I’ve written about The Sweet Hereafter, Atom Egoyan’s 1997 film, a couple of times before. It made my list of favorite movies last year and I added it to a list of other great lawyer movies compiled by the ABA.
As I said in the favorite movie post:
his is my favorite movie about being a lawyer, even though there’s no dramatic courtroom climax or wronged client who needs defended. Instead, it’s about the toll it takes on a person’s psyche to make a living by inserting yourself into the tragedies of others.
With the recent passing of Russell Banks, who wrote the novel upon which the film was based, I thought it was a good time to actually read the damn thing and see how they compare. I did this secure in the knowledge that I had read, somewhere, that Banks himself admitted that this was one of those rare situations where the film improved on the book. Naturally, I can’t find that anywhere online. Regardless, is it true? After reading the novel and rewatching the movie, I can’t say for sure.
At bottom, both are about a small town called Sam Dent (upstate New York in the book, somewhere in Canada in the movie) where a school bus accident led to the death of most of the town’s children. Into this tragedy comes a big-city lawyer named Mitchell Stephens, who tries to sign up grieving parents for a lawsuit against someone, somewhere that was really responsible for the accident. His plans are foiled when one of the kids who survived the crash, but is now paralyzed, Nicole Burnell, lies in a deposition that the bus driver had been speeding. She does this either to get back at her father who has molested her, in sympathy with those in town who don’t want anything to do with lawsuits, or both. All the while, Stephens deals with phone calls from his estranged daughter, a long-term drug addict who has just learned she’s HIV positive (maybe).
One major difference between the two is that the novel really has no main characters. It’s told in a series of first-person monologues by the bus driver, Delores Driscol; Billy Ansel, who lost his two twins and runs the local garage where the wreck of the bus is stored; Stephens; and Burnell. Each character interacts with others, but the shifts of focus make it impossible for any of them to be the narrative spine of the story. The movie, by contrast, clearly makes Stephens the main character, the agitator/irritant who gets into town and stirs up stuff (whether that’s “trouble” or “justice” depends on your point of view).
There are a couple of places where the book’s shifting POV makes for really interesting comparisons. At one point, Stephens and Ansel talk after Stephens shows up to take pictures/video of the wrecked bus. In the movie, this plays as Stephens trying, quite unsuccessfully, to sign up another parent for his lawsuit (this is how it’s read in law review articles, of which there are many), but in the book we know that he’s actually doing the opposite – he wants Ansel pissed and wanting no part in the lawsuit so when he testifies as a witness (Ansel was behind the bus when it crashed) he’ll be unbiased. Legally, I’m not so sure that makes sense (and it backfires spectacularly), but it certainly changes the way we see Stephens. Likewise, being in Nicole’s head makes her outright anger at her father more palpable and her ultimate betrayal more emotional and spiteful than the cold, calculated move it appears in the film.
There’s two big changes from the book that the movie makes, one more important than the other for figuring out what the story is trying to say. The smaller change is a storyline where Stephens is on a plane and meets an old friend of her daughter to whom he’s able to deal out all the information about his daughter’s troubled life. This is a pretty good way of getting at a lot of stuff that’s in Stephens’ head in the book and doesn’t really impact the overall arc of things.
The bigger change is the ending. In the film, after the lawsuit falls apart, it jumps to Stephens getting into a cab at the airport, where he sees that Delores is driving one of the shuttle busses. In the book, by contrast, there’s a lengthy coda from her point of view in which she learns what Nicole said about her and, therefore, what the town now thinks of her. It culminates in a demolition derby at the county fair that plays out like a kind of sacrifice (it involves one of Delores’ old cars) after which things seem to slide back towards normal. I don’t think it really works (and Delores does wind up driving tourist vans, although fairly nearby), but it’s certainly different.
Do these changes makes the movie better? I’m not going to go that far. I prefer the film, but I came to it first and there’s some bias because of that. Also, while Egoyan arguably exercised a messy ending dealing with the fallout from Nicole’s perjury, the end of the movie works better (I think) than the book. Mostly, the experience reinforced my thought that literature and visual media are different things driving at different goals. One isn’t really better than the other, they’re both different and it’s great that we can explore the same story in multiple ways.
So where does that leave my love for The Sweet Hereafter as a lawyer’s story? The film version of Stephens continues to hit harder. While the book gets us into his head, Ian Holm’s portrayal of Stephens as emotionally running on fumes resonates more. In the deposition scene, as Nicole’s perjury spills out, the look on Holm’s face is one that any lawyer knows well. Remember this scene from The Simpsons?
It’s the same thing with Stephens. You can tell the very moment his case, all the work he’s put into it, all the hours away from home, goes up in smoke. All due to something entirely beyond his control. We’ve all been there pal.
That, in the end, is why The Sweet Hereafter resonates so much as a lawyer movie. We may all aspire to be Atticus Finch, but we recognize more of ourselves in Mitchell Stephens then we’d like to admit.