“Write what you know.” That’s a phrase that many writers hear when they try to come up with ideas for a book. A novelist’s task is typically to create a piece that evokes some form of meaning for someone. Sometimes, the best way to come up with inspiration for this type of writing, though, is to base the work off of something in real life. Film works in a similar fashion: movies are often based off of books. The important thing to understand with these translations is that they are not exact recounts of the actual events. The story of The Sweet Hereafter, for example, was written by Russell Banks about an actual bus crash that took place in 1985. Banks’ book was then translated from the book version to the film version directed by Atom Egoyan. Now, while these translations like to stick close to the original story, some events and characterizations often need to be changed in order to evoke the theme that the creator is trying to achieve.
If we look at The Sweet Hereafter in stages, then we can see it manifested in three documented forms. The first form manifests itself in the newspapers and articles that were written about the crash in Alton, Texas that killed 21 students in September, 1989. The second form in Russell Banks’ book The Sweet Hereafter. Russell Banks, a resident of upstate New York, had the book published in 1991, two years after the events that occurred in Alton, Texas. The tragedy takes its final form in Atom Egoyan’s film The Sweet Hereafter, which hit the big screen in 1997, six years after the publication of the book. Each incarnation of the story has a different theme to it, yet the themes are closely related to one-another.
The crash in 1989 took place in Alton, Texas. A soft-drink delivery truck hit a school bus filled with students. The bus plummeted into a water-filled chasm: an accident which proved immediately fatal to 19 students, and then 2 more students that died later on. On top of the students killed, over 40 other students were injured in the accident, along with the driver of the cola truck (who survived). At first glance through newspapers, the theme of this accident is one of grief and sorrow. The loss of innocent children was tremendous that day. But the story does not end there, sadly. After the accident, lawyers swarmed to the scene, and many of the children’s families were urged to sue the soda company. After many arguments and hardships, several million dollars were awarded because of the case. The true tragedy here, though, is that most of the recipients of the money did not find the compensation worth the trouble. Because of the invasion of lawyers, the people of Alton were not able to recover and grieve as they should have been allowed, and so they became bitter. The theme of the story, due to the surge of the lawyers coming to the town, is that a town and its people should be allowed to grieve without having to deal with the legal issues that come from the accident. The people were urged to turn their grief into anger as an attempt to receive monetary compensation, as though that would help them deal with their sorrow. Instead, once the cases were closed, the people found themselves incapable of dealing with the money, or the grief.
Russell Banks takes the story in a different direction, though. Banks takes the accident and sets it in a small town in New York, which is a location that he actually knows. He then had to create characters, and plot differences in order to make the novel more than just a newspaper article. His four first-person narrators each represent different aspects of the original crash: Dolores Driscoll represents the drivers responsible for the crash, and the way they must’ve felt about the ordeal; Billy Ansel represents the citizens of Alton that lost their children and were hurt by the lawsuits; Mitchell Stevens, Esquire, represents the lawyers that came to Alton to lead the lawsuits; and Nichole Burnell represents one of the students that survived the accident, but whose life was completely changed as a result. By using the four characters, Banks represents as many of the people involved in the Alton accident as possible, and in that way sticks close to the original story. The major difference that his novel makes in the story, though, is that the case is defeated by Nichole’s character. By shifting this perspective on the case, Banks reveals that the story is really about how, rather than reverting to anger in a time of grief, the best solution to dealing with sorrow is to accept that what has happened is unchangeable, and that nothing will ever bring back those that were lost. Nichole, as a representative of the survivors, kills the case, and allows the town a chance to move on from their anger. In this way, Banks gives the town a chance to move on in a way that the citizens of Alton were not capable of achieving.
Atom Egoyan further complicates the plot of the story in his film. Rather than a story about the inability to deal with grief, or the methods by which grief can be overcome, Egoyan takes the story and creates a movie about empowerment. Egoyan takes Nichole and Stevens’ characters and promotes them to a higher level by turning them into primary narrators, while demoting Dolores and Billy Ansel’s characters to supporting roles. This shift creates a two-sided conflict of power between Nichole and Stevens—a struggle that wasn’t a focus in the previous story mediums. In addition to this narration change, Egoyan uses the controlling metaphor of Robert Browning’s The Pied Piper of Hamelin. Browning’s poem is based off of events that happened in Hamelin, Germany (as well as other German townships) in 1284. The primary theme of the Pied Piper is that people can be lead to their death as a result of greed, anger, and corrupting influences made by outside sources. Egoyan’s The Sweet Hereafter likewise shows how the people of Sam Dent, New York (Banks’ version of Alton, Texas) were, as a result of the lawyers’ greed, led by an outside influence to use anger to deal with the loss of their children. Stevens, the lawyer, comes to town and moves from victim to victim, urging them to allow him to become a “voice” for their anger. Meanwhile, we also see Nichole having to deal with her father molesting her. By the end of the film, however, there is a shift of power. Nichole’s lie, which was created in Banks’ book version, ruins Stevens’ case. This lie, however, provides Nichole with the power to overcome her father’s controlling influence, and to save the town from falling into the situation in which the citizens of Alton, Texas found themselves. Her strength of power by the end really turns the film into an empowerment story. It shows how one person can save a town from ruin, despite her own personal hardships.
Now, it’s fine and well to say that each of the stories has a different theme, but what does it all actually add up to? By changing the theme and the way the story is set up, each story is perceived in a different manner by the audience. Our understanding of the survivors, for instance, shifts from children whose lives were worsened by the loss of their peers (Alton, Texas), to a student who manages to overcome her grief (the book), to a hero who manages to save the whole town from their grief. Likewise, we are given different perspectives on the lawyers. In the papers about the accident in Alton, and from the perspectives of the citizens, the lawyers became a corrupting influence that caused them trouble and regret. In the book, Banks uses Stevens to further vilify the people of Sam Dent, New York. Finally, Egoyan takes Stevens’ character and highlights some of the elements of Banks’ story (elements which may be overlooked) in order to reveal that he, too, has problems of his own, and reasons for why he wants to win the case.
These changes and differences are important because they reflect the interpretation of the source material. Banks’ novel reflected his own interpretation of the tragedy in Alton, and he was able to place it in an area he, himself, knows and can relate to. Egoyan, who is limited to interpreting Banks’ novel, was also able to imprint his own opinions against the backdrop of the story. These themes are tied together by the way they offer an interpretation of real life events. The changes are important simply because, without them, the story would be singularly focused, and it wouldn’t be able to convey any more than the one single idea. By incorporating the changes, the story, like the event itself, is seen from many perspectives, and many interpretations. After all, there was more than just the crash that was going on.
By looking at the way the crash was translated, we can see that interpretation—when passed along from real life, to novel, to film—focuses ideas and expands the horizons for how an audience can look at something as seemingly simple as a bus accident in a myriad of ways. At surface level, things are as they seem, but these interpretations show that there is more underneath any story than just what is immediately available. With that in mind, perhaps a better phrase than “Write what you know” would be to “Write what you can interpret.”