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.
“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.
“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.
“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.
“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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