Sunday, 27 June 2010

The Road (2009)

Synopsis: Post apocalyptic ash covered nightmare from Cormac McCarthy brought to life by The Proposition director John Hilcoat.

I'd read the book of this film last year and really enjoyed it. Well, I say enjoyed, but you can't really enjoy the book, so bleak is its outlook and so desperate is its message. But it is written with such a strong voice that it hooks you in and drags you along on the journey.

I then read that the film version had been successful in rendering the spirit of the book, its bleakness and 'look'. Sounds odd for a book to have a certain look, but if you read The Road you'll know what this means. McCarthy's vivid description creates a very powerful overall image of the post apocalyptic world that the father and son inhabit.

So, to the film. It's good. It does transfer the look of the story that I had in my head when reading to the screen pretty successfully. It also mainly manages to recreate the deep sense of loss and despair that permeate the pages of McCarthy's book. However, there are some downsides.

The flashbacks. Totally unnecessary in my opinion, they only served to break up the monotony of the father/son journey and give it some sort of context. In the book, all we know is that there once was a mother, but that she left (and died presumably) leaving the father and son to fend for themselves. That the film keeps returning to this previous life somehow dilutes the present situation and weaken the anger and despair of the book.

As I was watching I realised that this wasn't the first film version of a beloved book in which I'd seen this happen. John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath is possibly the angriest book I've ever read. Full of beautiful language, description and dialogue, the book also conveys a deep sense of injustice and open, white-hot rage directed at what the author sees as a man made economic and social disaster. The film, from John Ford (no stranger to passion himself), does go some way to keep that anger but it is definitely lessened. Presumably, this was partly because of screen censorship/sensibilities of the time (I can't imagine many directors in the 1940s getting away with showing a woman having just lost a baby in childbirth suckling a starving adult man) and partly because I think once you have someone else making a version of anothers work, whatever the original intentions behind it are going to be lost somewhat as the personal feelings are going to be difficult to recreate.

John Ford allegedly didn't quite believe Steinbeck's vision of the Californian work camps (a bit over the top and depressing thought Ford) until he visited them himself as part of location scouting. It was only upon seeing the hellish conditions first hand that he understood the full ferocity of Steinbeck's work.

Even though I felt that The Road suffered a little from this same sense, it doesn't really pull any punches and doesn't miss out any crucial events (apart from the father's visit to the ship). It is pretty much as grim as the book.

Viggo Mortensen is really well cast in the role of the father but even though he gives a decent performance, I reckon Kodi Smit-McPhee is still a bit too cute to pull off the son's character. The inclusion of Charlize Theron as the mother just goes to strengthen the argument for scrapping the flashback sequences altogether. They strike such a false note, I do wonder why they included them. Surely it would be too cynical to think they were added in to get a big 'star' name.

If you need actual visual representations of stories, then The Road is worth watching. But, if your imagination is as vivid as mine and you enjoy creating the world of a story in your head, then skip straight past the film and go for McCarthy's book. You will have a far more interesting, if far more depressing, journey.

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