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.
One scene in particular exemplifies the creative use of diegetic sound to underscore the emotional atmosphere of unfolding events. When Grant sees Fiona for the first time since her move into the nursing home, she appears not to recognise him. As she treats Grant politely like a stranger, her attention remains on her new friend Aubrey, who jealously guards her interaction with her husband. The encounter between the central characters is accompanied by an inharmonious piano key, struck repeatedly on the same note, creating a discordant mood. The repetition of this singular sound also connotes Fiona’s state of mind and her current relationship to Grant which cannot evolve towards a satisfying resolution. Fiona is ‘stuck’ in the moment.
The film is about Grant’s journey from selfishness in love to selflessness in love. His point of view is established at the beginning when he drives down a road in small-town Ontario to visit Aubrey’s wife, Marian. Since Aubrey has moved back home, Fiona has fallen into deep despair. Grant tries to convince Marian to send Aubrey back to Meadowlake so Fiona can recover. His encounter with Marion develops into one of the main narrative strands, which unfolds at different intervals, but in linear fashion, throughout the film. It becomes the key frame for time and space and therefore an essential marker for the story’s continuity. In contrast, Grant’s flashbacks depict past events that are intertwined with non-linear sequences of Fiona’s loss of memory and progressing illness. Fiona inevitably has to surrender to the present. It is therefore left to Grant to advance the story and bring it to its conclusion.
The foregrounding of Grant’s point of view differs from the original short story by Munro. The film focuses on the love and healing of Grant and Fiona’s relationship rather than a couple’s struggle to cope with Alzheimer’s. When Grant persuades Marian to let Aubrey return to Meadowlake, his journey has come full circle. In this selfless act of reuniting the two, he confirms his love for Fiona: his only desire is to see her happy and content again.
The final scene is built around a carefully crafted cinematography of shadow and light. The miseen-scène depicts Fiona sitting in a chair by the window, saturated in diffused sunlight. In a moment of clarity, she remembers Grant and greets him with familiar gestures. With an extreme close-up of her face, she says: ‘You could have just driven away. Just driven away without a care in the world and forsook me. Forsooken me. Forsaken.’ Fiona’s ability to find and express the right words at this moment not only shows her lucidity, but also indicates the progression of their journey together as a couple, as well as the resolution of the story and its conclusion. In a reverse shot, Grant reveals his surprise and tender love for his wife. He responds: ‘Not a chance’, as the camera encircles the two holding each other in a tender embrace. The scene fades to a grainy shot of a young Fiona looking directly at the camera. As she turns away the scene dissolves into white.
Polley’s interpretation of Munro’s story is filled with ambiguities. Throughout the film it remains unclear how much Fiona can recall of past events and Grant’s infidelities. It seems that Grant’s recollections of his betrayals become the main focus because of his guilt and fear of losing Fiona. Because the story is told predominantly through Grant’s eyes, his experiences and feelings are foregrounded as is his transformation from a selfish individual to a selfless husband. In comparison to Munro’s focus on old age and Alzheimer’s disease, Away from Her becomes a love story of two people who, in spite of tumultuous events and life’s ultimate challenge, remain committed to each other until the end. This shift in story focus and point of view emphasises Polley’s creative interpretation of the source text, which is achieved predominantly through stylistic and cinematic means. As a result, the screen adaptation of Away from Her reveals fundamental differences between literature and the language of film.
Cast and Crew:
[Country: Canada. Production Company: Film Farm, Foundry Films, Capri Releasing, HanWay Films, Echo Lake Productions. Director and Screenwriter: Sarah Polley. Executive Producer: Atom Egoyan. Cinematographer: Luc Montpellier. Editor: David Wharnsby. Cast: Julie Christie (Fiona Anderson), Gordon Pinsent (Grant Anderson), Michael Murphy (Aubrey), Olympia Dukakis (Marian).]
Jack Boozer (ed.), Authorship in Film Adaptation, Austin, University of Texas Press, 2008.
Linda Hutcheson, A Theory of Adaptation, New York, Routledge, 2006.
Colin MacCabe, Kathleen Murray and Rick Warner (eds), True to the Spirit: Film Adaptation and the Question of Fidelity, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2011.
Brian McFarlane, Novel to Film: an Introduction to the Theory of Adaptation, Oxford and New York, Oxford University Press, 1996.
Alice Murno, ‘The Bear Came Over the Mountain’, New Yorker, Dec 27, 1999, pp. 110–27.
Simone Murray, The Adaptation Industry: the Cultural Economy of Contemporary Literary Adaptation, New York, Routledge, 2011.
Sarah Polley, Away from Her. The Screenplay, 2006. Available at http://awayfromherscript.com.
Robert Stam and Alessandra Raengo (eds), Literature and Film: a Guide to the Theory and Practice of Film Adaptation, Malden, MA, Blackwell, 2005.