The Road: A Second Evaluation

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.


7 responses to “The Road: A Second Evaluation

  1. Encrazed Crafts

    “Find the other parts yourself.” hahaha Well when ya word it so politely…

    This might be something I read later on, along with those other books you mentioned at the end. In my schoolin’ we didn’t read those. High school was pretty much conquered by Shakespeare (I think, in order: Romeo and Juliet, MacBeth, and Hamlet. I really liked Hamlet.) , though we did get a few others like 1984, Fahrenheit 451, and Catcher in the Rye. Didn’t really like any of those, but there were a few *minor* parts I did enjoy. Didn’t like Catcher at *all* though. It read like it was written directly by the mumbling drunk kid, and all meaning was likely lost on be because of that. (I figure if I can read through the fancy-talk in Hamlet I have the ability to read said drunken ramblings, I just wasn’t feeling it in Catcher.)

    Since I graduated I haven’t picked up a book other than to use it as a coaster or prop up a laptop, but I read and write for hours each day. I’d be willing to be the kid you are tutoring is in the same vein. Only thing I’d recommend is Hamlet his way, as that’s the only book I got a kick out of that I can recall. 451 was okay, too though. I guess those two would be my recommendations. (A story including burning books and wall-sized TVs, and driving way too fast can’t be too bad, right?)

    • How could you not like A Catcher in the Rye? It’s such a great novel and is a great introspective look into the mind of a post-World War II American teenager. He’s confused and angry but also sensitive; he’s finding himself but doesn’t realize it. Although Salinger’s output was limited (we’ll see about this because he just died not long ago and it’s possible his family will release a bunch of mediocre writing he did after going into exile) it’s quite strong.

      The kid I’m tutoring finally responded to my first batch of questions for The Road – it only took him a week to answer five questions. The Road is a really quick read. The first time I read it I could’ve finished it in one sitting but decided not to because I needed to sleep. This time it took me about two days at the most. Right now I’m reading Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground, which is shorter but denser; I hope to have it completed by the end of the weekend. My girlfriend is currently reading Crime and Punishment and she’s suffering through it. I still haven’t read it yet but I will one day (I hope).

      Personally I like reading long novels – for the sense of accomplishment. I finished Joyce’s Ulysses a few years ago and, aside from a few professors, I don’t know anybody who’s accomplished that. I know a few people who finished Infinite Jest but I just can’t seem to get past the first 50 pages. I guess I don’t have the time to commit. I wish I did.

      By the way, Fahrenheit 451 is a great novel and Bradbury is an excellent writer. However, if we’re talking great science fiction authors I have to go with Philip K. Dick or Ursula Le Guin.

    • Also, I’m not going to post every part of The Road on my blog. First, I don’t want Dimension films giving me shit and second, if anybody really wants to watch the film they can click the links on their own. =)

      It wasn’t meant as a mean spirited remark but I just didn’t want to input eight different codes. I’m lazy sometimes!

      • Encrazed Crafts

        It’s been a few years, but I just recall I did not like Catcher at all. Off hand it seemed like a grind or mentally walking through the mud. Conversely I enjoyed reading Something Wicked This Way Comes yet my mom could only read ten pages at a time before passing out from boredum.

        Don’t be too hard on the kid, ya know. He doesn’t read, probably doesn’t even like reading, so what can take you one sitting is pulling teeth for him. Plus he’s got girls and games to worry about. Man’s got to have his priorites ^_^

    • He finally answered a few questions last night but they weren’t amazing answers. It’s like he’s doing it quick so he can play Xbox. I’m sure that’s what’s going on and I can’t totally fault him for it (it’s his summer break) but it’s a little obnoxious – I have to deal with his mother at work. She’s nice but it’s hard explaining that you’re paying me for very little since your son is distracted.

      I’ve never read Something Wick This Way Comes or even seen the movie. I am aware of it but haven’t been exposed other than looking at the DVD box. I’ll put it on Netflix. I also remember the film has Betty Davis.

  2. Let me begin by saying that I’m a huge advocate for videogames and slacking. There’s no better way to spend a day.

    I agree with you that Cormac McCarthy is filmable. I think that although his films may not mirror the prose and perfection of much of his writing, they still make stellar films.

    Both No Country For Old Men and The Road don’t feature a great deal of dialogue, and for me this is what makes them unique films. Also a challenge for the director as he’s tasked with developing a narrative with limited conversation.

    On the flipside, I recently saw The Sunset Limited. Which is the opposite in that it’s solely dialogue. I thought that too was a brilliant, if unusual experience. There are many people, who upon learning that the piece is set entirely in one room would scoff at the prospect, as if it couldn’t possibly deliver an engaging experience. How wrong they’d be. I’ve never heard dialogue so well written and so moving.

  3. I remember seeing advertisements for The Sunset Limited on HBO a while back but I missed it. I think I was out of town and just never sought it out; I think I will now.

    Onto your first point: I don’t have a problem with video games or slacking (I’m quite good at the latter) but there’s a time and place for everything and too much slacking is unhealthy. I can slack with the best of them, and believe me I have, but I also like productivity and keeping myself busy. There’s only so much time one can slack before they become a slug. This kid, although he seems nice, has slacked too much – an activity made obvious by his mediocre writing skills (he spells having “haveing”). I don’t think he’s stupid – in fact, I’m convinced he’s quite intelligent – but he doesn’t try very hard. I hope he doesn’t end up serving fries at a fast food joint for a living but if he doesn’t learn how to read and write properly that’s his future.

    Personally I think Roger Ebert’s looking more and more like a horror film creature every day. His plastic surgery, mixed with his illnesses, makes him quite scary. I always thought he was that fat asshole from television who knew a bunch about movies before but now he’s a monster who knows a bunch about movies. His assessment that McCarthy’s films are unfilmable is totally incorrect. Even if you don’t like The Road arguing that No Country for Old Men isn’t good is difficult. After all, it won best picture a few years ago and even though that award isn’t exactly testament to a film’s credibility it does say something. I don’t know a soul who hates that film, even though who don’t like violent movies. There’s something incredibly applicable about that film (especially to Americans) and it resonates with almost everybody I know. I feel The Road is the same and if more people saw it I think they’d love it.

    Good luck with the moths. =)

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