Watching The Road raised a question in my mind- what should we expect from a cinematic adaptation of a novel, or any other source for that matter?
Most would agree that it s better to hold true to the overall shape and texture of a given story. If the preservation of the original artistic vision matters to you at all, an accurate translation between page and screen should be a primary goal.
Yet there are clearly examples of good movies that flaunt this rule. 2007’s Will Smith vehicle ‘I am Legend’ springs to mind; while the film happily bastardised large chunks of Richard Matheson’s outstanding novel in pursuit of a more Hollywood feel, it still stands as a credible and very enjoyable sci-fi romp.
With The Road, it is the faithfulness of John Hillcoat’s film to Cormac McCarthy’s text that is both its greatest strength and its Achilles heel.
The film’s premise is simple- in a post-apocalyptic USA, a Man (Viggo Mortensen) and his Boy (Kodi Smitt-McPhee) are faced with the bleak prospect of surviving in a world where everything has died or is dying, where resources are dwindling fast and where the majority of the population has resorted to cannibalism and general grisly behavior.
The Atlantic Ocean is their ostensible goal, but in truth the destination doesn’t matter. Rather, it is the relationship between Father and Son and its survival in a brutal wilderness that is the crux of both novel and film.
The only deviation from the duo’s journey comes through occasional dreams/flashbacks that flesh out the back story through introducing the absent wife and mother of the fractured family (Charlize Theron).
McCarthy’s narrative remains largely intact in Joe Penhall’s screenplay, and this does warrant a certain amount of credit. Key passages are duly quoted by the Man and most of the book’s memorable moments are well covered.
But despite the sometimes painstaking fidelity to the source material, The Road ultimately feels like far less than the sum of its parts. A carbon copy it may be, but the intensity of McCarthy’s sparse prose is inevitably lost in translation. Plodding along enjoyably enough, it soon becomes clear that there will be no watershed to bring the film into its own. It is uncompromisingly indebted to the book, and sadly pales in its shadow.
So what? Well, McCarthy’s words aside, by the second half The Road will begin to test less patient viewers. There’s nothing specifically bad about Hillcoat’s film, but for much of its duration it struggles to escape from a quagmire of mediocrity. Perhaps a little more conviction, and the bravery to build on and play with its literary origins, might have prevented this.
As mentioned, the emotional bond between Man and Boy remains the lynchpin of the entire plot, and there are times when the film succeeds in making this genuinely affecting.
Mortensen gives a solid performance, physically starved to embody every pinched inch of the haunted, skeletal Man. Likewise, newcomer Kodi Mcphee-Smitt does well to communicate the tangled emotions of the Boy, and generally avoids the pitfalls of what is commonly known as Annoying Child Actor Syndrome.
The Road has one of the most impressive supporting casts in recent memory, with Robert Duvall, Guy Pierce and the typically reliable Theron all supplying first-rate contributions despite having limited screen time.
To be fair to Hillcoat’s movie, it has its stronger elements. Javier Aguirresarobe s cinematography can’t be faulted for ruined, ashen grandeur, with desiccated pine forests and drained, windtorn vistas captured lucidly. The sepia spectrum of the film’s world, ranging from grey all the way to brown, makes punctuations of colour from a scavenged coke can and a waterfall rainbow all the more stunning. McCarthy’s oeuvre has fared well in this department in the past thanks to the Coen brothers masterful No Country For Old Men, and it is these visuals above all else that push The Road towards staking out its own territory.
What should we hope for from an adaptation? A film that preserves the spirit of its source while firmly creating its own identity, perhaps. Like a good remake or song cover, it s vital that something new is brought to the fore. Despite its best intentions and flashes of brilliance, The Road fails to achieve this, and the outcome is a satisfactory but uninspired whole.
Director: John Hillcoat