In 2005, my cinematic senses were set ablaze by John Hillcoat’s The Proposition (2005), a gritty Western written by Gothic rocker Nick Cave. Hillcoat’s use of imagery and sound (particularly in the film’s opening shoot out) was hauntingly poetic and comparisons were made to Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian. When Hillcoat announced that his next project would be an adaptation of McCarthy’s most recent work, the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Road, it seemed like a match made in cinematic (and Academy Award) heaven. Unfortunately, the finished product, delayed one year by the Weinstein Company to grant Hillcoat a longer post-production period, is a dour failure.
The film, like the book, follows a man (Viggo Mortensen) and his son (Kodi Smit-McPhee) as they travel across a post-apocalyptic America. An unseen and unknown force (implied to be a nuclear disaster) has killed most of the human and animal population and left the landscape ravaged and unable to sustain plant life. The father and son, following the suicide of the family’s matriarch (Charlize Theron) and unable to survive one more winter on limited resources, hit the desolate highway to make their way down the coast to improve their conditions. As if the barren landscape did not make survival enough of a hardship, many of the remaining human survivors have turned to pillaging and cannibalism. The road is not easy, the road is long and, unfortunately for us, The Road is rather bumpy.
As an film adaptation of a beloved and prize-winning novel by a critically embraced author that follows on the tail of a beloved and prize winning adaptation of another novel by the same author (the Coens’ No Country for Old Men), The Road has a great deal of cultural capital and baggage tied to its title. Critiques of film adaptations often devolve into discussions of textual fidelity. Yet, how can one medium be faithful to another? Film is a medium based upon sound and images whereas a novel is based on prose. Sure, they’re both forms that often deal with narratives, but they’re fundamentally different with regard to their formal attributes and the industries and audiences that engage with them. For instance, Cormac McCarthy can write a nuclear disaster into a book at the cost of a couple words. To bring the same event to the screen costs a great sum of money. Finally, a book can stretch hundreds of pages, requiring hours of a reader’s time, whereas a film is limited to roughly ninety minutes in which the filmmaker, not the reader, pushes the plot forward. Despite all these differences, if a film adaptation deviates from its source material by altering plot points, characters, or setting, viewers tend to get agitated and decry the adaptation as being “unfaithful.”
Hollywood’s fear of appeasing readers of a book and/or a filmmaker’s desire to be faithful to a property is often disastrous in limiting the imagination of the filmmaker. Think of the difference between an episode of Masterpiece Theater and a film like David Cronenberg’s A History of Violence. Why is the latter more entertaining than the former when viewed in the light of the original text? I would tend to think the reason lies in the fact that Cronenberg strayed from the source material and that action allowed him to make a film that deals with many of the same issues as the original graphic novel but in the unique formal terms of film. Why be faithful to an original text anyway? If I really cherished the thoughts and feelings that arise when I read a book, why would I care if it was a movie or not? Why not just go back to the book and rekindle those undiluted sensations from the source?
The problem with The Road is that Hillcoat, screenwriter Joe Penhill, and the Weinstein Company tried to produce the most faithful adaptation possible and, in doing so, made a mediocre film based on a mediocre book. After seeing No Country for Old Men (2007), I immediately went to the bookstore and picked up McCarthy’s Blood Meridian: Or the Evening Redness in the West and The Road. I read the latter novel first and found barren prose and a rather trite theme. The Road, both in its paper and celluloid form, is fundamentally a story about the love between a father and a son that flourishes despite raging cannibals and a whole cast of characters that do not carry the moral goodness of “the fire.” Quite simply, the story lacks the intellectual and moral depth that I found in McCarthy’s Blood Meridian (which, I must say, is not one of my favorite books in the world, either), leaving it rather dull and boring.
Now, there are many pieces of art that have risen from a tried and true theme and yet are memorable and perhaps even wonderful. Admittedly, the film still follows McCarthy’s lead towards the deep end of the pool by having the man go through a crisis of morality, as he fearfully strips and robs another traveler (Michael “Omar from The Wire” K. Williams), only to be chastised by his son, who suddenly becomes the film’s true moral compass. Yet, it’s a simple theme that never pushes itself beyond that simplicity, which is the main reason why this review is so difficult to write. The film is beautifully shot (by Javier Aguirresarobe), has a well-crafted musical score by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis, and showcases some decent performances (although, as a friend of mine noted on the way out of the theater, the real acclaim should be given to whoever handled the tear dropper for Mortensen and McPhee). Yet, at the end of the day, Hillcoat indulges McCarthy’s emphasis on a lot of crying, a lot of running, and a lot of fearful embraces. The film is crippled by the albatross of “faithful adaptation,” whatever one takes that to mean. Because the filmmakers followed this approach, the disappointment I felt with the book was simply a foregone conclusion in the film.
Drew Morton is a Ph.D. student in Cinema and Media Studies at the University of California-Los Angeles. He has previously written for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and UWM Post and is the 2008 recipient of the Otis Ferguson Award for Critical Writing in Film Studies.