Reading Cormac McCarthy's mesmerizing The Road, then seeing John Hillcoat's faithful but pale imitation of a film adaptation, invites discussion about words and images and how differently they function. The triumph of McCarthy's novel is its author's poetic and resigned use of language to convey startling, heart-wrenching emotion. In the novel, the world has more or less ended, laid to waste by an unspecified catastrophe that has made cannibals out of most of its human survivors, and as an unnamed man and boy travel toward the Gulf Coast looking for an ocean that may no longer be blue, the reader—like the man played in the film with blinkered intensity by Viggo Mortensen—is forced to reckon with the possibility of hope persisting in the face of cataclysmic adversity. Where Terrence Malick, whose sensuality and spiritual zeal makes him a kindred spirit of McCarthy's, might have made a transcendent cinematic statement from this gripping story, Hillcoat settles for something almost numbing in its literal-mindedness.
McCarthy's prose, rife with provocative moral inquiry and a heart-pounding sense of unease, strokes the imagination while Hillcoat's soothes it: Where The Road the novel is spare, relentless, gray, even anguished in tone, the movie version, with its brownish color palette and flowery flashbacks, is almost warm and inviting. In the first sign that Hillcoat doesn't trust his audience the same way McCarthy does, he fills the movie with countless flashbacks to its adult protagonist's life with his wife (Charlize Theron). These scenes definitely flesh out the woman's desperation and nosedive toward suicide (hauntingly evoked as she finally leaves her family behind by walking into the dead of night, never to be seen again), as well as the novel's theme of hopelessness, but there's something to be said about the ambiguity McCarthy prefers: There's only one flashback in the novel, a sign that its main character has accepted the futility of his new life, whereas the florid flashbacks in the film, which suggest something out of Ang Lee's Taking Woodstock (you half expect a Jefferson Airplane tune to play while husband and wife snuggle inside a car), evoke a sense of longing that doesn't quite mesh with the character as McCarthy wrote it or as Mortensen plays him. Together, these scenes suggest a Cliff's Notes means of helping movie audiences fully grasp the novel's themes.
Hillcoat translates to the screen all the novel's notable scenes except for the famous baby-on-a-spit episode that gave license to many in the literary world to play stand-up comedians, and though these set pieces largely convey the same feelings as the novel's equivalent sequences, screenwriter Joe Penhall's adaptation has a patronizing way of spelling out their significance. On the road, Mortensen's character encounters an old man (Robert Duvall) whom he wants nothing to do with but who his son (Kodi Smit-McPhee) wishes to feed. The rich import of this particularly filmic scene—how men have been forced to give up on kindness in this desperate time—is achingly conveyed by Mortensen and an especially stellar Duvall, whose character becomes a blubbering mess when recalling his relationship to his dead son, but the script has a way of bringing subtext bludgeoningly to the fore, as in Smit-McPhee's character spelling out his father's psychological issues as if to the camera—a weak, almost unconscious defiance on Hillcoat's part of McCarthy's formal preference for the internal. In a way, the novel is like being trapped inside a nightmare, while the movie is akin to observing one aloofly from afar.
In the movie's strongest sequence, Mortensen's character struggles to pull his son out of an underground shelter where they find food, water, a bunk bed, and the things they need to make themselves look less like ghosts. Smit-McPhee, who seems to have been cast because of his resemblance to Theron, can be irritating, but his behavior makes sense for a child born into a world almost completely foreign from our own. (The film's one notable strength over the novel is the way it emphasizes how the father is confounded by the conflicting desires of protecting his son while also wanting to show him the world he once knew, as in the scene where the man visits his childhood home.) Exasperated by their constant running, the boy's panic and frustration—as well as the pleasure he gets from finally eating and feeling clean—is made strikingly palpable by the young actor. In another stellar moment of rich characterization, Man throws his wedding ring off a highway overpass; the hesitation with which he pushes the ring across a crack in the concrete symbolizes his long road from hope to the very oblivion his wife once (and more quickly) embraced.
Hillcoat, though, has a way of undermining the earthy performances of his cast with overly refined images and obtrusive music. The setting should have been creepy and ashen; instead it feels polished, more sci-fi than real (the CGI used to convey the story's end-of-days devastation feels off, and if the two massive ships lying side by side on a highway are any indication, you'd think a mega-monster, and not some man-made or natural disaster, was to blame for the world's demise), while the score by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis, with its evocations of Angelo Badalamenti and Arvo Pärt, feels needlessly intrusive. (Did the filmmakers learn nothing from the Coens' No Country for Old Men?) So, the undoing of this rather direct, borderline lazy cinematic transposition becomes Hillcoat's failure to create in filmic terms something more like the novel, where our less filtered experience of the narrative was key to unlocking its riches and terrors. With his easily interpreted, photogenic, rather monotonous images, he makes the metaphysical into something, well, physical, and in the process gives us something a little less immersive and more soulless than any of us could have possibly wanted.