We don’t know what has happened to their world. The clocks stop, forest fires rampage, every tree has died or collapsed, it gets colder progressively as days, years, go by, people turn on each other as a food resource, and The Road becomes a very dangerous place. It’s the ultimate nightmare for humanity; yet, a man (Viggo Mortensen) and his son (Kodi Smit-McPhee) struggle on against the desolate environment they have been cast into, in a journey to reach the coast of America. Even after the success of the Coen Brother’s film adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men, an adaptation of the author’s most celebrated, Pulitzer-prize winning novel The Road seems an odd choice. However, in today’s environmentally aware world, John Hillcoats’ vision of The Road isn’t out of place at all, and the film takes the viewer on an unforgiving, emotive, but ultimately enjoyable journey to the heart of our world’s future darkness.
Differences between the novel and the film are immediately apparent. Opening with a beautiful, albeit slightly sentimental sequence that only recieves a line or two later in the novel, Hillcoat’s flair for cinematography and detail-brimming images immediately hooks the audience. The attention to detail in every setpiece and shot remains at this incredibly high standard throughout the film, and more importantly, is in every performance and line delivered by the star-studded cast. Had I read the book first, I would have been highly skeptical of realising the novel’s man with a face and a voice- the novel is devoid of quotation marks and speech descriptors entirely, giving an impression of cold or repetitive dialogue- but Mortensen’s performance is truly stunning. Memorable conversations in the novel are, for the most part, given a powerful dramatic force and occasionally a higher level of meaning, be it from the little boy’s want of friends his own age to the man’s gentle and patient explanations of who ‘the good guys’ are (which incidentally harks back to Hillcoats’ no-good-guys Australian Western ‘The Proposition’). The loss of humanity in the film is brutally and honestly depicted, and brings more pathos into the characters lives and situation.
So dramatically, the film is a success; in some ways more so than the novel. However, the brilliant poetry of McCarthy’s prose is, naturally, completely absent in the film adaptation, and in some ways this is detrimental to the spirit of the tale. The simple poetic description of setting in the book translates effectively into the stark, frank filming of the adaptation, as Hillcoat and co. used real-world disaster locations to give the scenes a realistic apocalyptic and dangerous atmosphere. However, thematically, the adaptation nearly collapses. The theme of spirituality and religion that pervades the novel recieves only a few lines in the film, and they do indeed reveal more about the characters and their relationship, but God- or more importantly spirituality, in the novel is a huge theme, one that the narrator directly alludes to and builds upon throughout. I had no moments in the film where I sat back and pondered the meaning of life or the issues brought up in the film- whereas these moments are plentiful and memorable in the novel.
Considering the popularity and reverence of the novel, McCarthy’s The Road is an unusual choice for a book to film adapatation, but in practice Hillcoat’s minimalist style provides an entertaining and emotional experience, and more solid realisation of the nightmarish novel. The story and events have been re-ordered for dramatic effect, and the themes of the novel are stripped back significantly in order to make the plight of the protagonists more consistent and dramatic. Indeed, the drama and realisation of the film is an incredible achievement, but Hillcoat’s adaptation lacks the spirituality or simple poetry of the novel. At times The Road’s harrowing perspective is hard to swallow, although there is still plenty of joy and pleasure to be found in the experience.