Book to film adaptations tend to be a pretty fraught business. For every Let the Right One In or The Shining we get a multitude of howlers that manage the dual prestige of frustrating fans of their source and failing to make for interesting cinema. When the text in question happens to be so distinctly literary as Cormac McCarthy's The Road, with its spare, lyrical prose, cyclic dialogue exchanges, and reliance on character over incident, the problems only intensify. After all, what marks a work as a classic of one medium seldom makes the transition to another intact. Virtues can quickly acquire the aspect of faults in these translations. So what a good adaptation really requires is a few bold hands – a creative team willing to deviate from their source where necessary, no matter how celebrated it may be, in cinema's name.
Since image, editing and duration might well be the keystones of cinema, and since each are adroitly exploited by director John Hillcoat in his film adaptation of The Road, I'd argue that the film is an especially superb page-to-screen adaptation, too. Time and its passage are particularly imperative to the story, with the film being not only a road movie, both literally and metaphysically, but also a heart-spraining story of human survival. Upon release, Hillcoat's movie drew criticism from some quarters for its supposed failure to embellish the grindingly repetitive plot of the book. But that's part of the point: it's a slog. Wisely, the Australian filmmaker ensures that the notion of endurance is made every bit as palpable for the viewer as the hostility of the film's barren landscapes and its central drama of paternal devotion.
The lead characters, named simply Man (Viggo Mortenson) and Boy (Kodi Smit-McPhee), are gaunt, grimy, parka-clad vagrants, who, when we meet them, are subsisting on beetles and the odd found bounty of canned goods. Dangerously kipping in abandoned storm-water drains, they do their best to evade the nomadic packs of marauders and cannibals who scout the land for fresh meat as they trudge their way along the great blasted highway of the title.
An unspecified cataclysm has left their entire country—and, judging by the state of it, we construe all of planet Earth—looking like the joint aftermath of nuclear apocalypse and the eerie Tunguska Event. Stripped trees breach the anguished terrain like zombie skeleton fingers and soaring infernos rage desultorily along Man and Boy's route. A battered shopping trolley houses their few worldly possessions, one of which is an old revolver containing only two rounds: one each for the pair of them, should circumstances ever worsen so drastically as to make suicide the most desirable option. Like I said, it's not exactly intended as blithe viewing.
Where McCarthy employed a stark simile or poetic twist of prose, Hillcoat crafts a frame to draw an awed gasp from his audience. Deftly, the production captured as many of its decayed and dilapidated sights in-camera as it could, shooting, amongst other places, on the traumatised post-Hurricane Katrina New Orleans coast and in the spectral remains of an immolated theme park. These images were then doctored in post to eke maximum post-apocalyptic punch from their already evocative spectacle.
None of which would have mattered had Mortenson and Smit-McPhee failed to convince as the film's central pairing. They do. Played out far more in the pained, loving glances they give each other when they know they're not watching than in their brief, repetitive conversations, their laconic, deeply physical performances beautifully convey the disparate interior worlds of a father ruled by loss and remorse and a son who's barely had time to know any other world.
But the most lasting impression is gleaned from the film's final minutes, which, curiously, were another reason it was unfairly dismissed by a great many critics upon its original release. I won't spoil anything by explaining what happens, but needless to say it's not quite the unmitigated bleakfest many were apparently hoping for. Though it is lifted straight from the book – and in the case of this adaptation, at least, I'd not have it any other way. For it's here where The Road's real message crystallises: that while, anthropologically speaking, humans have become a pretty vile species and a blight on the planet (there's no doubt the film's colossal background catastrophe is our fault, be it directly or otherwise) on an individual level, many of us are wonderful, and even in times of immense personal suffering, are still capable of utter unselfishness.
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