The film addresses a timely subject matter: the onset of Alzheimer’s disease – increasingly prevalent in an ageing North American population – and its impact on the personal life of a married couple. Fiona and Grant face the gradual unravelling of their life together when her memory begins to fail. She gets lost near their cottage in Brant County, Ontario, and is found wandering in a nearby town. She forgets simple daily chores and the names for ordinary things elude her. Yet, in spite of her growing confusion, Fiona seems able to recall long-term memories, in particular Grant’s philandering and past betrayals. When her condition deteriorates, Fiona and Grant decide to place her in Meadowlake, a nursing home for the elderly, where she becomes attached to a fellow resident, Aubrey. Fiona’s budding love for Aubrey angers Grant and seems to him like an act of revenge. The film ends with a twist that brings the story full circle: in a moment of clarity Fiona recalls Grant’s kindness since she moved to Meadowlake and they are united in their enduring love for each other.
Away from Her is an adaptation of a short story by Alice Munro, ‘The Bear Came Over the Mountain’, originally published in the New Yorker magazine in 1999. Sarah Polley wrote the screenplay and directed the film, which was released in 2007. In Canada, Away from Her won seven Genie Awards, including Best Motion Picture, Best Director and Best Adapted Screenplay. It also received the Claude Jutra Award for best feature film by a first-time director. In addition, it garnered two Oscar nominations, for Best Actress (Julie Christie) and Best Adapted Screenplay.
The film is about love, betrayal, loss, forgiveness and reunion. It is also about memory as reflected, for one in the topic of Alzheimer’s, but also through stylistic means in the form of frequent flashbacks throughout the film. These flashbacks recall Grant’s memories as he relives past events like meeting Fiona over 40 years ago and his duplicity, for which he now seems to be paying the price. The story is filled with ambiguity: Grant wonders if Fiona is not play-acting in order to get back at him for his extra-marital affairs. As the story plays out through Grant’s eyes, his feelings of guilt and remorse are intermingled with his despair in loosing Fiona forever. He states, he ‘never wanted to be away from her’, yet his separation from his wife is inevitable as she leaves to live at Meadowlake and her mind gradually fades into oblivion.
In the study of adaptations of popular novels or short stories for film, equivalences are often drawn between the adapted script and its original source to ascertain ‘fidelity’. Consequently, certain story elements such as themes, characters, point of view, overall narrative development, contexts, imagery and symbols become the focus for analysis. Many adaptation theories make distinctions depending on a film’s distance from its source, resulting in three distinct classifications: a literal or close reading of the source text; a general correspondence between the source text and its adaptation; and, a distant referencing between the original story and the movie adaptation (Boozer 2008). Within these paradigms Away from Her classifies as an adaptation that exhibits a strong correspondence between Munro’s short story, Polley’s screenplay and the actual film.
Away from Her is filled with rich metaphors: the winter landscape connoting the late stage in the couple’s lives, tracks made in the snow by Grant and Fiona cross-country skiing – tracks that are mostly parallel but at times also diverge. The depiction of pink sunsets over snowy plains, rivers and frozen lakes follows descriptions in Munro’s story and reflects the (stereo)typical portrayal of ‘Canadianess’ in literature and film. There are other equivalences between the original story and the film as characters, settings, dialogue and the overall narrative development show many similarities between the source text and its adaptation. Polley, however, chose to create a film based on a non-linear editing style, where story sequences are interspersed, interrupted and continued later. This is accomplished through frequent flashbacks, which provide the background story of events that occurred months or even years ago. As a result, the overall structure of the film’s narrative reflects the erratic and sporadic nature of memory itself, with its tendency to wander, distort, evoke and efface.
In spite of similarities between Munro’s story and Away from Her, creative processes involved in story writing are fundamentally different from the political-economic context of producing films. Commercial aspects of film production determine budgets, sites for production and post-production, advertising campaigns, promotional tie-ins (from clothing to toys) and the number of opening theatres for a film’s release. Adapting a story for a film is therefore a highly complex process, which the following adaptation theories take into account. For example, adaptation can be conceptualised as a formal product, which entails the transposition or ‘transcoding’ of a particular work. This process might involve a significant shift in medium (literature adapted for film, as in Away from Her), genre (an epic as the basis for a novel) or contexts (i.e. a different point of view). Adaptation can also be defined as a creative and interpretive practice, which involves the appropriation or salvaging of a work (i.e. the adaptation of oral legends in literature and/ or film). And from a reception and consumption point of view, adaptation is a form of intertextual engagement, in which audiences experience a work as palimpsests through the memory of multiple other works and texts that resonate through repetition with variation (Hutcheson 2006).
At closer inspection, fundamental differences exist between literature and audiovisual media, which are especially evident in the multi-layered textual and aesthetic composition of a film. The myriad choices available to a director, during production and post-production processes, will therefore inevitably result in the reinterpretation of a source text (Stam and Raengo 2005). In Away from Her this is visible in the mise-en-scène and the use of lighting and sound. Throughout the film, Polley chose to create a stark contrast in lighting the hallway at Meadowlake. For example, when Fiona pushes Aubrey’s wheelchair down the hallway, part of the space is saturated with light, almost overexposed, while another section remains in darkness. This visual composition reflects the state of mind of the characters, especially their inability to clearly discern between current and past realities – their sense of time and space is skewed. Polley also experimented with the colour temperature for different scenes, in particular the flashbacks. Away for Her begins and ends with a light-saturated grainy image of a young Fiona looking into the camera. In turning this scene into a slow-motion sequence, it resembles a fading memory. Other flashbacks exhibit a distinct green colour-tint and diffused images of several women, which embody recollections of Grant’s betrayals and his remaining guilt for his extra-marital affairs.