One of my concerns when I started doing this column was that each forthcoming adaptation I covered would equate to a new movie losing the ability to surprise me. What more effective way to strip oneself of the thrill of cinematic discovery, I thought, than to pore over the source material before watching? Ultimately I decided that the prospect of literary discovery along with the chance to write the column more than compensated for that risk, but here's some evidence that maybe I shouldn't have worried at all: having read Cormac McCarthy's The Road, I'm more excited to see John Hillcoat's adaptation – coming this November -- than I ever would have been otherwise.
It's not that I consider The Road to be a great book; it's more that I think it's a very good book that could make a great film. At its core is something deeply profound: a father-son relationship of such truth and purity that it keeps the characters – known only as "the man" and "the boy" -- alive when there would seem to be nothing to do but wish for death. It's an epic struggle between love and despair, taking the form of an adventure story set in a vivid, horrifying post-apocalyptic America, and it's riveting and heartbreaking.
On the other hand, I seem to be the only person in the world who's not enamored of Cormac McCarthy (No Country for Old Men) as a prose stylist, at least here: Some of his passages are downright obscurantist, and his attempts to make his writing resemble the barren landscapes of his story often give it an awkward, affected feel. (Also, as a newcomer to McCarthy, I gotta ask: what does the man have against quotation marks?)
The movie represents, to me, an opportunity to magnify the novel's triumphs and diminish its failures. Director John Hillcoat (The Proposition) and his crew have reportedly been putting in painstaking effort to bring the bleakness and emptiness of McCarthy's universe to the screen. Looking at the still on top of this page sends a chill down my spine: the desperation in Viggo Mortensen's eyes, the utter shell-shock on Kodi Smit-McPhee's face, the grime and dust and ash that cover them, all make it apparent that the movie isn't going to spare us any of the novel's emotional wallop, at least not intentionally. The book has been hailed as a masterpiece of raw, devastating simplicity, but stripping it of some of McCarthy's stylistic flourishes could make it stronger still.
And in truth, there's no way to make the movie remotely faithful to the book and have it be anything other than a total emotional beat down. I mentioned that The Road is an "adventure story," and in many ways it is, but it has few of the genre's conventional peaks and valleys; while there are moments of heart-stopping suspense (a dramatic escape from a coven of cannibals, for example), for most of the novel's 280 pages, victory means staving off death for one more day by finding a can of peaches. Our heroes' most formidable enemies aren't cannibals, but starvation, the cold, and the ever-present urge to put an end to the hopeless struggle. The pair wanders through a wasteland, trying to survive on the rapidly dwindling remnants of a world one of them has never seen and the other barely remembers. The question the novel asks is: What reason can there possibly be to get up in the morning and slog through the ash and rain for another day? It's one thing to read through this over the course of several days, as I did, and quite another to condense it all into a two-hour film. It promises to be a wrenching experience.
The performances will be crucial. McCarthy doesn't give a lot to work with, and Joe Penhall's faithful screenplay reportedly doesn't add much, other than enlarging the role of the Man's wife (Charlize Theron) who, in the book, opts for suicide long before the Man and the Boy reach their current state. Mortensen and Smit-McPhee have a difficult task: Their acting has to embody the profound, elemental bond between the father and son, and the characters' determination to go on despite lacking an apparent reason to do so. Mortensen has long mastered noble stoicism, but will need to add a crucial vulnerability into the mix, something he ably began to do in A History of Violence. Smit-McPhee, a 12-year old Australian, is supposed to be a phenom, which, coincidentally, is what it will take to convincingly portray the Boy's constant inner battle between mortal fear and basic goodness.
I agree with everyone else that Hillcoat was the perfect choice to direct The Road on the strength of his merciless The Proposition. Visually, at least, the landscape of McCarthy's post-apocalyptic America is not too far removed from the nineteenth century back-country Australia on display in that film. I would just add that, along the same lines as Mortensen, Hillcoat may need to soften his harsh m.o. around the edges to accommodate McCarthy's essential humanism.
Ideally, we'll be able to peer through the outward brutality of the story to see the quivering core of faith and love and desperate humanity that it conceals. Maybe it's heresy to say, but I think the movie could potentially allow us to do that more lucidly and powerfully than Cormac McCarthy's occasionally irritating prose (I emphasize again that I am in the minority – if not alone – on this point.) Either way, I'm glad I read the novel first. It's a wonderful story that could become a masterpiece.