It is Fiona who we then see poring through books that describe Alzheimer disease and its impact on the caring spouse, and it is she who decides that it is time for her to go to an assisted-living facility. The books on Alzheimer disease were Polley's idea and so was the even more remarkable flourish she added to the scene in which Fiona is left at the facility by Grant and is settled into her room. Polley's invention was to have Fiona ask Grant to make love to her and then leave. We are shown them embracing in the bittersweet aftermath as she tells him, "Now go!" It is a presentiment of another invented scene that comes later.
Polley's decision to invent and foreground the two postcoital moments in her film translates Munro's multilayered ironies into simplistic love story sentiments. Since film critics almost universally praise Away From Her, others have concluded that the cinematic translation works. What is lost, however, is the "shattering absurdity" that is Munro's genius and that makes her short story revelatory. As Munro looked over Grant's shoulder and saw life from his point of view—and her own—there is an extraordinary account of 30 years of sexual mores on college campuses and how the professor's sexual narcissism challenged his marriage. Munro described the era as an epidemic, like "Spanish flu," but different in that no one wanted to be left out. First, it was the wives of colleagues, which brought Jacqui to Grant, then it was the mature women going back to school who were ready to give their minds and bodies for a few words of praise from the great professor, and then it was the young female students who pronounced themselves mature and ready.
Grant serviced them all (not as many as some colleagues, he notes) and felt "duped" later when all those "willing" women decided they had actually been coerced and exploited. As this new feminist Victorianism took over, what for Grant had been a self-affirming experience became a reason for humiliation and social ostracism. Grant felt shame, not for what he had done, but for being duped. Out of those years in which he saw himself as giving to all those women rather than taking from them, he brought a new sense of resolve and repentance to his autumnal "love" of Fiona, thanking his stars that he had not lost her. Polley's screenplay could not accommodate most of this account; it is only suggested, but it is absolutely critical to Munro's ironic story and to Grant's narcissistic character.
When Fiona settles into the nursing home, she forgets her husband and forms an attachment to another man, Aubrey. Under the sentimental spell of the film, one might say she has fallen in love with another man. But, given what Munro has told us, her attentive attachment is more like what she felt for her Russian wolfhounds or what she might have felt for the child she never had. Or taking care of Aubrey and being needed by him might have warded off her own feelings of neediness and dependency.
In both the film and story versions, Fiona becomes inconsolable and begins to deteriorate when Aubrey's wife, Marian (played by Olympia Dukakis), who is, like Jacqui, another antithesis of Fiona—and this one déclassé—removes him from the nursing home.
Munro's nonchronological narrative (her style in this collection is a replication/exploration of memory) has Grant on his way to visit Marian almost from the start of the story. He has overcome his jealousy and resentment of Fiona's new attachment and wants to convince Marian to return Aubrey to the nursing home. Grant and Marian dislike each other at first sight. This woman reminds him of what his life might have been if he had not married up.
Marian dismisses him as a "jerk" but then, as a person whom Munro tells us could, in a crisis, "take the shoes off a dead body in the streets," leaves several messages on Grant's answering machine inviting him to a dance. What Munro thereafter only implies, Polley enacts in her second postcoital moment, in which first Marian and then Grant share with the camera a smile of self-satisfaction. Aubrey is going back to the nursing home. Grant has performed out of love for his wife. Here is how Munro described Grant's thoughts about this seduction, "it would be a challenge. A challenge and a credible feat. Also a joke that could never be confided to anybody—to think that by his bad behavior he'd be doing good for Fiona."
Polley's film ends like the short story, with Grant visiting his wife to tell her that Aubrey will be returning. But now Fiona's neural networks have lost Aubrey and have rediscovered her husband. She embraces and blesses him, "You could have just driven away... without a care in the world and forsook me. Forsooken me. Forsaken."
It is a moment of grace for Grant, perhaps even a moment of love, but expressed in Munro's story against a context of shattering, emotional absurdity that Polley distills for her audience into honey-coated platitude—love conquers all. Away From Her is not really a bad film, it just does not come close to the mind-bending wisdom of Alice Munro's story.