With a Bang, Followed by a Long, Miserable Whimper
'Tis the season, as they say, when thoughts turn to the cataclysmic extinction of mankind, accompanied by rampant cannibalism and the death of all that is good and right in the world. Oh who am I kidding? I think about those things every day, and based on the comment threads around here, I'm not the only one. Cormac McCarthy's monumental novel The Road has been much on my mind lately in the wake of the release of the film version, director John Hillcoat and screenwriter Joe Penhall's admirable yet unsuccessful attempt to adapt McCarthy's masterpiece about a nameless man and his son (played by Viggo Mortenson and Kodi Smit-McPhee) trekking across a post-apocalyptic wasteland.
Just so there's no confusion, let me preface my remarks by noting that I enjoyed the film version of The Road and felt substantial relief that Hillcoat and screenwriter Joe Penhall did not shit all over McCarthy's original work. When I had previously studied the list of high-profile movie stars cast in a story with a paucity of roles outside the two primary characters, my heart sank with the expectation that the filmmakers would feel it necessary to beef up the handful of tiny supporting parts in the book. In so doing, I assumed they would crassly trample the sense of isolation so critical to the central relationship in the book.
In particular, casting Charlize Theron as the wife and mother of the two wanderers seemed to telegraph the commercial compromise of a substantial female lead when the book had hardly developed the character beyond the scar of her absence. I also fully expected a mercenary nod to fans of post-apocalyptic action-thrillers, in the form of longer action scenes and more heroics from the protagonists, departing from McCarthy's sparing use of action for the sole purpose of showing the terror in the heart of a fugitive pursued by those with no use for him whole and alive.
Hillcoat's film is true to the novel's spirit, however, limiting the one-scene appearances by Robert Duvall, Michael K. Smith (Omar!), and Guy Pearce to the few lines of dialogue meted out by McCarthy. Each of the three is almost unrecognizable under the grime of ten years of post-apocalyptic wandering, dimming their movie star wattage in service to the story. Equally impressive, Hillcoat and Penhall forego action film tropes and retain McCarthy's theme that self-preservation comes to his protagonists through the avoidance of other humans. In this world, action isn't exciting; it's terrifying, because fighting or running means someone is trying to take what you have or murder you, and a sprained ankle or a deep wound is probably a death sentence. In this world, just encountering another person likely means death or worse.
The filmmakers do expand Theron's role slightly beyond the character in the book, though after watching the film I believe that choice resulted not from a desire to appease audiences with a female protagonist -- Theron's character is not particularly strong -- but from a director's decision to personify in a female voice the book's sleet-harsh tone of wracked, hopeless despair. I also suspect that once Hillcoat got a look at the spooky resemblance between Theron and Smit-McPhee, who plays Theron's son with Mortenson, the director decided to emphasize the tragic echo of Theron's existence in the face of a child who would never know the safety or joy of a world that, once lost forever, doomed Theron's character to despair and surrender. During a scene in which Mortenson treats his son to the rare luxury of a hot bath, washing away the dirt and grime and rinsing and combing his hair, the reflection of Theron in Smit-McPhee's face lends an extra layer to the love of the father for his son -- the boy bears his father's tragic love for two people, and Mortenson is reminded of both of them every time he sees his son's face.
I should also add that McCarthy's novel is one of my favorite books, though it falls into that odd category of great artistic works I've taken in once and do not care to experience again. The Road taught me some things about myself and my worldview, and it's rare that an artist has so shaken my foundation. After reading The Road in early 2007, I fell into a six-week depression from coming to grips with my fundamental assessment of the nature of man and the future of humankind. Like the Edward Norton film American History X, McCarthy's The Road is so unflinching in its confrontation of the inherent savagery of men that consuming the work is the spiritual equivalent of staring at the sun -- the intensity of the experience sears so deeply that one shies away from repeating it.
Not all books are suitable for adaptation to a film medium, however, and The Road, which is essentially a modern Book of Revelations, requires such a vast sense of grey, bleak hopelessness that a two-hour movie simply cannot capture its scope. While Hillcoat's film can stand on its own terms, shoulder to shoulder with other strong films about human loneliness in the face of savagery, it doesn't capture the vast, crushed emptiness of the world envisioned by McCarthy, nor the desperate yet weary horror of a formerly civilized species reverting to enslaving the weak and less vigilant for use as cattle.
It's not that Penhall doesn't incorporate those elements into his adaptation of the narrative, or that Hillcoat fails to deliver a visual experience approximating McCarthy's written words. It's simply that a feature film is an insufficient vessel for McCarthy's exquisitely torturous account of the ten-year unraveling of life in the wintry, lethal aftermath of Armageddon. Indeed, McCarthy's Armageddon happens in stages, like a stroke victim slowly withering away as his body consumes itself -- after the initial cataclysm, the true horror is the earth's long, agonizing death spiral.
In contrast, while Hillcoat and Penhall pay the necessary tribute to the teetering extinction of humankind, the film simply cannot bear the weight of the concept. McCarthy's novel, while not overly long, used spare yet biblically epic structure and language to convey not only the weary journey of the protagonists but the catastrophically swift and excruciatingly slow death of a sentient, ambitious species unable to overcome its own base nature. In contrast, by its own internal limitations a film must rely on establishing shots and bits of voiceover exposition to attempt to capture the depth and breadth of humanity's bloody death-seizure on the end of its own spear. Hillcoat and Penhall by necessity dedicate significant time to the interactions with the supporting characters and the flashbacks to Theron's pained final days, and when combined with the heart-stopping moments of escape from predators, the film feels cluttered by comparison to the book. The spacing of events in the written format would require hours of additional narrative to succeed in a film medium, and no one wants to sit through a ten-hour movie watching Mortenson and Smit-McPhee trudge through one blasted hellscape after another. Yet ultimately, The Road is about that journey, about the long spaces between terrors that reduce the precious gift of existence to an anxious, bone-weary crawl toward the end; about the endurance of suffering afforded a man by his love for his son. Shortening their passage to accommodate the limitations of cinema robs the work of most of its power.
Still, The Road is overall a success as a standalone film, though Hillcoat does make a major narrative misstep in the translation of McCarthy's central theme, and I'll have to throw out a **spoiler** to discuss this aspect of the film. In sum, Hillcoat completely omits the most critical metaphor used by McCarthy in the book, a sequence in which the protagonists shadow a trio of travelers -- two men and a pregnant woman -- in an attempt to discern whether they are dangerous. During the night, the woman gives birth while man and boy observe from the darkness surrounding the trio's campfire. The morning brings a horrifying revelation, however, when man and boy discover the charred remains of a newborn infant, consumed by three humans who have nothing to feed a baby and less to feed themselves, reduced to the harshest imaginable savagery by the raw wound of starvation. It is rare that a book brings me to tears, but McCarthy's gut-wrenching account of the scene stands as one of the most emotionally difficult passages I have encountered.
And while that scene is the most horrific moment in McCarthy's novel, it is also the crucial central metaphor for his overarching allegory, a commentary on the world we are leaving our children: not just the possibility of extinction through weapons of mass destruction, but the rapacious consumption of the earth and the deliberate poisoning of its atmosphere in the most destructive ways imaginable. The scene is the most important moment in the novel, the confrontation of a human spirit so dessicated, so reduced to an animal level, that it knows nothing but blind, chewing survival. The protagonists observe in microcosm that humans are so savage at the core that they cannot refrain from consuming their own young -- they will murder and eat their own children in order to further their own survival, both in the abstract and in McCarthy's projected reality.
It's not clear whether Hillcoat and Penhall simply missed the boat on this scene, or whether they considered it unfilmable because of the negative reaction audiences might have. I tend to suspect the latter, as the emotional devastation of the event might have rendered impossible the already difficult task of marketing this film: The Road would forever be "that movie where they ate the baby." At the risk of sounding snobby -- Paji-tentious, one might say -- most audiences in the United States would be utterly unprepared to handle a graphic depiction of this crucial aspect of McCarthy's work. Without it, however, the film again falls substantially short of the novel. Any film adaptation of the book was doomed to fail. Hillman's and Penhall's failure was a noble one, however, and ironically, considering my opinion of its merits relative to the novel, I think I can watch the film again.
Ted Boynton is a dedicated sot who plans to leave his barstool to stalk Whit Stillman, now that someone has found Whit Stillman. Ted also manages to hold down a job and a wife, three hours each per day, whether they need it or not. Readers may scold, hector, admonish or taunt Ted by e-mailing him at firstname.lastname@example.org.