Of course, I’m stating the obvious when I point out that turning a well-known literary work into a film can be a tricky thing. There’s always a dedicated group of fans that will balk at any changes made to migrate the work from one medium to another. I tend to fall into that category. Certainly, a lengthy written piece will have to be adjusted to fit into the typical two-hour running time of a film. And this reality may result in taking artistic licenses with other aspects of the narrative. Steven Spielberg didn’t have time in include the scene in Jaws where Matt Hooper shtupps Mrs. Brody. Thus, it’s understandable why he gets a reprieve from a gory death in the shark cage. But I still struggle to discern a reasonable artistic argument for having Hobbs hit a game winning home run at the end of The Natural rather than deliberately strike out as he does in Bernard Malamud’s novel.
Granted, a willingness to judge each respective effort on its own merits is a perfectly reasonable approach too. I get it. I’m just not wired that way.
So, hearing that Charlize Theron was cast in The Road—the film version of Cormac McCarthy’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel set in a post-apocalyptic society—gave me pause. As written, the “woman” is a relatively minor character. I was correct in assuming that Theron’s participation in the project meant that the role would get beefed up. Unlike 2012, the other “end of the world” film released this year, the depiction of cataclysmic events in The Road pointedly takes a backseat to the relationship forged between the “man” (Viggo Mortensen) and the “boy” (Kodi Smit-McPhee). Thus, for me, allowing the wife to play a more major part in the story distracts from the novel’s main focus of a man trying to protect his son. But I could be putting the cart before the horse in my criticism.
I understand why director John Hillcoat and screenwriter Joe Penhall might have made this choice. In terms of action, there really isn’t much going on in The Road. Exactly what destroyed the societal infrastructure is never made clear. Clues point to some sort of nuclear war. But that’s not certain. McCarthy is more interested in exploring the father’s dilemma. The novel establishes early on that, knowing he’s dying from some sort of respiratory ailment, the man desperately wants to get the boy to a place where he can be self-sufficient. The duo make their way across a bleak landscape contending with hunger, cold, and bands of roving cannibals.
Part of McCarthy’s inspiration for The Road was having a child of his own at a relatively older age. Thus, the urgency the man feels to get the boy ready for a world where he’s not around parallels the author’s own experience. Love and affection is portrayed more strongly through descriptions of the man caring for the boy than with explicit lines of dialogue. In the hands of a lesser writer this could come across as rather mundane. But McCarthy’s deceptively simple prose juxtaposes a vivid picture of the horrors they face with ordinary family events such as meals and bath times. I totally identified with the father and son relationship, thus the darker moments were all that more tense and the ending more poignant.
To be sure, other than Theron’s part, the film is extremely faithful to its source material. The movie captures the world of the novel exactly as I pictured it. This isn’t a post-nuclear action flick which uses its setting as the backdrop for pyrotechnics or car chases in the badlands. However, Mortensen and Smit-McPhee aren’t successful in bringing the same father and son chemistry to the screen. I don’t necessarily blame the actors who both turn in respectable performances. In fact, Smit-McPhee is surprisingly good playing the son who functions as the father’s conscience in a world where adhering to arbitrary moral codes can be a weakness. But I never felt as invested in the cinematic protagonists as I did while experiencing McCarthy’s novel (and I use the word “experience” deliberately).
Ultimately, I don’t think that this is because of the elevated importance of Theron’s character as much as in spite of it. Part of me wonders if Hillcoat and Penhall realized the inherent difficulty in staging the cinematic bond between Mortensen and Smit-McPhee as movingly as McCarthy and so opted to give the audience an extra source of emotional attachment by expanding on the father’s wistful memories of life with the woman before the disaster.
For the most part, I found myself almost mechanically checking off the major scenes as they happened: the first cannibal, the jack-knifed truck, the cellar, the bomb shelter, the beach, etc. They did everything right. But my reaction wasn’t any stronger than what I might feel while observing a bad section of town through the windshield during my daily commute to work.
When No Country for Old Men, an adaption of another McCarthy novel, came out, I complained that while the Coen brothers had been very faithful to the book, I didn’t like the spin they put on the depiction of Anton Chigurh. I had envisioned him as a more stoic “Mr. Blonde” from Reservoir Dogs who occasionally spouted existential philosophy before killing his victims. In the movie, he was played as what seemed to me a curiously supernatural character in an otherwise nihilistic universe. But nitpicking aside, I had to admit that it worked.
Unfortunately, The Road doesn’t.
Matt Maul is author of the blog Maul of America.