The Sweet Hereafter was based on the 1991 novel of the same name by Russell Banks. The novel itself was inspired by an actual event. On September 21 1989, near Alton, Texas, a Mission school bus was hit by a Dr. Pepper truck (owned by a Coca-Cola bottling plant), knocking it into a water-filled caliche pit. The bus was completely submerged. Twenty one children drowned and another forty nine were injured. Three hundred and fifty lawsuits ensued following the crash. The Coca-Cola distributor paid settlements to the families of the victim in the amount of $4.5 million for each child who was lost. The manufacturer of the bus was sued and ultimately paid out $950,000. Even the city of Alton, Texas was sued for not having the sufficient barricades for the caliche pit. Ultimately many lawyers who rushed to Mission, Texas following the crash would face ethics charges.
Here it must be pointed out that Russell Banks simply drew inspiration from the 1989 Alton, Texas bus crash for The Sweet Hereafter. Many of the particulars of the novel differed from the actual event. The Sweet Hereafter was set in Upstate New York rather than south Texas. The town in which the novel is set, Sam Dent, also happened to be considerably smaller than Mission, Texas (which, at 31,100 people according to the 1990 census, was hardly a small town). In fact, Sam Dent is so small that the bus crash kills the majority of the town's children. The circumstances of the bus accident were changed as well. Instead of September, the accident takes place during winter, with the bus skidding on an icy road into the pit. In the wake of the crash a big city lawyer persuades the citizens of Sam Dent to sue for damages The novel examines the various people's lives in the wake of an unthinkable tragedy and the impact that the lawsuits have on the town.
The Sweet Hereafter was optioned by Fox Searchlight Pictures, a division of Fox that specialises in the distribution of independent films, British films, art house movies, and foreign films. As to Atom Egoyan, he encountered the novel through his wife Arsinée Khanjian. Mr. Egoyan sought to get the rights to The Sweet Hereafter, only to learn that it was already optioned by Fox Searchlight. Fortunately, Fox Searchlight rejected a prospective script and then let their option expire. It was not long before Fox Searchlight's option on the book expired that mutual friend Margaret Atwood suggested to Atom Egoyan that he meet with Russell Banks to acquire the rights to the novel.
In adapting The Sweet Hereafter as a film Atom Egoyan made some significant changes to the novel. In order to obtain funding from Telefilm Canada, he moved the setting from Upstate New York to British Columbia. He also altered the narrative structure. While the novel proceeds through the narratives of four different characters, Atom Egoyan gave the movie a non-linear narrative that jumps back and forth between characters and even the past and present. Mr. Egoyan also added reference to The Pied Piper of Hamelin by Robert Browning, and changed the number of survivors from what it was in the novel. He also made attorney Mitchell Stephens the main character in the movie.
Originally Donald Sutherland had been cast in the role of Mitchell Stephens. He had to back out of the film only ten days before shooting was to begin. Sir Ian Holm was then cast in the role of the Toronto lawyer. Mr. Egoyan had been impressed by Mr. Holm's turn in The Homecoming (1973), which he described as "strangely compassionate, yet furtive and menacing." Paul Gross tried out for the role of Billy Ansel, the widower who lost his twins in the crash, but he ultimately lost the role to Bruce Greenwood. Quite simply, while Atom Egoyan thought Mr. Gross was a fine actor, he also thought he was too handsome for the part. Sarah Polley was cast in the pivotal role of surviving teenager Nicole Burnell. Although young, Miss Polley already had an extensive acting résumé. She had been acting since age four and had just recently ended her run as Sara Stanley on the highly successful Canadian television series Avonlea.
The Sweet Hereafter was made on a very small budget of only $5 million. It was also shot in only 34 days. Much of the film was shot on location in Merritt, British Columbia, a small, remote town with a population of around 8000 people. Other parts of the film were shot in Spences Bridge, British Columbia, Stouffville, Ontario, and Toronto.
The Sweet Hereafter premiered at the Cannes Film Festival on May 15 1997. It was later shown at the Locarno Film Festival in Switzerland and the Toronto International Film Festival, among others. It went into general release in the United Kingdom on September 24 1997 and then into general release in Canada and the United States on October 4 1997.
As mentioned earlier, The Sweet Hereafter opened to nearly universal critical acclaim. It also picked up quite a few awards and nominations for awards along the way. Sadly, despite the critical acclaim and the many awards, The Sweet Hereafter would not do well at the box office. Ultimately after its initial run its domestic box office would only be $4,306,697 and its international box office only $3,644,550.
Fortunately over the years The Sweet Hereafter has developed a following, as well as a reputation as one of the greatest Canadian films ever made. Indeed, The Sweet Hereafter is one of those rare films that is so layered, so complex, that any attempt to describe why it is such a great film is doomed to failure. Quite simply, it is one of those films that one had to see for himself or herself. Certainly it takes a much different approach than a studio film from Hollywood would have. And this goes well beyond its non-linear narrative structure. As an example, in a more mainstream film not only would attorney Mitchell Stephens not be the main character, but he would likely be the antagonist. He would the smarmy, big city lawyer who comes to the small town marred by tragedy to make money by talking the people there into lawsuits. In The Sweet Hereafter, Mitchell Stephens is actually a somewhat sympathetic character, whose motivations for talking those who lost their children into suing is not simply to make money.
Of course, Mitchell Stephens's story is only one of many in The Sweet Hereafter. The film examines the lives of many of the people of this small, Canadian town, and does so in such a way that the viewer feels he or she knows them well. This is aided not only by the performances of the excellent cast but the movie's very non-traditional narrative structure. The Sweet Hereafter does not unfold chronologically, but rather thematically. In doing so the film reveals more about its characters than it would if it had simply proceeded from past to present in a straight-forward fashion.
As to the characters, they are definitely forever changed by the tragedy and the aftermath. Atom Egoyan is not simply dealing with the nature of grief in The Sweet Hereafter or even merely the impact of an unthinkable tragedy on a small town. It even goes beyond dealing with how such a tragedy can ultimately divide a community. Much of the film deals with the inner lives of the individuals of the community and how they conduct their everyday lives. The Sweet Hereafter ultimately shows how even one's everyday life can be changed by a calamity at even the smallest level.
The Sweet Hereafter would establish Atom Egoyan as one of the foremost Canadian filmmakers. While some of his other films would make much more money at the box office, it is The Sweet Hereafter that remains regarded as his masterpiece. Today it is regarded by many as one of the greatest Canadian films of all time. One has to suspect it is only a matter of time before it is regarded as one of the truly great classics.