Bear over mountain

A few weeks ago, movie actress-turned-director Sarah Polley admitted in an interview that she still hadn’t figured out the meaning of “The Bear Came Over the Mountain,” the title of the Alice Munro story Polley used as inspiration for her recent film, Away From Her. After seeing the film, I’d have to agree.

I’m not saying Polley got the story wrong. It’s a testament to the film’s intelligence that a hardcore Munro fan like myself could still enjoy it, even as I was disagreeing with it. If I’m harping on Polley’s minor weaknesses as a writer, it’s only because they tell us a lot about Munro’s gifts.

You want to be careful how you talk about these gifts, however, because there’s always the risk of sounding chronically cerebral—like the people who read books like How Proust Can Change Your Life. Or, like Polley in the introduction to the newly released Away From Her paperback tie-in: “I believe I can say, without danger of overstatement, that I have had a relationship with this story that has been as powerful and as transformative as any I have had with another human being.”

Or, like Jonathan Franzen in a lengthy tribute to Munro, which hinged largely around his reading of “The Bear Came Over the Mountain”: “Can a better fiction save the world? There’s always a tiny hope (strange things do happen), but the answer is almost certainly no, it can’t. There is some reasonable chance, however, that it could save your soul.”

Whether Munro can or can’t change a life or save a soul, she will, if you do the work of understanding her properly, change the fiction you keep telling yourself about your own life.

“I think her great gift is the use of the third person,” said a more down to earth Richard Ford in a recent interview about Munro. “She manages it so that you have this outside glancing intelligence, which is her narrator’s intelligence. And yet she manages to capture the interiority of the characters, to make them just as nuanced and quilted and dense and rich as you would normally associate with the first person. I have beached myself trying to figure out how she does that.”

She does this so successfully that you easily can confuse the dominant perspective. For instance, let’s take the sentence: “She had the spark of life,” an observation about Fiona (the character played by Julie Christie) that is made early on in Polley’s film. Every time her husband, Grant (Gordon Pinsent), utters this sentence in the film (he does it twice), I cringed. Nobody needs to be told that Christie has “the spark of life,” and, coming out of Pinsent’s mouth, it sounds grating and trite. In the story it works, however, because it comes from a narrator who is making as much a statement about Grant as Fiona. Grant doesn’t have the spark of life, and he can only feel it by seducing (or feeling seduced by) other women.

“The Bear Came Over the Mountain” is an old folk song known by most of the generation Munro writes about. The meaning is in the lines that come after the title. “To see what he could see. And all that he could see was the other side of the mountain.” The story that Polley reads as a testament to a husband and his love for his wife is more likely to be read by another generation as a story about an aging, desperate philanderer who is the victim of such divine retribution. It almost makes you believe in God.

Away From Her is a lovely film about the old folks and their unconditional love. Munro’s “The Bear Came Over the Mountain” (first published in the New Yorker in 1999, now newly minted as Away From Her) is a far sharper, more subtle and cynical story about aging and forgetful brains.