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 denouement 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?


Official site: www.theroad-movie.com

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Chrome Dome: Ridley Scott’s G.I. Jane

Ridley Scott

G.I. Jane movie poster

 

Ridley Scott has made his share of testosterone-laden Hollywood flicks, ranging from his very first feature The Duellists (read The Dork Report review), through Black Rain (read The Dork Report review), and finally blowing the top off the scale with Gladiator. But unlike many of his contemporaries (Michael Mann and Michael Bay come to mind), a surprising number of feminist-themed films with strong female characters are scattered amongst his oeuvre: Alien, Thelma & Louise, and G.I. Jane.

Demi Moore in Ridley Scott's G.I. JaneDemi Moore sports the chrome dome look that failed to take off in the 90s

For Alien’s protagonist Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) to be female was not just a bold choice for a horror / science fiction film, but an utterly appropriate one. Alien is loaded with symbolic fertility imagery and metaphorical childbirth. Ripley grapples with the themes of reproduction (and, arguably, abortion) anthropomorphized as a carnivorous monster with an erect penis for a head. Thelma & Louise had an explosive impact upon its release, and this Dork Reporter recalls seeing it on the cover of Time Magazine. A common theme in the press’ coverage of the controversial film was that such a story of female empowerment was in fact directed by… gasp… a man! To oversimplify, the film considered the relative morality of violence when perpetrated by an oppressed gender. Thelma & Louise packed pistols a decade later than Ripley aborted her alien baby with a phallic flamethrower.

Demi Moore and Viggo Mortensen in Ridley Scott's G.I. JaneViggo Mortensen dresses down Demi Moore with his eyes

Thelma & Louise may have raised hackles and inspired countless op-ed pieces about gender equality, but I recall Scott’s G.I. Jane not being taken seriously at all upon release. Its premise was its worst feature, and indeed one might compare it to Goldie Hawn’s Private Benjamin, except for the minor detail that it’s not funny. Craven politician Lillian DeHaven (Anne Bancroft) talks a rising female Navy lifer Jordan O’Neill (Demi Moore) into competing against a bevy of men in the most grueling and gender-segregated type of military training ever devised: the Navy SEALs (in the real world, SEAL training is expressly limited to males, and no woman has yet been allowed to attempt it). DeHaven manipulates the resultant media circus to gain votes and save the military bases in her state from closure. O’Neill faces off against Master Chief (Viggo Mortensen), a closeted sensitive guy who repurposes a D.H. Lawrence poem to initiate his standard ritual of humiliation and dehumanization.

Demi Moore in Ridley Scott's G.I. JaneHands up, who doesn’t want to watch Demi Moore do one-armed push ups?

Beyond the contrived premise, G.I. Jane was obviously a vanity star vehicle for an overreaching actor known more for her considerable beauty and fitness and than her acting chops. It didn’t last long, but Moore was one of the biggest Hollywood stars of 1997. Here, she shows off her muscular physique in scopophilic workout and shower sequences, and famously shaves her head live on film. It’s a weak form of feminism for O’Neill’s greatest triumph to be her triumphant exclamation “suck my dick.” She transforms herself into just one of the guys rather than proving herself as a human being of equal standing, be she male or female.

Now having seen G.I. Jane as part of The Dork Report’s Unseen Ridley Scott Film Festival, the best I can say is that it’s not as bad as I would have imagined. If Black Rain found Scott in Michael Mann territory, G.I. Jane places him squarely in Michael Bay country. SEAL training is shown in great detail, with all the fetishized military hardware and windblown American flags one would expect in a Bay hagiography. But most shocking to a viewer in 2008 is a sequence in which O’Neill is subjected to waterboarding. It cuts through the nauseating patriotism like electrodes to the genitals.


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