The Sweet Hereafter

The Sweet Hereafter is a novel (1991) written by U.S. author Russell Banks; and an award-winning film (1997) by Canadian director Atom Egoyan, who also wrote the screenplay.


Banks's novel is a multiple first person narrative depicting life in a small town in upstate New York in the wake of a terrible school bus accident in which numerous local children are killed. Hardly able to cope with the loss, their grieving parents are approached by a slick city lawyer who wants them to sue for damages. At first the parents are reluctant to do so, but eventually they are persuaded by the lawyer that filing a class action lawsuit would ease their minds and also be the right thing to do.

As most of the children are dead, it depends on the few surviving witnesses to say the right thing now in court. In particular, it is 15 year-old Nichole Burnell, now paralysed from the waist down, whose deposition is all-important. However, she unexpectedly accuses Dolores Driscoll, the driver, of speeding and thus causing the accident. When she does so, all hopes of ever receiving money are thwarted. All the people involved know that Nichole is lying but cannot do anything about it. Only her father knows why, but he feels unable to reveal his daughter's motives.

Both the novel and the film are about capturing the atmosphere in a small town suddenly shaken by catastrophe. Whole families move away, fathers take to drinking, secret affairs are abruptly ended. Only the reader/viewer knows that Mitchell Stephens, the lawyer, is himself a troubled man who has effectively lost his own child—his estranged, drug-addicted daughter who informs him over the phone that she has just tested HIV positive.

Themes in the Book and Movie

There is a somewhat different emotional focus between the book and the movie. The book deals more centrally with the futile attempt to find meaning in a tragic event and in the emptiness of the aftermath. This is especially evident from the character of Mitchell Stephens, who has the fervent need to find someone to blame, to keep the inevitable realization from sinking in that it is all senseless, that pain and tragedy simply happen without reason.

In the movie, Nichole is seen reading The Pied Piper of Hamelin by Robert Browning to children who later die in the accident. In that story, the Pied Piper leads all the children away, never to return, after their parents refuse to honor their debt to him. Though Egoyan's screenplay is not necessarily saying that the parents are responsible for the deaths of their children in the bus accident, when juxtaposed with the incidents of incest and adultery among the townspeople, the Pied Piper theme perhaps introduces a moral judgment against them not evident in the book—that the accident is an implied punishment for their sins.

In the Pied Piper, there is a crippled child who is unable to follow the Piper's song, and so he is left behind, forever wishing he could have left with the other children. The paralyzed survivor, Nichole, is clearly identified with this child in the movie, shifting from her motivation from the book in which she is primarily acting out of anger against her incestuous father. The movie hints that Nichole sees it as a loss when the father does not continue the incestuous relationship after she is paralyzed.

The Pied Piper theme is further enhanced by the score which is heavily influenced by Medieval and Renaissance music with frequent appearances of a flute.

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