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Her Voice: Chris Wisniewski on “The Bridges of Madison County”

Her Voice: Chris Wisniewski on "The Bridges of Madison County"

Robert James Waller’s treacly bestseller The Bridges of Madison County opens with a prologue. Dated “Summer 1991,” and presumably written from Waller’s perspective, it puts a gloss of authenticity on a story that’s officially a work of fiction: inserting himself into his narrative, Waller tells of two middle-aged siblings who have brought a “remarkable tale” to his attention in the hopes that he might share it with the world. While settling their late mother’s estate, the brother and sister discovered a letter she wrote to them, along with journals and photographs that document a four-day affair between their mother, an Italian-born housewife, and National Geographic photographer Robert Kincaid, who in 1965 stumbled upon their home during an assignment shooting Iowa’s covered bridges. In the book, the author pieces together the details of this adulterous romance from the evidence left behind, not just Francesca Johnson’s letter and journals but also an interview he conducts with a friend of Kincaid’s. And though Francesca is the book’s ostensible protagonist, the novel opens and closes on Robert, describing the life of this “last cowboy” (ugh) before and after the affair in far more detail than Francesca’s. The book is more their story than hers, one that is relayed secondhand.

Clint Eastwood’s improbably great film adaptation of Waller’s ridiculous and rather terrible little book takes a different narrative approach. Eastwood and screenwriter Richard LaGravenese dispense with Waller’s avatar and with the interview of Kincaid’s friend. Instead, the movie picks up with Francesca’s children going through her various belongings, finding first a letter from Robert, then their mother’s letter to them, and, finally, her journals. Their deepening investigation mirrors the book’s, even as it excises the impartial narrator, but it brings Francesca’s words to the beginning, and so establishes a radical shift in point of view. Read the rest of Chris Wisniewski’s entry in the Reverse Shot Sounds Off symposium.

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