Adapting Cormac McCarthy’s The Road: After the End of the World

The Road movie poster


Genre fic­tion has long resided on the wrong side of the chasm between escapism and lit­er­a­ture. But as The Atlantic notes, cult writ­ers like Neil Gaiman are cross­ing over into the main­stream while estab­lished nov­el­ists like Michael Chabon are explor­ing the genre ter­ri­tory blazed by the likes of Mar­garet Atwood. Few know these blur­ring bar­ri­ers as well as Cor­mac McCarthy, a writer with firm bona fides in the lit­er­ary world whose dev­as­tat­ing 2006 novel The Road incor­po­rated ele­ments of spec­u­la­tive fic­tion. It become a crossover hit and landed a spot in the world’s biggest book club: The Oprah Win­frey Show. Its vision of a burned world pop­u­lated by scav­engers drained of all human­ity is some­times even described as a zom­bie story, spark­ing an argu­ment over whether or not it qual­i­fies as hor­ror or sci­ence fic­tion. My own two-fold answer: of course it does, and the ques­tion is also irrel­e­vant. Spec­u­la­tive futures and fan­ci­ful tech­nol­ogy are not the true sub­jects of sci­ence fic­tion, but rather means to an end: explor­ing the here and now.

The Road made its way to the­aters shortly after a very dif­fer­ent vision of life after the apoc­a­lypse. Direc­tor McG’s Ter­mi­na­tor Sal­va­tion was the fourth entry in an escapist action fran­chise detail­ing a for­mu­laic bat­tle for the fate of human­ity. The Road is set at a time long after such heroic strug­gles can even be imag­ined, and when the drudgery of mere sur­vival is wan­ing. The world itself is ter­ri­fy­ingly real­ized onscreen, using real des­o­late loca­tions: par­tic­u­larly an eerily aban­doned stretch of turn­pike in Pitts­burgh, and the still largely life­less blasted remains of Mount St. Helens in Wash­ing­ton. The only tech­ni­cal prob­lem I noticed was the some­what dis­tract­ing tooth con­ti­nu­ity through­out. Decay: now you see it, now you don’t.

A scene from The Road“If I were God, I would have made the world just so and no different.”

I re-read the novel a few days before see­ing the film, which turned out to be a mis­take. The book remained the emo­tional, vis­ceral expe­ri­ence it was on my first read, but its fresh­ness in my mind kept me some­what detached through­out the movie. I could not help but dis­pas­sion­ately ana­lyze the par­tic­u­lars of the adap­ta­tion. I’m among those who loved the book, but didn’t nec­es­sar­ily desire the movie to be faith­ful. The mechan­ics of how it could be done fas­ci­nated me. How do you adapt a book that lives and dies on the Stein­beck­ian terse, harsh, under­stated poetry of its lan­guage? Joe Penhall’s screen­play is remark­ably faith­ful in terms of plot and sequence of events, and the few changes are mostly effec­tive. In par­tic­u­lar, a neat trick involved seam­lessly com­bin­ing three sep­a­rate inci­dents in the novel into a sin­gle sequence: The Boy falls ill, The Man loots an aban­doned boat, and they are robbed.

It’s hard to imag­ine a bet­ter direc­tor for The Road than John Hill­coat, whose pre­vi­ous film The Propo­si­tion, from a screen­play by Nick Cave, could have been the movie that Cor­mac McCarthy never made him­self. But The Road as a film some­how fails to recre­ate the emo­tion­ally dev­as­tat­ing effect of its source mate­r­ial. Another can­di­date for direc­tor might have been Alfonso Cuarón, who man­aged to trans­form P.D. James’ novel Chil­dren of Men into a gut-wrenching vision of a near-future soci­ety dis­in­te­grat­ing before our eyes. McCarthy had pre­sented Hill­coat with a sig­nif­i­cant chal­lenge; The Road is, in a sense, a long dénoue­ment to a story we didn’t see. Per­haps the strongest argu­ment against genre fans claim­ing The Road as their own is that most zom­bie sto­ries con­cern the fall of civ­i­liza­tion. The Road is set far after an implied cat­a­clysm, where every­thing has been taken away, even the very names of the peo­ple and places that remain.

Viggo Mortensen and Kodi Smit-McPhee in The Road“If there is a God up there, he would have turned his back on us by now. And who­ever made human­ity will find no human­ity here.”

That said, the McCarthy does glanc­ingly allude to a cat­a­clysmic event fol­lowed by vio­lence on a mas­sive scale, waged by tribes described as Blood­cults. There are many aspects of the back story that Hill­coat and Pen­hall opt to clar­ify (par­tic­u­larly the Man & Boy’s fam­ily life), but the mas­sive wars that swept the coun­try in the pre­ceed­ing years is not one of them. This largely unspo­ken past in cru­cial to the book, as the reader con­tem­plates how the Man, the Boy, and every­one they encoun­tered some­how lived through it all, be it through fight­ing, hid­ing, or col­lab­o­rat­ing. The Man’s strat­egy for sur­vival is to lay low and instill in his son the need to pre­serve a metaphor­i­cal “light” of basic human­ity. We see numer­ous alter­na­tive strate­gies that also worked, but which result in the destruc­tion of the soul. One such walk­ing dead man we meet is Old Man (Robert Duvall), who appar­ently col­lab­o­rated with the Blood­cults until the toxic land­scape claimed his health.

Some of McCarthy’s poet­i­cally spare lan­guage is pre­served in the lim­ited voiceover nar­ra­tion deliv­ered by the Man (Viggo Mortensen). But some evi­dence exists onscreen that the film­mak­ers feared the audi­ence might not be able to put two and two together. While being scarcely men­tioned by name in the book, “can­ni­bal­ism” is one of the first words spo­ken in the film. It presents this sav­agery as the spe­cific omnipresent threat that forces the Man and Boy to remain totally alone and self-reliant. Another clue the movie is more obsessed with can­ni­bal­ism than the book: in the clos­ing cred­its, a plump female char­ac­ter is chill­ingly named “well-fed woman”. That’s cer­tainly more humor than can be found in the text.

Viggo Mortensen in The Road“I told the boy when you dream about bad things hap­pen­ing, it means you’re still fight­ing and you’re still alive. It’s when you start to dream about good things that you should start to worry.”

Another key ele­ment I missed from the book is the real­iza­tion that the Boy has lit­er­ally never seen another child, ever, which goes a long way towards explain­ing his care­less reac­tion to glimps­ing another boy. Long accus­tomed to hid­ing from all con­tact, he explodes with the dan­ger­ous need to con­nect. Although The Boy has evi­dently known lit­tle else, he seems to have the inborn need to cling to signs of life. The boy also mar­vels at a glimpse of a bee­tle — a detail which I believe was added — whose metallic-like wings refract the gray­ish light and pro­vide one of the film’s only flashes of color.

The end­ing of the novel is some­thing that can only work in prose. A sim­ple change in verb tense hints at a pos­si­ble future, a rad­i­cal change in think­ing for char­ac­ters pre­vi­ously forced to orga­nize their lives around imme­di­ate sur­vival. Beyond an over­ar­ch­ing quest to reach the ocean, they indulged in lit­tle talk of the future, or of any kind of con­tin­u­ance at all. Life on the lit­eral and metaphor­i­cal road is a sick com­bi­na­tion of drudgery and ter­ror. Every event in their lives is sud­den, unex­pected, and never likely to recur in quite the same way. The final words in the novel are per­haps the first thing the boy hears that hints of a com­fort­ing rou­tine he might expect in his future. Trans­lated to film, Hill­coat and screen­writer Joe Pen­hall do per­haps the only thing they could do: plug a bunch of words into a character’s mouth that was silent in the book.

Charlize Theron in The Road“My heart was ripped out of me the night he was born.”

The cast­ing is pretty much per­fect, par­tic­u­larly Kodi Smit-McPhee, who so resem­bles Char­l­ize Theron that it’s eerie. Even the sup­port­ing cast is superla­tive, includ­ing Robert Duvall, Guy Pearce, Michael K. Williams, Molly Parker, and Gar­ret Dil­lahunt. The lat­ter is an inter­est­ing, ver­sa­tile actor, hav­ing played an upper-crust psy­chopath in Dead­wood, a crim­i­nal idiot in The Assas­si­na­tion of Jesse James by the Cow­ard Robert Ford, a mur­der­ous cyborg in Ter­mi­na­tor: The Sarah Con­nor Chron­i­cles, and here a vile can­ni­bal. That’s a remark­able range of deranged char­ac­ters, but will he ever have a chance to play a nor­mal guy?

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Sass and Kick Ass: James Bond: Casino Royale (2006)

Casino Royale movie poster


Para­dox­i­cally for one of the fresh­est James Bond films ever made, Mar­tin Campbell’s Casino Royale (2006) is actu­ally the third adap­ta­tion of the character’s debut in Ian Fleming’s 1953 novel. After a largely for­got­ten 1954 TV movie in which “Jimmy” Bond was awk­wardly Amer­i­can­ized, the same premise was par­o­died in a 1967 farce bear­ing the same name, a expen­sive all-star dis­as­ter fea­tur­ing good sports David Niven, Peter Sell­ers, Orson Welles, and Woody Allen. Mean­while, the par­al­lel and ongo­ing flood of proper Bond films aban­doned the tainted Casino Royale, leav­ing it never sat­is­fac­to­rily pre­sented on film. For most, Bond seemed born fully-formed as Sean Connery’s supremely suave secret agent in 1962’s Dr. No. But where did Her Majesty’s most ruth­less ser­vant come from?

By 2006, the James Bond fran­chise had endured 20 movies and five lead actors (and that’s just count­ing the canon­i­cal install­ments), tes­ta­ment enough that it has been no stranger to inno­va­tion. The most recent over­haul was Gold­en­eye (1995), which intro­duced Pierce Bros­nan along­side an incre­men­tally more pro­gres­sive atti­tude towards women. New-style “Bond Girls” like Michelle Yeoh were still dan­ger­ously sexy, but as adept with salty dia­logue, grap­pling hooks, and AK-47s as the title char­ac­ter him­self. Bond could no longer cheer­fully ignore his stuffy bureau­cratic boss M when played by the impe­ri­ous Judy Dench, and Miss Mon­eypenny (Saman­tha Bond) was no longer a frump long­ing for Bond from afar, but rather a sassy foil rock­ing the sexy sec­re­tary look. Sig­nif­i­cantly, the one thing that didn’t change much at all was Bond him­self. The many women in his life may have gained greater lee­way to sass and kick ass, but he him­self was still the same old sex­ist dinosaur. In ret­ro­spect, the Bros­nan films now look like just more of the same.

Daniel Craig in Casino RoyaleSay hello to my lit­tle friend

Proper Bond films enjoyed many high points over the years, but the fran­chise was very nearly ren­dered obso­lete by two very dif­fer­ent spy trilo­gies: Austin Pow­ers (whose satire was wholly redun­dant after the 1967 Casino Royale) and Jason Bourne. Start­ing in 2002, the lat­ter did Bond one bet­ter, per­ma­nently super­charg­ing the secret-agent genre with vis­ceral urgency, per­sis­tent action, mod­er­ately real­is­tic psy­chol­ogy, and most cru­cially, grant­ing the main char­ac­ter a capac­ity for love. Bourne (Matt Damon) was a man of con­science, wracked by crip­pling self-doubt and guilt. He may have been capa­ble of spec­tac­u­lar feats of killing, but resented the cir­cum­stances that forced him to use those skills in order to sur­vive, or more impor­tantly, to pro­tect or avenge his loved ones. He didn’t manip­u­late women for intel­li­gence and sex­ual grat­i­fi­ca­tion as Bond rou­tinely would, but rather formed an emo­tional attach­ment with one in par­tic­u­lar that would moti­vate his actions for an entire trilogy.

Once the def­i­n­i­tion of high-gloss action thrillers, Bond was now on the defen­sive. The time was right in 2006 for its most rad­i­cal reboot yet. The pro­duc­ers retired Bros­nan (The Man With the Golden Para­chute?) and under­went an exten­sive retool­ing of not just the series’ visual style but its core char­ac­ters and mythos. But how much can you tweak Bond until he’s no longer the spy we love?

The tra­di­tional pre-credit action sequence still exists, but Casino Royale dis­cards candy-coated Tech­ni­color for a grainy, styl­ized black-and-white noir style. Start­ing chrono­log­i­cally at the begin­ning, we see Bond exe­cute his first two kills, ful­fill­ing his final qual­i­fi­ca­tion for “double-oh” MI-6 sta­tus. Long­time Bond fans were also mol­li­fied by another grand tra­di­tion that imme­di­ate fol­lowed: a motion graph­ics title sequence fea­tur­ing a bevy of semi-nude female sil­hou­ettes. This par­tic­u­lar ani­ma­tion, with its stark red and black vec­tor graph­ics, may have pro­vided inspi­ra­tion for the open­ing titles of the 2007 tele­vi­sion series Mad Men. Unfor­tu­nately, Chris Cornell’s lame, tune­less song “You Know My Name” nearly ruins it.

Eva Green in Casino RoyaleYou noticed…

Fur­ther com­fort­ing con­ti­nu­ity with the pre­vi­ous instal­la­tions comes via ridicu­lous amounts of high-end prod­uct place­ment (cars, watches, sun­glasses, etc.) and a globe-trotting series of loca­tions (Uganda, Mada­gas­car, Bahamas, Miami, Mon­tene­gro, and Venice). Casino Royale also doesn’t fail to over-egg the pud­ding in terms of its vil­lain. Le Chiffre (Mads Mikkelsen) is scarred and asth­matic, with irri­tated tear ducts that seep blood. It was enough to sig­nify evil in the old days that the bad­die merely have metal teeth or a fluffy kitty cat.

But that’s where the con­ces­sions to Bond tra­di­tion end. To dis­cuss what’s new, let’s start with Bond him­self. No mat­ter how much testos­terone fan-favorite Sean Con­nery exuded, he could still be slightly effete, fuss­ing over van­i­ties and crea­ture com­forts like a well-prepared mar­tini. The Roger Moore era played up the tongue-in-cheek aspect of the series, but gor­geous women falling into bed with the frankly rather old, limp Moore was implau­si­ble at best. The suave Bros­nan was born to play the clas­sic ver­sion of Bond, but he wasn’t get­ting any younger as his films became as overblown and science-fictiony as the worst excesses of the Moore period. (I haven’t seen any of the Tim­o­thy Dal­ton or George Lazenby films, so I can’t com­ment on them.) Daniel Craig may not be the most macho Bond (Con­nery remains fandom’s favorite, for good rea­son), but he is clearly the most brutish and mas­cu­line. Younger, furi­ous, and buff, he’s a giant slab of man. In a hilar­i­ously clever inver­sion of tra­di­tion, Bond now bares more flesh than any of his female com­pan­ions, espe­cially in an instantly iconic shot of him strid­ing out of the ocean just barely wear­ing a scanty swim­suit. This Bond is almost absurdly phys­i­cally fit, a park­our expert, and gets painfully bruised and scarred in fights. The days of Bond walk­ing away from fisticuffs and fire­balls with nary a hair or bowtie astray are over.

Caterina Murino in Casino RoyaleWait… there was another Bond girl besides Eva Green?

21st Cen­tury Bond Girls are smarter and more proac­tive than ever, but not at the expense of being drop-dead gor­geous and at least half the age of the cur­rent lead actor. In this Dork Reporter’s esti­ma­tion, Eva Green as Ves­per Lynd ought to go down in his­tory as one of the great­est yet. She may not be as phys­i­cally adept at action as Michelle Yeoh, but she is one of the most beau­ti­ful. Best of all, she’s enjoy­ably con­ceived by writ­ers Neal Purvis, Robert Wade, and Paul Hag­gis as a true foil for the naughty double-entendres that still roll off this Bond’s tongue. She made such a strong impres­sion on me, that when rewatch­ing the film on DVD, I real­ized I had for­got­ten all about the other Bond Girl, Cate­rina Murino as Solange Dim­itrios. Her char­ac­ter pro­vides for a quick throw­back to retro Bond; he flirts with her solely for infor­ma­tion and then cru­elly aban­dons her to cer­tain death.

The thrilling film down­shifts for a long poker sequence, with no mercy shown for any­one who doesn’t under­stand the game (like, say, me). There does seem to have been a mis­cal­i­bra­tion how­ever, dur­ing one scene where even I could sense Le Chiffre was double-bluffing an obliv­i­ous Bond.

Dench is the only return­ing player from the Bros­nan era, but her char­ac­ter is now part ruth­less boss and part tough-love mother fig­ure. The one con­ven­tion of the clas­sic, sil­lier Bond sto­ries that I do miss is Q (Desmond Llewe­lyn) and his won­der­ful inven­tions. The high­light of every Con­nery, Moore, or Bros­nan film for me was always the cus­tom­ary stroll through Q’s lab as his lat­est pro­to­types mal­func­tion in amus­ingly lethal man­ners. I would cheer­fully recite along with Q’s scold­ing catch­phrase “Oh Bond, do pay attention.”

When­ever I see any Bond film, I’m always sur­prised at how enthu­si­as­ti­cally he lives up to his “license to kill” rep­u­ta­tion. The body count is always high, but Casino Royale is even more vio­lent than most. What dif­fer­en­ti­ates it is the time spent dwelling on the after­math, includ­ing Bond hav­ing to hide bod­ies instead of sim­ply strolling away from the car­nage with­out reper­cus­sions. There’s also a fleet­ing dash of crude moral­ity rarely if ever seen in the series; Bond must awk­wardly com­fort Ves­per, trau­ma­tized by her cul­pa­bil­ity in one of Bond’s kills. And whereas old-school Bond vil­lains would merely threaten bod­ily harm with laser beams and taran­tu­las, Bond must now must face ugly, raw tor­ture (which is A-OK with the hyp­o­crit­i­cal MPAA’s notion of PG-13 movies, appar­ently — but that’s a rant for another time).

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Låt den rätte komma in (Let the Right One In)

Let the Right One In movie poster


Let the Right One In (Låt den rätte komma in) is unapolo­get­i­cally a vam­pire story. It fol­lows most of the rules of the genre but avoids the stan­dard trap­pings of spec­tac­u­lar blood­let­ting (like, say, Blade) and sim­plis­tic sex­ual metaphors (we’re look­ing at you, Twi­light). Direc­tor Tomas Alfred­son and screen­writer John Ajvide (adapt­ing his own novel) are star­tlingly frank not just in their depic­tions of the rit­u­al­is­tic vio­lence inher­ent in a vampire’s every­day toil, but also in the des­per­ate hungers and desires of all their human char­ac­ters as well.

Novel and film are both set in 1980s Swe­den, at a time when the famously inde­pen­dent, neu­tral nation was strug­gling through a Cold War eco­nomic reces­sion. 12-year-old Oskar (Kåre Hede­brant) is meek, frail, and so fair as to seem albino. He splits his time between a scold­ing mother and a lov­ing but dis­tant father with unex­plained secrets. The only time we see Oskar happy is when play­ing in the snow at his father’s rural home. An omi­nous guest arrives, mut­ing even con­ver­sa­tion (we never learn the man’s iden­tity, or the rea­son for his smoth­er­ing effect, but for story pur­poses it only mat­ters that Oskar can­not be happy even here). Oskar is con­stantly bul­lied by school thugs seem­ingly inspired by the sav­age tor­tur­ers from the movie Deliv­er­ance: their favorite taunt is to demand he squeal like a pig. The con­stant pres­sure dri­ves him mor­bidly inward, rapidly becom­ing a poten­tial dan­ger to him­self and oth­ers. He secretly col­lects grue­some news­pa­per clip­pings of local crimes, and sneaks out­side at night to play­act his vengeance with matches and a knife. It’s easy for a 21st Cen­tury viewer to imag­ine Oskar becom­ing a school shooter.

Lina Leandersson in Let the Right One InEli (Lina Lean­der­s­son) has been twelve for a long time

A mys­te­ri­ous cou­ple moves in next door in the dead of night: Eli (Lina Lean­der­s­son), a girl appear­ing about his age, and her adult com­pan­ion Håkan (Per Rag­nar). Eli inter­rupts one of Oskar’s soli­tary night­time revenge fan­tasies, and they strike up a sort of friend­ship. As the habit­u­ally aloof Eli warms to his com­pany, she advises him to fight back against his oppres­sors. When he gets a chance to do so, Hedebrant’s star­tling per­for­mance dur­ing his tri­umph con­veys a dis­turb­ing impres­sion of a too-young boy expe­ri­enc­ing a kind of ecstasy. Com­pare and con­trast his obvi­ous plea­sure with the wholly dis­pas­sion­ate mur­ders com­mit­ted by Eli and Håkan. One won­ders how Alfred­son directed the young actor towards such a per­for­mance, and how much Hede­brant knew about the sub­text of how the scene would play on the screen. As becomes clear, Eli may not have had the boy’s best inter­ests at heart; was she urg­ing him to stand up for him­self, or set­ting him up for a big­ger fall later? Either way, she suc­ceeds in bind­ing him more closely to her.

Although Oskar is pubes­cent, his infat­u­a­tion with her does not seem to be espe­cially sex­ual. His hungers are more for com­pan­ion­ship and under­stand­ing. Eli says she is “not a girl,” and asks Oskar if he would still like her were she not. With lit­tle hes­i­ta­tion, he answers yes. He catches a glimpse of her naked torso, see­ing what seems to be a cas­tra­tion mark. But Eli is far more than just not a girl. Sub­tle spe­cial effects give us fleet­ing images of her with eerily enlarged eyes and as an older woman. She is per­ma­nently frozen in a state of child­hood, but it seems she hasn’t matured intel­lec­tu­ally and emo­tion­ally as her body remains in sta­sis (unlike the young char­ac­ter Clau­dia in Anne Rice’s Inter­view With the Vam­pire). As she tells him “I’ve been twelve for a long time.”

Let the Right One InVam­pires are hot stuff in bed

Although it doesn’t resem­ble more typ­i­cal vam­pire tales, Let the Right One In does fol­low most of the mythos: vam­pires have to be invited in (hence the name; to enter unin­vited will cause a painful, bloody death — a fate Eli demon­strates to Oskar to prove her affec­tion for him); any vic­tim bit­ten but not killed will become a vam­pire (Eli is shown to break a victim’s spine after feed­ing — a belated form of mercy com­ing from a vam­pire, I sup­pose); house­cats are com­pelled to attack vam­pires (as seen in not one of the most con­vinc­ing spe­cial effects sequences), and sun­light causes them to spon­ta­neously com­bust (as seen in one very con­vinc­ing sequence).

Eli shares with Oskar her motto “To flee is life. To linger, death.” Like her encour­age­ment to fight back against bul­lies, here is the key to under­stand­ing the mys­tery of her devoted human com­pan­ion Håkan. Eli has out­sourced her phys­i­cal needs to her self­lessly devoted ser­vant, essen­tially mak­ing him into a ser­ial killer on her behalf. What moti­vates him to com­ply? Was he once a boy, like Oscar, that fell in love with her? What­ever their bond, she ensures that Oskar is next in line to become her new provider.

After writ­ing the above, I read The A.V. Club’s excel­lent Book Vs. Film: Let the Right One In by Tasha Robin­son (part of a series also includ­ing Watch­men). In short, yes, a great deal needed to be omit­ted from the novel to shape the story into a fea­ture film. But Robin­son approves; rather than leav­ing too much out, the movie fruit­fully chooses a very dif­fer­ent, more inter­nal ver­sion of the story. Some tid­bits gleaned from the arti­cle that may be of inter­est to any­one else that hasn’t read the book:

  • The book is a more graphic, con­ven­tional hor­ror story.
  • Oskar’s father’s friend is a less sin­is­ter char­ac­ter in the book. Sim­ply, he’s a drink­ing buddy, and Oskar’s oth­er­wise decent father is appar­ently a mean drunk.
  • The title is derived from a Mor­ris­sey song quoted in the book: “Let the right one in / let the old dreams die / let the wrong ones go / They can­not do what you want them to do”
  • The Oskar of the novel is over­weight, inspir­ing the bul­lies’ “piggy” taunts.
  • The Håkan of the book is a pedophile. Eli encoun­tered him as an adult, and she trades some sex­ual favors for his ser­vices. Skim­ming the com­ments left below Robinson’s arti­cle, I see most other view­ers inter­preted the movie the same way I did.

Offi­cial movie site:

Must read: Let the Wrong Sub­ti­tles in to Let the Right One In. Icons of Fright finds the Eng­lish trans­la­tion lacking.

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Brideshead Revisited

Brideshead Revisited movie poster


Direc­tor Julian Jarrold’s lav­ish period piece Brideshead Revis­ited trots the globe like a gen­teel James Bond adven­ture, vis­it­ing Lon­don, Venice, and Morocco, but espe­cially the opu­lent Cas­tle Howard. From the per­spec­tive of an igno­ra­mus that hasn’t read Eve­lyn Waugh’s 1945 novel, this com­pressed ver­sion of what I imag­ine to be a grander prose nar­ra­tive doesn’t much fit the tra­di­tional struc­ture of a feature-length movie. For instance, a major char­ac­ter dis­ap­pears halfway through, and the inter­nal con­tra­dic­tion of another’s stunted emo­tional life ver­sus his grasp­ing desires is not a very cin­e­matic subject.

Charles Ryder (Matthew Goode) is a vora­ciously ambi­tious only child of a bit­ter, sar­cas­tic, wid­owed father. He leaves his emo­tion­ally sti­fling home behind to study his­tory at Oxford. His true aspi­ra­tions are to be a painter, even though the chilly athe­ist does not seem to posses the rich emo­tional life of an artist. His middle-class Lon­don fash­ions divide him from his new upper-class peers, but from his first arrival on cam­pus, he feels imme­di­ately drawn to the “sodomites.” As we learn more about Charles, we see that he does not so much share their sex­u­al­ity as he is fas­ci­nated by their out­wardly dra­matic, emo­tion­ally hon­est natures, and con­sid­er­able wealth — none of which he posesses. Curi­ously, Goode’s most recent screen appear­ance is as the sim­i­larly emo­tion­less and sex­u­ally ambigu­ous Ozy­man­dias in Watch­men (read The Dork Report review).

Julia Flyte, Emma Thompson, and Matthew Goode in Brideshead RevisitedMy loves, my hates, down even to my deep­est desires;I can no longer say whether these emo­tions are my own, or stolen from those oth­ers we des­per­ately wish to be

One among Charles’ new friends is equally hun­gry to attach him­self to him in return. The alco­holic, infan­tile Sebas­t­ian (Ben Whishaw) has more love for his teddy bear and house­keeper than for his extremely Roman Catholic mother Lady March­main (Emma Thomp­son, whose role is not much more than a cameo, despite being fea­tured front and cen­ter in the poster). Charles is awestruck by the wealth and opu­lence of Sebastian’s vast fam­ily estate Brideshead. As they pass through the chapel, the staunchly athe­ist Charles mim­ics his host and gen­u­flects. Sebas­t­ian upbraids him, for not only is he from another social class alto­gether, worse, he is not Catholic. Charles first exposes the essen­tial nature of his char­ac­ter when he replies that he was “just try­ing to fit in.”

But just as Charles’ cold home was defined by an unlov­ing patri­arch, Brideshead is blan­keted by Lady Marchmain’s oppres­sive miasma of Catholic guilt. Lord March­main (Michael Gam­bon) escaped by decamp­ing to Venice, where Catholics are a bit more lib­eral: they live their lives as they wish, and sim­ply con­fess their sins away when nec­es­sary. At first, it seems only Lord Marchmain’s mis­tress Cara (Greta Scac­chi) under­stands the sit­u­a­tion: this homo­sex­ual dal­liance is just a phase for Charles, but Sebas­t­ian is truly in love with him. We later learn that Lady March­main, whom one might assume would be blink­ered by her pious faith, is fully aware of her son’s pain. She also gives an even more astute analy­sis of what dri­ves Charles to attach him­self to the fam­ily: “You’re so des­per­ate to be liked, Charles.”

Julia Flyte, Ben Whishaw, and Matthew Goode in Brideshead RevisitedDrink­ing is not a hobby, Sebastian.

Charles is able to psy­cho­an­a­lyze him­self in the end: “did I want too much?” All his actions are dri­ven by desire: for the affec­tions of the Oxford gay clique, to reside in Brideshead, to marry Sebastian’s sis­ter Julia (Hay­ley Atwell), and to be praised by high soci­ety as a painter. But Charles is icily detached, with a notable lack of emo­tion and empa­thy. He calmly divorces his wife off­screen, in order to marry Julia and become lord of Brideshead. But as her fam­ily gives the sacra­ment of last rites to Lord March­main against his wishes, she per­ceives a mir­a­cle as he relents and reac­cepts his faith in his final moments. Her own faith is rekin­dled and she rejects Charles. In the end, his actions have ensured the final gen­er­a­tion of the fam­ily, and leave the desirous manse to no one.

Offi­cial movie site:

Buy the DVD from Ama­zon and kick back a few pen­nies to The Dork Report.

The Reader

The Reader movie poster


Direc­tor Stephen Daldry (The Hours, Billy Elliot) and screen­writer David Hare’s adap­ta­tion of Bern­hard Schlink’s novel (pro­duced by the late Anthony Minghella and Syd­ney Pol­lack) stud­ies evolv­ing notions of Ger­man post­war guilt and cul­pa­bil­ity. Unfold­ing across three dis­tinct time peri­ods (1958, 1966, and 1995), The Reader hinges on a sig­nif­i­cant reveal in its mid­dle that recasts pre­vi­ously seen events. This is not to com­pare it to more infa­mous exam­ples of stunt plot­ting like Fight Club or The Sixth Sense, both eas­ier to intro­duce with­out spoil­ing their big reveals: Brad Pitt and Edward Nor­ton beat each other up for fun! Haley Joel Osment and Bruce Willis inves­ti­gate ghosts! With­out its cru­cial piece of infor­ma­tion revealed mid­way through, one would be forced to describe The Reader as merely a story about a young man who has an affair with an older woman.

In 1958 Ger­many, 15-year-old Michael Berg (David Kross) has a summer-long affair with a 36-year-old stranger Hanna (Kate Winslet). For him, the rela­tion­ship is heat­edly emo­tional and erotic, but for the strangely dis­pas­sion­ate woman it seems to be about ful­fill­ing some unknown need or hunger that he (or the audi­ence, yet) doesn’t under­stand. Her sex­ual advances are sud­den and blunt, and he doesn’t even learn her name until their third assig­na­tion. She bathes him harshly and dis­pas­sion­ately, cer­tainly not as a lover, or even a mother would her child. Hanna repeat­edly rein­forces their age dif­fer­en­tial by insist­ing on call­ing him “kid,” but reverses tra­di­tional age roles by hav­ing him read to her. As the sum­mer passes, she more overtly trades sex for read­ing. The highly reg­i­mented Hanna has excelled at her job of sell­ing bus tick­ets, and faces a pro­mo­tion. We don’t yet know why, but she doesn’t want to stand out. She abruptly leaves town, cut­ting off the affair.

David Kross and Kate Winslet in The ReaderIt says right here in my con­tract that I get a half dozen sex scenes with you…

In 1966, Michael (still played by Kross) is in law school. As part of a sem­i­nar study­ing the Holo­caust, he attends the trial of sev­eral accused con­cen­tra­tion camp guards, one of whom turns out to be Hanna. Despite man­ag­ing to hide in plain sight for years, she now unapolo­get­i­cally tells the truth, seem­ingly unaware of how doing so indicts her­self. Michael is hor­ri­fied to learn that what she calls her “job” was to be a guard at the most infa­mous of all evil places on earth: Auschwitz. The par­tic­u­lar crime she is on trial for is lock­ing hun­dreds of pris­on­ers inside a burn­ing church. Her more self-serving cohorts attempt to pin her as the leader, in order to lessen their own culpability.

One seem­ingly minor anec­dote is told about her habits at the camp: she chose a few young women to feed and pro­tect. The pris­on­ers sus­pected her of being a les­bian, an exploita­tion they could under­stand, but she only asked in return that they read aloud to her. She would not pro­tect her girls for­ever; when one met their death, she would sim­ply select another girl. This anec­dote is under­stood by the court to be an inex­plic­a­ble quirk of an evil per­son, a mere mat­ter of char­ac­ter, but Michael real­izes the truth: she was, and remains, illit­er­ate. Michael is forced to recast the mean­ing of their affair in his mind. In a way, he was also her cap­tive, and she sim­i­larly used him for her lit­er­ary edi­fi­ca­tion (and not for, as his teenage mind would have fan­tasied, love or at least sex­ual grat­i­fi­ca­tion). Was he some­how to her like the girls she chose in the camp to enter­tain her? Did she do so out of self-interest, or to give them tem­po­rary com­fort before they died? Or some com­bi­na­tion of the two, a kind of tradeoff?

David Kross and Kate Winslet in The ReaderKate Winslet is shocked, shocked to learn there are naughty bits in Lady Chatterly’s Lover

Hanna could absolve her­self of at least one charge. By admit­ting her illit­er­acy, she could prove that she was not solely respon­si­ble for cov­er­ing up the church inci­dent. But she mys­ti­fy­ingly chooses to accept cul­pa­bil­ity rather than admit she can’t read. The mys­tery of the char­ac­ter is how any­one would be so ashamed of their illit­er­acy that they would effec­tively con­demn them­self to a life­time prison sen­tence instead of the 3–4 years that her cohorts receive. Michael could help her case by com­ing for­ward, but does not. Is he pro­tect­ing his pri­vacy, or effec­tively choos­ing to pun­ish her? Both? In 1995, Michael (now played by Ralph Fiennes, look­ing and sound­ing more and more like Lau­rence Olivier) opts to give her a sig­nif­i­cant present from afar. He begins with cas­sette tapes of him read­ing, and later pro­vides the tools to help her teach her­self to read.

A key ques­tion is whether or not he has for­given her for her crimes against human­ity, not to men­tion those against him: break­ing his heart and arguably sex­u­ally abus­ing him. Tech­ni­cally, Hanna is a pedophile. Such crimes are usu­ally imag­ined as being per­pe­trated by men. Cer­tainly, films aren’t made where a 15-year-old girl’s rela­tion­ship with a hot 36 year old male might be seen as a sex­ual awak­en­ing. But Michael is in fact dam­aged; as he grows into an adult, his abil­ity to forge solid rela­tion­ships (either roman­tic rela­tion­ships with women or as a par­ent to his own daugh­ter) is stunted. When he first met Hanna, he saw her as adult and sexy. But in prison she is reduced to a child­like state, learn­ing to read like a lit­tle girl. When the adult Michael comes to visit her, it is he that is the adult and she the trem­bling depen­dent look­ing up to him, even though she is chrono­log­i­cally much older.

David Kross and Kate Winslet in The ReaderThis rare spy shot from the set of The Reader shows David Kross and Kate Winslet actu­ally clothed

Because The Reader is a movie, and movies star stars, and because Kate Winslett is gor­geous and fre­quently naked, one instinc­tively wants to sym­pa­thize with her char­ac­ter Han­nah. But the fact of the mat­ter is that Han­nah is a mon­ster. What makes the char­ac­ter inter­est­ing is that she evi­dently can’t see the enor­mity of what makes her, for lack of a bet­ter word, evil. The emi­nently prac­ti­cal Hanna does not seem to be a woman of many pas­sions. She even seems sur­prised at first that the young Michael might be attracted to her sex­u­ally. When we meet her, she spends her joy­less life alone in a drab flat and mun­dane job sell­ing bus tick­ets. We later learn that she approached her “respon­si­bil­i­ties” at Auschwitz with the same rigid­ity. She baldly admits to the events and what she did, not even really hid­ing behind the stan­dard excuse of just fol­low­ing orders. In her mind, she seems to have been act­ing out of duty and respon­si­bil­ity to exe­cute (so to speak) the require­ments of her job. Hanna is so madly rule-oriented that she equated the sub­ju­ga­tion of her pris­on­ers to being a kind of pro­tec­tive responsibility.

A total lack of remorse is a sign of a sociopath, or of some­one who is psy­cho­log­i­cally pro­tect­ing them­selves from con­fronting what they have done. Whether she com­part­men­tal­ized her emo­tions or didn’t have any to begin with, Hanna was able to func­tion as a cog in a giant atroc­ity machine, and to live on dis­pas­sion­ately after­wards. She must not be alone, for count­less peo­ple oper­ated just like her, mak­ing the Holo­caust pos­si­ble. Hanna is inter­est­ing to com­pare with costar Fiennes’ role as the Nazi com­man­dant Amon Göth in Stephen Spielberg’s Schindler’s List. Göth was tor­tured by his attrac­tion to a Jew­ish woman that his job (and Ger­man soci­ety at the time) dic­tated that he must view as less than human. He is an evil man who nev­er­the­less seems more able than Hanna to faintly per­ceive his depravity.

Ralph Fiennes in The ReaderRalph Fiennes is depressed he’s not in any of The Reader’s sex scenes

Ron Rosen­baum took offense to the “Holo­caust porn” aspects of both the novel and the film for Slate Mag­a­zine. Is the story “redemp­tive,” as Rosen­baum accuses? As I thought about the film more, I think that Hanna’s shame over her illit­er­acy was some­thing to cling to, when she couldn’t grasp the enor­mity of her crimes. It was eas­ier for her to allow her­self to go to jail under the umbrella, in her own mind at least, of con­tin­u­ing to hide the much lesser of her two secrets. So, I don’t think the film and novel take the stance that illit­er­acy is a greater shame than enabling the Holo­caust; but rather Hanna’s intel­lec­tual defi­ciency is emo­tion­ally eas­ier for her to cling to than admit to the obliv­i­ous herd men­tal­ity that allowed her to rigidly fol­low the rules and help effect the Final Solution.

Rosen­baum also accuses the film of por­tray­ing ordi­nary Ger­mans as being igno­rant of the Holo­caust. Per­haps Rosen­baum doesn’t recall the law school sequences in which Pro­fes­sor Rohl (Bruno Gantz), him­self a camp sur­vivor, holds a sem­i­nar with some of his best law stu­dents dis­cussing Ger­man guilt and cul­pa­bil­ity. I found it inter­est­ing to con­sider the first gen­er­a­tion of Ger­mans (rep­re­sented by Michael) that grew up after the war, sur­rounded by adults that lived through it and had vary­ing degrees of involve­ment (active or pas­sive). Some of the most rep­re­hen­si­ble char­ac­ters in the film (even more so than Hanna) are her com­rades that deny that any­thing hap­pened. The only char­ac­ter I can think of that may sup­port Rosenbaum’s accu­sa­tion is the war crimes judge pre­sid­ing over Hanna’s case. He would have the­o­ret­i­cally been in a posi­tion of power dur­ing the war, but is seen affect­ing out­rage at Hannah’s crimes.

Per­son­ally, I found Hanna to be an inter­est­ing char­ac­ter, which is not the same as sym­pa­thetic. I would describe her as infan­tilized and not even really wor­thy of pity. My inter­pre­ta­tion of the story is that Michael chose to pun­ish her by allow­ing her to indict her­self on the wit­ness stand, but in her mind it was due to the far more palat­able excuse of keep­ing the secret of her illit­er­acy. She avoided accept­ing her own war crimes in order to make it pos­si­ble to live with her­self. The adult Michael gifts her a belated edu­ca­tion, which is not nec­es­sar­ily an act of kind­ness. Per­haps he believes that stim­u­lat­ing her intel­li­gence and imag­i­na­tion might enable her to under­stand her guilt. If so, he utterly suc­ceeds, for she kills her­self. It’s ambigu­ous whether he sui­cide is about guilt or sim­ply over her fear of func­tion­ing in soci­ety after decades in prison.

The biggest clue that the out­wardly cold Hanna is even capa­ble of hav­ing buried emo­tions and guilt is the fact that she is inter­ested in books at all. Oth­er­wise, it wouldn’t make log­i­cal sense that this cold, dis­pas­sion­ate per­son who seduces and fucks with as lit­tle emo­tion as she sells bus tick­ets, works in a con­cen­tra­tion camp, or allows hun­dreds of Jews to burn to death, would have a love for literature.

Offi­cial movie site:

Must Read: Don’t Give an Oscar to The Reader by Ron Rosenbaum

Buy the orig­i­nal novel by Bern­hard Schlink or DVD from Ama­zon and kick back a few pen­nies to The Dork Report.


Blindness movie poster


Direc­tor Fer­nando Meirelles has exam­ined des­per­ate pres­sure cook­ers City of God) and insti­tu­tional cor­rup­tion (The Con­stant Gar­dener) before. Blind­ness proves per­fect to meld both themes, with a sci­ence fic­tion twist imag­in­ing the down­fall of civ­i­liza­tion itself.

Blind­ness is part of a spe­cial sub­set of the horror/sci-fi/disaster genre: the dystopian end-of-civilization night­mare. Whereas the typ­i­cal entry works by intro­duc­ing a dis­rupt­ing ele­ment into the sta­tus quo (typ­i­cally a mon­ster), a few instead sub­tract one fun­da­men­tal fact of life that we take for granted. The basic recipe is sim­ple: flip one switch, and watch civ­i­liza­tion fall in short order. In Chil­dren of Men (read The Dork Report review), human­ity becomes infer­tile. In the Hap­pen­ing (read The Dork Report review), the bios­phere starts pump­ing out poi­son. In the comic book series Y: The Last Man, all males on the planet sud­denly die off. In innu­mer­able zom­bie flicks (read The Dork Report’s George A. Romero Zom­bie Cycle), death is no longer absolute. It may not be a coin­ci­dence that at least two mem­bers of the Blind­ness cast already have rel­e­vant expe­ri­ence on their résumés: Julianne Moore in Chil­dren of Men and Alice Braga in I Am Legend.

Julianne Moore in Blindness“The only thing more ter­ri­fy­ing than blind­ness is being the only one who can see.”

All of these sto­ries bleed over into the genre realms of sci­ence fic­tion and hor­ror. Blind­ness, how­ever, is based on the mag­i­cal real­ist (if it’s accu­rate for me to call it that) novel by José Sara­m­ago. The novel is set in a generic city, fea­tur­ing unnamed char­ac­ters (the movie, filmed in São Paulo, Brazil, effec­tively pre­serves both con­ceits — I didn’t notice until the cred­its rolled that the char­ac­ters did not have names). With­out get­ting bogged down in pseudo-scientific details, Zara­m­ago posits a highly con­ta­gious “White Blind­ness” that rapidly sweeps the globe, affect­ing every­one but one ran­dom woman. The movie’s expla­na­tion is a far more lit­eral highly com­mu­ni­ca­ble dis­ease, diag­nosed for the audi­ence by the unnamed opthamol­o­gist “Doc­tor” (Mark Ruf­falo). By sheer coin­ci­dence, The Doctor’s Wife (Moore) appears to be immune. The obvi­ous chal­lenge for the film­mak­ers is how to ren­der a prose story about blind­ness into the most visual sto­ry­telling medium of all. Cin­e­matog­ra­pher César Char­lone (who also shot City of God and The Con­stant Gar­dener) meets the chal­lenge by cre­at­ing stun­ning visu­als which para­dox­i­cally obscure. The pic­ture fre­quently flares into a burned-out white­ness, often a relief from the ugly filth in which the char­ac­ters find them­selves liv­ing as the safety net of soci­ety collapses.

The story bru­tally details a basi­cally pes­simistic view of human nature. Right from the start, humanity’s inher­ent greed and avarice make a cat­a­strophic sit­u­a­tion worse. The very first vic­tim of the dis­ease is imme­di­ately exploited by a car thief (ironic, as auto­mo­biles are shortly to become the most futile of valu­ables to steal). As the blind­ness dis­ease spreads, the author­i­ties (rep­re­sented by The Min­is­ter of Health, in what amounts to a cameo by San­dra Oh) attempt to con­tain the infected in iso­la­tion wards, a weak euphemism for con­cen­tra­tion camps. As The Man With the Black Eye Patch (Danny Glover) states in a nicely writ­ten but implau­si­bly elo­quent mono­logue, “the dis­ease was immune to bureaucracy.”

Dany Glover in Blindness“I know that part inside you with no name, and that’s who we are, right?”

The infected are made up of char­ac­ters from many cul­tural and eco­nomic back­grounds, much like Ale­jan­dro González Iñárritu’s Babel (2006). Left alone to self-organize, two oppos­ing soci­eties coa­lesce around two very dif­fer­ent nat­ural lead­ers. The Doc­tor and his Wife cre­ate a frag­ile but func­tion­ing democ­racy, but the King of Ward Three (Gael Gar­cía Bernal) forges a depraved Sodom built on exploit­ing their few resources for short-term base plea­sures. Inevitably, the two fledg­ling states go to war, as much out of ide­ol­ogy as for want of resources. As the ward denizens’ cir­cum­stances get worse and worse, the movie itself becomes a pun­ish­ing expe­ri­ence to watch (an imi­ta­tive fal­lacy). In terms of depic­tions of vio­lence, it is no less explicit than, say, Chil­dren of Men, but wholly lacks that supe­rior film’s dark wit and essen­tial thread of hope. Whereas Chil­dren of Men had no real vil­lain (Luke, Chi­we­tel Ejio­for, was actu­ally more of a Che Guevarra-type rev­o­lu­tion­ary), there is lit­tle or no sub­tlety of char­ac­ter in Blind­ness’ wholly evil bad guys. Would the cen­tral alle­gory be more inter­est­ing to pon­der if the vil­lains were not so unam­bigu­ously mon­strous? Even I Am Leg­end dropped hints that its vampire/zombie-like mon­sters pos­sessed crude intel­li­gence, a will to live, and empa­thy for their own kind.

The frag­ile com­mu­nity in the wards dis­in­te­grates into a hell of gang rape and open war. Then, amaz­ingly, it gets worse. But as the walls of the prison burn, the pris­on­ers dis­cover the doors have actu­ally been left open. If any­thing, the world out­side has become worse off than the pres­sure cooker in which they were impris­oned. After a har­row­ing trip through the dev­as­tated city, they expe­ri­ence one fleet­ing moment of joy as they bathe in the rain. After­wards, they set up an eden in the Doc­tor and his Wife’s for­mer home, like a less-satiric ver­sion of the for­ti­fied sub­ur­ban shop­ping mall in George A. Romero’s Dawn of the Dead (read The Dork Report review). The Doctor’s Wife’s newly extended fam­ily embraces her as their “leader with vision.”

Offi­cial movie site:

Buy the novel or DVD from Ama­zon and kick back a few pen­nies to The Dork Report.

The Kite Runner

The Kite Runner


Since res­ur­rect­ing The Dork Report ear­lier this year with the intent of writ­ing some­thing about every movie I see, The Kite Run­ner is the first about which I have lit­tle to say. Per­haps the movie appealed more to peo­ple with an emo­tional con­nec­tion to the novel (I haven’t read it). But, as per the rules I set for myself with this blog, I have to say some­thing, so here it is:

I’ll applaud any film that presents the Tal­iban as a bunch of child buggerers.

The Kite RunnerOh, go fly a kite

Offi­cial movie site:

Buy the DVD from Ama­zon and kick back a few pen­nies to The Dork Report.