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I’m not ashamed to admit that The Bridges of Madison County has revitalized my love life. I pop in a tape of Robert James Waller’s unabridged reading of his prairie romance and my wife fills the house with impassioned howls. Crack open the all-time champ best-selling hardcover novel on the Metro and she pretends I’m a mysterious stranger. Call her at work and quote—by memory—from its pages, “And out of the pickup came Robert Kincaid, looking like some vision from a never-written book called An Illustrated History of Shamans,” and she’s almost dumbstruck. Just this morning I turned to her in bed and whispered, “I am the highway and a peregrine and all the sails that ever went to sea.” “Oh,” she sighed, “how horrible.”
Yes, this is a powerful book by any measure. And though I fit no part of its urban target demographic—single, lonely, apartment-dwelling, cat-loving (that Kincaid is a dog lover is no red herring; confined cat lovers in their fantasies dream of a dog’s life), women over 30—and would seem to have little in common with the by-child-and-man-exhausted, isolated, dissatisfied housewives that have made it a square-state favorite, it is a book I have taken to heart. Like any of its fans, I have eagerly awaited the movie, in which Clint Eastwood directs himself as Kincaid, a globe-trotting National Geographic shutterbug, and Meryl Streep as Francesca Johnson, the Italian-born, by-child-and-man-exhausted, isolated, dissatisfied Iowa (a square state more in spirit than in form, though most of its counties, Madison included, qualify geometrically) farmwife he nails for three days straight.
Oh boy, was I disappointed. Turned into a Hollywood blockbuster by screenwriter Richard LaGravenese, The Bridges of Madison County is no longer the same gut-busting, knee-slapping, honey-you-have-got-to-hear-this tour de force of writerly wrongness. Rather it is a tepid, even dull, and not wholly unrespectable account of misbegotten love. I had had trouble imagining Eastwood as the mystical, spiritual Kincaid, and sure enough, he doesn’t fit the bill. That’s because the character has been completely rewritten—humanized, demythologized, and made less given to overwrought verbal fugues. This leaves the responsibility for the bulk of the book’s ridiculousness in the capable hands of the feature film’s answer to Mel Blanc, Meryl Streep.
Ah, Streep. Streep saves this picture from being just another run-of-the-mill tearjerker. Waller has Kincaid detect “the smallest trace of an accent” in his Francesca. But she belongs to Streep now, and is subject to a performance oozing with shticky Italianisms sure to gall anyone familiar with actual Italians, like, I don’t know, Mama Celeste. When Clint gets her flustered, Meryl becomes at once nervous schoolgirl and old fusspot, pacing about, tugging at her hair, patting her face, out-gesturing Marlee Matlin. (Did I mention she loves opera?) Sadly, Streep’s emotive generosity is largely wasted. The film makes no mention of the fact that the Big O has eluded Francesca for years, and that it takes Robert Kincaid to kick down the door separating her from carnal joy. (Francesca is a victim of her era, just before the golden age of the women’s magazine. Had she been a reader of today’s Redbook, only a few months ago she would have attended “Orgasm School.” Imagine the possibilities.)
There are, however, points when the picture reveals what it could have been, and most depend on Streep. Not all of them originate in the book, though each traffics in its lack of restraint. When Waller’s Kincaid first spies Francesca, she’s been drinking iced tea on the porch swing. Evidently this was thought to be a poor indication of the circumscription of the rural life she’s to be saved from, so the movie has her flogging a porch post with a dirty rug, billows of filth echoing the dust kicked up by Kincaid’s truck tires as he swings into the driveway. (Everything swings in Madison County—the road, a truck, knapsacks, even Kincaid himself—it’s just one of those places that lends itself to expansive gestures.) Even better is the bathtub that gives birth to Francesca’s more reflective moments. Besting Waller, who provides a third-person description of the scene, LaGravenese has Streep reclining in the tub—where Kincaid has just showered—allowing drops from the shower head to fall into her palm as she conveys in voice-over just how “erotic” this is.
But such episodes are fleeting exceptions. Most of the time we’re getting LaGravenese’s newer-than-new-age Kincaid, who, as the writer told the Washington Post, displays “a fear of commitment and real intimacy.” Talk like this makes it easy to long for Waller’s hero, who, when aroused by Francesca, starts thinking about the “goddamned old ways, fighting toward the surface” as if his hard-ons were somehow more atavistic than anybody else’s. LaGravenese instead tosses in a fight and some more relationship talk as Francesca turns into a morning-after nag, accusing her lover of being “a hypocrite and a phony.” Too true, of course, but the novel’s Kincaid, powerful as he is, would wilt at such words.
The problem is that Waller’s story is a tastecrime perpetrated by phantoms. If his characters were any more corporeal, any more human, even readers who accept them unquestioningly would be embarrassed for them. Only an “ethereal, perhaps even spectral” Kincaid wouldn’t shrink from appearing to his four-day (no nookie on Day One—this is romance) concubine as “a leopard,” “some star creature who had drafted in on the tail of a comet,” as a vegetarian who signs his letters “The last cowboy” (just what does Waller think cowpokes sought in those herds—companionship?), and as a “shaman” who sees himself “at the terminus of a branch of evolution.” But it is precisely in such phrases that the book’s true believers perceive its “magic.”
In cleaning up the story for the screen, LaGravenese risks losing not only the novel’s marginal camp following, but more important, its core audience of almost 10 million book buyers (not to mention all their friends and relatives who borrowed rather than bought) worldwide. What both of these sensibilities have admired, even loved, is no common dumb romance, but a book ravishingly, singularly, perfectly stupid. If, as John Gardner has written, it takes a junk mind to create junk fiction, The Bridges of Madison County is the work of a junk genius guided by the fugitive junk muse.
If you want the junk, the best way to get it is not even the most popular. Having done the Madison three different ways, I would recommend Dove Audio’s tapes. For the only real love in Madison County transpires between author and text, and you get to hear every sweet word of it trickle from his lips. (If this sounds a little syrupy, it is. Throughout Waller’s spitty recording, his gentle, almost hypnotic voice is accompanied by the sound of saliva unsticking itself from his tongue. It rather helps to think of it as the nectar of overripe prose.)
One of the sweetest words, to Waller’s mind, is “professional.” Like the University of Northern Iowa management professor he used to be, Waller regards the word as a talisman (another of his, and Kincaid’s, favorites). Usually speaking in such dreamy, measured tones that even a phrase like “smell the paper mills of Kalispell” varies little from any other, Waller shows his hand when describing Kincaid’s first National Geographic assignment. “He talked with them, got a minor assignment, executed it professionally, and was on his way.” Much of the fraud of Waller’s enterprise, bad writing aside, rests in the emphasis given that second syllable. He wants (and his audience wants) a hero who “seem[s] like the wind,” “a half-man, half-something-else creature,” with “an intelligence that was brilliant in a raw, primitive, almost mystical fashion,” who lives “in strange, haunted places, far back along the stems of Darwin’s logic,” but who also doesn’t “let the screen door bang,” remembers to “clean the tub,” and is a consummate “professional.”
In “The Beginning,” Waller warns that his tale may prove too fragile to be handled by the rough mitts of critical thinking, and surely this shaman/weenie house of cards in particular seems on the brink of collapse. He counsels that “our tendency to scoff at the possibility of [great passion] and to label genuine and profound feelings as maudlin makes it difficult to enter the realm of gentleness required to understand the story of Francesca Johnson and Robert Kincaid.” Apparently Clint thinks so too, and in trying to shore up the story’s unsteady frame has—I will never forgive him for this—killed off the last cowboy.