A coworker hired me to help her son with English – literature in particular. The kid is 15 and seems more interested in video games and slacking than learning anything from books so I have an upward battle ahead of me. We started with Robert Kirkman’s The Walking Dead (I’ve had him read the first four graphic novels) and after each one I ask him a few simple questions. I know he’s entering the 10th grade and questions about critical theory are out but I’m still trying to make him understand simile, metaphor, allusion, and other terms any good American high school student should grasp. I did and I wasn’t even a good student until college.
I started the boy off on comic books because I figured he’d respond to these (and learn something in the process). Now I’m moving him up to literature and his first novel in this venture is Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. I figured it would be a good read for a teenager – it’s bleak, interesting, like a zombie story (without the zombies), and a quick read. I read it again, to come up with questions, in about 12 hours. He still hasn’t answered any of those questions yet. However, last night I watched The Road again (it’s the third time now) and I still feel it’s a good adaptation of McCarthy’s Pulizter Prize winning novel.
Critic Roger Ebert (who I’ve said looks more like one of Clive Barker’s Cenobites every day) says John Hillcoat’s adaptation, “is powerful, but for me lacks the same core of emotional feeling,” as McCarthy’s novel. To his credit, Ebert also claims his familiarity with McCarthy’s works (citing Suttree and Blood Meridian as McCarthy’s best) taints his viewing experience but after having read the novel and watched the film (I read the book first) I believe Hillcoat’s visual representation holds up quite well. I can see where Ebert is coming from, claiming “Perhaps McCarthy, like Faulkner, is all but unfilmable,” but I can’t agree with his assessment – Hillcoat’s The Road is quite emotional and does express visually the harrowing experiences depicted in the novel. The medium, unfortunately, doesn’t allow for the introspection found in McCarthy’s prose and instead the novel’s actions have to convey the protagonists’ outlook but this isn’t a bad thing. After all, don’t print and visual media give us a different representation of the human condition; doesn’t each provide a different aspect of looking at ourselves?
The casting for The Road is flawless. Viggo Mortensen playing The Man and Kodi Smit-McPhee as The Boy are perfect; each actor demonstrates the frailty, the longing, and the sorrow creating each and they play off of each other incredibly. When The Man is hiding from a roaming gang (potentially cannibals) and holding a gun to his son’s head, holding back a torrent of tears, emotions run high and the same sense of terror McCarthy imparts in his prose is present. There are countless scenes like this in the film and though Hillcoat’s representation changes some of the dialogue – especially between the two protagonists and the Old Man (Robert Duvall) – it doesn’t hinder the story’s overarching message and sentiment. In fact, I can see why there are subtle differences between the dialogue in the novel and the film: a film consisting of two hours of characters saying “okay” over and over again might not hold the general public’s attention. Unfortunately, very little of the general public saw the film to begin with (it costs $25 million to produce and generated only $27 million dollars domestically) so maybe keeping the dialogue more sincere would’ve been more prudent.
Another aspect of the film I never noticed before was who co-wrote the score: Nick Cave (of Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, Grinderman, and The Birthday Party). For the most part I felt the score was excellent, minus the guitar laden tune playing when the two main characters are escaping from the cannibal house. The music playing during the final scene, consisting solely of a piano melody denoting hope (a central theme of the story (“we’re carrying the fire”)) was beautiful and a prime example of how Cave is such a talented songwriter and composer. Hell, even songs like Red Right Hand, which is one of the Bad Seeds songs I’m quite sick of at this point, lends some eeriness to Wes Craven’s Scream – a testament to Cave’s talent. There isn’t much music throughout The Road and there are moments where the score consists of nothing more than an electronic drone which distorts briefly, causing anxiety and jarring the viewer but the moments strewn throughout are well crafted and match the story excellently.
One of the primary themes in both versions is the relationship between a parent and a child; what the parent will do to protect its progeny and how this instinct is strong within humans. Even when faced with overwhelming and certain doom, The Man continues on. His sentiments are sometimes stubborn (as denoted in the scenes between Charlize Theron and Mortensen) but understandable. I don’t have children, and I’m not planning on it ever, but I can still see the importance of protecting your offspring – even if their environment is severely grim and their survival prospects are small. It’s this duality, between holding onto the morals and ethics of a dead world and embracing our animalistic nature, which makes The Road so compelling.
The other night I went to a party where I met an aspiring stand-up comedian who was complaining about how our social and cultural rituals are absurd, especially in relation to marriage. Having been married once before (and now happily divorced) I can see where he’s coming from but I felt his arguments were premature and short sighted. Wondering why our species (at least in the West) can’t just come out and tell each other we want to copulate was met with answers (from myself and another) that it’s just not how we are. Americans wrestle with hyper-sexuality and puritanical ideology left over from centuries ago and traditions going back that far take time to fade into obscurity. After all, we’re still killing each other like we have for countless centuries but we just use different technologies now.
This kind of tension, between two aspects of the human condition, lies at the heart of The Road. Some characters embrace their animalistic nature and will do anything to survive. Some resort to cannibalism, as seen with the cannibal house and the cellar where the inhabitants keep their prisoners/dinner. Then there are others who don’t eat people, who still hold onto their humanity, and believe that even in a world devoid of life the embers of civilization still smolder. The Man and The Boy don’t eat people and the father continually tells his son that they’re, “the good guys,” but there are moments when The Man crosses from being a good guy and treks into the world of instinct and barbarity. The Man’s ward ends up being the moral compass at times and reminds his father of his lapses, keeping him focused on what’s important – even if it means their survival is jeopardized.
That’s what makes Hillcoat’s adaptation so powerful: its direction and the stunning performances by Mortensen and company aptly demonstrate what McCarthy’s novel does through prose. It might not contain all the introspection making the novel such a beautiful piece of fiction but it does transmit the important pieces of McCarthy’s writing. Ebert’s statement, that McCarthy’s novels are, “all but unfilmable,” doesn’t hold water when looking at The Road (and also No Country for Old Men) but, like I said before, I understand where Ebert’s coming from. Don’t get me wrong, I love The Road’s theatrical adaptation, but I still think McCarthy’s novel is better (isn’t this always the case?) and one of the best novels of the last ten years. I have sinking suspicion The Road will elevate beyond being an Oprah Book of the Month and become part of America’s grade school curriculum, sitting proudly alongside such novels as Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, Huxley’s Brave New World, and the other books shaping America’s youth. However, this is provided our schools aren’t taken over by Target, Best Buy, and Starbucks in the next few decades.
Here is the first part of The Road. Find the other parts yourself.