In both the movie, directed by Robert Redford, and the original work of
fiction we follow the Mcleans through their joys and sorrows. However,
the names of the characters and places are not purely coincidental.
These are the same people and places known by Norman Mclean as he was
growing up. In a sense, A River Runs Through It is Mclean’s
autobiography. Although these autobiographical influences are quite
evident throughout the course of the story they have deeper roots in the
later life of the author as he copes with his life’s hardships.
The characters in the movie and book are taken straight from Mclean’s
life. From the hard working, soft centered, minister father, to the
drunken, "down on his luck", brother-in-law, Neil. The character of
Paul appears the be the most true to life member of Norman’s family.
The audience quickly becomes familiar with Paul and his quick-tempered,
always ready for anything attitude. This is evident in the beginning of
the story with Paul’s frequent phrase "...with a bet on the to make
things interesting (Mclean 6)." "It was almost funny and sometimes not
so funny to see a boy always wanting to bet on himself and almost sure
to win (Mclean 5)." Unlike Norman who was rigorously home schooled
every morning, while Paul seemed to escape this torment. The boys
would spend their afternoons frolicking in the woods and fishing the Big
Blackfoot River. The differences that developed between Paul’s and
Norman’s fishing styles become evident in the published versions of
Mclean’s life as well as his real life. Norman followed the traditional
style taught by their preacher-father, ten and two in a four -count
rhythm, like a metronome.
The four-count rhythm, of course, is functional. The one count takes
the line, leader, and fly off the water; the two count tosses them
seemingly straight into the sky; the three count was my father’s way of
saying that at the top the leader and fly have to be given a little beat
of time to get behind the line as it is starting forward; the four count
means put on the power and throw the line into the rod until you reach
ten o’clock-then check-cast, let the fly and leader get ahead of the
line, and coast to a soft and perfect landing (Mclean 4).
Paul, on the other hand, was less controlled by their father. Therefore
he was able to develop his own style of casting. This new technique in
which he dubbed "shadow casting" was able to draw the fish to the
surface using only the shadow of the fly. "...That the fish are alerted
by the shadows of flies passing over the water by the first casts, so
hit the fly the moment it touches the water (Mclean 21)." Among other
things, Paul was also grew up with a bit of gambling and drinking streak
in him. Paul’s habits did not just exist in the book, these
characteristics of Paul were carried over from Norman’s real life
experiences with his brother. "...Paul lived mostly by instinct and
bravado, learning early on to gamble, drink and fight (Eastman 54)."
Paul’s tendancies of to get into the high stakes poker games without a
clear head and then try to fight his way out of debt was what eventually
leads to his demise; both in real life and in A River Runs Through it.
Although the documentation of Norman Mclean’s life is very similar to
his real life, there are some subtle differences that exist. In the
wide screen version of A River Runs Through It, directed by Robert
Redford, the middle part of the movie is taken up with Norman’s courting
of Jessie, his real life wife. This is different from the book because
as the book progresses, Norman is already married to Jessie. One other
difference between the movie and the author’s real life is a small scene
in which the Mclean boys "borrow" a rowboat and run the rapids of a
nearby river. Although untold in the story these parts are part of the
creative license taken by Redford in order to make for a better movie.
These two segments appeal to both the adventurous and caring in the
Another difference between the documented versions of A River Runs
Through It and Mclean’s life is concerning where he lived. In the book
and movie versions, Norman and Paul spend all their lives in Montana
except for when Norman and Paul both attend Dartmouth. In reality,