The New Generation of Classic Short Stories

Vol. 10, No. 4

On Marriage and Fiction

by Sarah Polley

"The Bear Came Over the Mountain" entered my life when I was twenty-one years old. It crept right into me, had its way with me, and shifted my direction in ways I didn't understand until years later. I am not an academic, nor am I a writer. (I don't consider the adaptation of other people's stories serious writing.) So I feel ill equipped to complete the task of writing this preface from any but a purely personal point of view. However, I believe that, without risking overstatement, I have had a relationship with this story as powerful and as transformative as any I have had with a human being.
     At twenty-one, I was in the process of making myself miserable. In retrospect, I wonder if it isn't part of the responsibility of that age to make a mess of things. I had one unstable, destructive relationship after another, and I didn't want it any other way. I was a love glutton, addicted to melodrama, and convinced that happiness was the stuff of boredom. In the middle of this heart-wrenching, hugely exhilarating time, I met a film editor named David. He was a respected editor in Canada, and he agreed to edit and guide me through my first short film as a director.
     I immediately liked him, his dry humor, his introspection, his lack of need to take over a room. I loved sitting next to him in the dark in front of the Avid as we talked about images and sound and the emotional narrative of two other, fictional people. After the film was complete, I stalked him until he dated me; and when after three weeks he hadn't fallen in love with me, I was hurt, possibly furious. I confronted him. Looking back, I am in awe of the gall it takes to confront someone over not falling in love with you.
     He was patient with me. He explained that he didn't believe love was the name for the early butterflies in his stomach. The butterflies were there, but he didn't think they were . . . important. I believed that initial obsession was the main signal of love and didn't understand his disregard for irrational passion. If he felt these things, as he claimed he did, why wouldn't he call that love?
     He talked about his parents, how they had been together for forty-five years; sometimes, as his mother washed the dishes, her husband would approach her while she worked, slip his arms around her waist, and lightly kiss the back of her neck. He thought that this endurance—rather than initial insanity—was the definition of love. If something remained, some inexplicable, intangible thread managed to stay unbroken after the betrayals and hurt and disappointment that any marriage must surely endure, then that must be love.
     Finding this the most boring, unromantic, staid portrait of the thing, I bid him adieu and ran into the arms of the next nightmare I could find. Our friendship continued, though fraught with hurt and abandonment, more obviously for him, but for me too.
     Around this time, "The Bear Came Over the Mountain" was published in The New Yorker. I read it calmly, put it down, and found myself weeping. I read it again—and again. I read it almost every week for several months. I couldn't shake the sound of Grant and Fiona's private jokes, the sinking, sick feeling of Grant's guilt, the absolute tenderness between two people who have failed each other—and who are in various ways continuing to fail each other—while simultaneously coming through for the other to spectacular extents. I couldn't stop thinking about Fiona's gentle use of the word forsaken and how ironically and genuinely she says it to him. I couldn't stop seeing Grant as he "skied around and around in the field behind the house as the sun went down and left the sky pink over a countryside that seemed to be bound by waves of blue-edged ice" and the eloquent, wintry canvas that serves as the backdrop for their marriage and their loss and discovery of it. I thought, when I had finished the story the first time, that with all of this fictional marriage's failures, "The Bear Came Over the Mountain" was perhaps not the greatest love story I'd ever read, but the only love story I'd read.
     I made no connection between what David had said and my experience of the story, but that experience stayed with me in such a potent, visceral way. Despite the dust of melodrama I was kicking up around me in my own life, I couldn't get free of the story's clarity. I think now that it somehow took root in my subconscious for those years; and as unhappy as I was in the life I had chosen for myself, I think reading the story was my way of returning again and again to the idea of a life with David. All I knew then was that the story had raised the beginnings of important questions for me, and I needed to take a good long walk around it and inside it to find out what exactly those questions were. Something in me needed to live inside this narrative. The way I articulated all of this at the time was simply that I had to make a film of Alice Munro's story.
     At some point in the years between reading the story for the first time and optioning the film rights, the weight of my love for my best friend, David, hit me like a Mack truck. I'd like to think this would have happened without my immersion in the world of the story, but I'm not sure it would have happened as clearly or quickly, and I'm not sure he would have waited much longer. This story helped me move my idea of love—specifically, unconditional love—into something much less melodramatic and typically cinematic, yet unfathomably deep and complicated in its own right.
     And so earlier this year, David and I returned to that dark room and sat in front of the Avid, this time after three years of marriage, to edit the final film together. In the process, we fought and betrayed and loved each other in ways that have added considerably to our capacity for endurance. I've read this story dozens of times, and each time I am amazed at its precision, its lack of sentimentality, its searing clarity and ability to reach so far into me. More than all that, I still marvel that one day, a while ago now, it held my hand and led me to a place I am very, very grateful to be.

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