David James Duncan on “The River Why” movie
A feature film based on The River Why is now appearing in film festivals. Many readers have been wondering how I feel about this. A statement seems in order.
This movie was made by filmmakers who I fought in court for several years. One reason I conducted this expensive, unpleasant battle was that I believe my film rights were given away (settled in 2008). But the chief reason I fought so hard was that I hoped to make a River Why movie that could do something significant for wild salmon, particularly those going extinct in Idaho, eastern Oregon and Washington due primarily to four lower Snake River dams. I had put together a team including producer Patrick Markey (“A River Runs Through It”), producer Matt Salinger (a maker of many independent films), and I was going to co-write with my old friend, Sherman Alexie. We planned to move the story to an Idaho river so that every salmon or steelhead would be an endangered survivor of the gauntlet of dams. Sherman would have created hilarious, heartbroken Nez Perce characters being screwed out of the fish that are their birthright, treaty right, wealth, and Eucharist by the Obama Administration’s false stewardship under NOAA — a blunder instituted largely by the inane politicking of Senator Patty Murray (D, WA). (Feel free to send her an irate letter!) In order for my team’s project to fly I needed to block the film that is now appearing. We tried our best and came close, but a betrayal sabotaged us. No sense naming the betrayer, it’s all water under the bridge (and salmon smolts blasted dead through the turbines) now. Though my name was removed from the film and I was awarded a settlement, I failed to stop what I now call, after its makers, The Marin County River Why.
My feelings today:
The makers of The MCRW were legally obligated to send me a copy of their film before it aired at the Ashland Film Festival. They did so. When the film arrived at my home I happened to be on the road, filling a gap between speaking engagements by fishing the Driftless region of Wisconsin with my musician friend, Jeffrey Foucault. A few friends and family members watched The Marin County River Why and weren’t happy. But on the day they saw it, I happened to be catching one spring creek brown trout after another on blue-winged olives amid a deafening choir of ecstatic redwing blackbirds. And when, that evening, my friends phoned to tell me their reactions to the film, I was sitting on a porch sipping Maker’s Mark, listening to Jeffrey’s stupendous music, live, watching sandhill cranes, bald eagles, and Amishmen in horse-drawn buggies pass by in the river valley below. I tried to focus on the laments and to sympathize with the sense of trespass or outrage over the movie. But I just couldn’t stop smiling at the sweet Here and Now before me. And as I lay in bed that night, the proverbial “still small voice” interrupted the owls just long enough to suggest something that hadn’t occurred to me:
Don’t watch the movie.
Why didn’t I think of that? I exclaimed to the silent voice.
What peace I then began to feel! Giving in, at the age of 26, to the word-drunk fish-crazed literary impulse that became The River Why was a pleasure and privilege and stroke of stupendous luck. The book’s main tributaries were twenty years of love for Oregon Coast streams and a skein of coming of age stories (Huck Finn, Catcher in the Rye, Dharma Bums, Narcissus and Goldmund, Troutfishing in America) I more or less got to live in a moss-covered version of my own. The book’s success turned me from a mower of lawns living in Portland into a teller of tales living on rivers, where I remain to this day. That “Glum Gus” (as Ma rightly calls him) managed to express a love contagious enough that it continues to touch good people thirty years later is a lot of good fortune for one measly coming of age novel. I seek no better or other fortune than this.
So, to the filmmakers — and the betrayers, too: peace. And to anyone who wants to see The Marin County River Why, proceed at your own risk. But, for me personally, I see no reason to add what trusted friends tell me is a heap of canned Cool Whip to what has already been a fine piece of homemade pie. So I won’t be seeing you at the movies. But on a little river one of these days, who knows?