dive into the film, though, let’s at least look AT the book. The book that I’ve not read…yet. David James Duncan’s The River Why was released over 20 years ago and quickly was regarded as a classic in the world of outdoors-based fiction. Many argue that it is on par with other popular fly fishing fiction, such as Maclean’s A River Runs Through It. Telling the tale of a young man growing up in a fish-crazed family and leaving to explore the sport on his own, The River Why explores the importance of fishing in our lives, family dynamics, romance, and the heritage of outdoor pursuits. All of those themes lend themselves well to literature. Passing the message on in a visual form would be quite a challenge.
So, 20 years after the book was published, film starting rolling on the movie of the same title. The film was produced as an independent, without any major funding from the big distribution agencies. As with many independent films, the cast lacks star power, the music is more low key, and the crew behind the camera lacks the resources of major Hollywood Productions. Let me quickly explain that those lacking elements do not automatically make an independent film any lesser a product compared to what Hollywood puts out (in fact, three of my five favorite films since 2000 were started as independent productions). Having Hollywood-caliber resources behind The River Why might have helped, but the overwhelming issue that I had with the film was the weak adaptation of what is apparently a classic piece of literature.
The film felt like an aural reading of the book with representative visuals. More than half of the spoken word in the film is a verbatim voice over reading of the text from the novel. The remainder of the speaking parts were played in an overtly theatrical style that comes off as annoying and amateurish. Rarely do I blame the actors for a weak performance. None of the actors gave any inspired performances – it is the responsibility of the film’s Director to effectively communicate to the actor what he or she expects from their performance.
It quickly becomes obvious that the Director and Producing staff of the film are not experts in the ways and life of fly fisherman. Anyone who has casted a fly rod more than a handful of times would have no problem pointing out the errors in form made by the actors. At least, I hope that’s not what I look like when I’m on the water. And they way that the actors would handle the fish on the stream bank reminds me of how a high school-aged male holds a newborn baby. For those of us who watch the film because of our relationship with the outdoors and fly fishing, the lack of experience shown by the actors is a huge distraction that makes the film difficult to take seriously.
The cinematography in the film is above average when compared to other independent films. There were some fantastic shots of beautiful fish rising and slurping flies. The movie definitely did not have the funding or the crew to pull off robots or CGI, so I would consider the cinematography of the fish to be quite an accomplishment.
If I had no background on the film whatsoever, and I did not know that this movie was based on a classic novel, within the first 30 seconds of watching I would be able to tell you that it was adapted from a popular book…and that the adaptation was poorly done. As I said earlier, attempting to take a popular novel and create an independent film out of it is quite a challenge. In the realm of independent film, it rarely works. Hollywood fumbles at the task often, too. To make it work requires an astounding amount of inspiration and vision. Ultimately, that’s what’s missing here.
When reviewing movies, I try not to use the words “good” or “bad.” The film is what it is, and objectively saying that it didn’t work for me is like telling you that Sushi is delicious for everyone. Some of you will love this film because it will bring to mind memories of fishing and family. Some of your wives will tear up at the end while you are sound asleep. Most of you will watch because it’s a movie about the sport that you love. Me? Well, I’m glad that I watched it. I’m also seriously considering reading the book very soon.