Fixing the Bridges of Madison County
Welsh, Jim, Literature/Film Quarterly
"That's the problem in earning a living through an art form," murmurs supersensitive Robert Kincaid in Robert James Waller's The Bridges of Madison County: "You're always dealing with markets, and markets-mass markets-are designed to suit average tastes. That's where the numbers are." Clearly, the novelist understands his "art" and his audience.
The artistic and otherworldly Kincaid thrills an Iowa Hausfrau with his fancy talk about art and poetry and "bouncing light." Francesca Johnson has read William Buuer Yeats and longs to suck "the golden apples of the sun," but she is stuck in dull, rural Iowa, where she drinks iced tea seductively while her husband and children take a bum steer to the Illinois State Fair.
All of a sudden this godlike apparation who "makes" pictures and moves like the air drives up her lane to ask directions. She takes him to a quaint covered bridge, then cooks for him, then finds an almost forgotten, unopened bottle of brandy so they can drink "to ancient evenings and distant music." What would the neighbors say?
The novel is painfully and pretentiously sensitive. The screenplay plows through the purple patches and manages to break new ground. Enough of the original story must remain to please readers who found the story beautiful and moving ("that's where the numbers are"), but director Clint Eastwood knew that he would have to win over skeptical reviewers hostile to the novel. The film therefore becomes an interesting balancing act as writer Richard LaGravenese attempts to improve the novel without destroying its basic romantic appeal. Meryl Streep, cast as Francesca, told Richard Schickel she considered the novel "a crime against literature," but quickly accepted the role after reading the screenplay.
Born in 1930, Eastwood was about thirteen years too old for the role of Robert Kincaid, but his laconic style makes the ebullient, overstated Kincaid more tolerable and less foolish and brings the character down to earth. In the novel Kincaid sends Francesca a "poetic" essay entitled "Falling from Dimension Z." The film escapes this embarrassment by having Kincaid send her his photo-book entitled Four Days, dedicated to "F," and featuring pictures of those nifty covered bridges.
The story of this life-embracing, life-fulfilling four-day fling is told in flashback, when Francesca's grown-up children, after the reading of their mother's will, discover a diary that reveals the story of their mother's grand passion for the hypersensitive poet-philosopher who touched her Neopolitan soul, reminding her of art, beauty, and truth. …