It’s a much grumbled phrase, ‘But it wasn’t as good as the book,’ when fans of any novel or series find an aspect or moment that the film did not live up to. Adaptation is a much discussed academic debate that I have limited room for here; except to say that two different mediums will inevitably result in two different interpretations. It is the success of an adaptation to realise the writer’s intention and its own artistic merit, which is important. First, let us discuss the novel, Cormac McCarthy’s modern classic The Road. A dark, haunting, post-apocalyptic tale, which manages to convey the loss and devastation of the future through the spaces it leaves. There is an air of ‘lack’ due to the text’s style, reinforced by the character’s being known only as the Boy and the Man, making them as unidentifiable as the existence they inhabit. There is also a brilliant simplicity and rhythmic quality to the phrasing, which in spite of seeming to follow no rules, allows the story to flow elegantly and unfold in a grimly captivating way. I wondered how they would achieve these techniques visually.
Its two main characters are father and son. Their main goal is to travel the road, scavenging for food and other useful items, while avoiding the Bad Guys. They live a fearful and desolate existence. The story is a human one, rather than concerning itself with whatever tragedy has befallen the Earth. The Man protects his child with a passion verging on madness, as there are far worse lives that would await them if they were caught. There are some very hard moments to read in the novel, and the film doesn’t shy away from these, though one might have expected it to.
Initial concerns were belayed slightly through the casting: Viggo Mortensen gives an exceptionally committed and accomplished performance in the lead role combined with the calibre of the supporting cast, which includes Guy Pearce and Robert Duvall. Indeed, the film offers more: more characterisation, more back story and more of the world. There are Technicolor moments of the Man’s wife, played expertly by Charlize Theron, which further emphasise the stark reality of their present, while adding depth to the character of the Man. Cinematically they allow for beautifully contrasting backdrops to the present and the past, which make each part of his life easily identifiable. The film highlights the quality of McCarthy’s writing, as the dialogue in both the film and the book is, for the most part, word for word. This is especially important to convey the relationship between father and son. Kodi Smit-Mcphee’s talented performance is as pivotal as any in the film, and the relationship is as powerful and convincing as it is in the novel, inspired by the author’s real life relationship with his own young son, who is considered a co-author.
The universal quality of a father’s depth of feeling towards his son is at the forefront of both versions of The Road. In the film adaptation the lengths that a father will go to for the sake of his son are taken even further. The director identifies an opportunity to intensify a dramatic moment with powerful results, rather than letting him suffer a slow and painful death (don’t worry I’m not giving anything away!). The Man’s madness is even more devastating to watch than it is to read in the novel, for his fears and the impossible choices he is faced with are more evident in the film. Is it possible to survive while preserving one’s humanity? They are the Good Guys and there have to be limits. This difficult concept is balanced out by the added moments of happy times of the past and the present, which are missing from the novel. There is much more hope to be found in the film, a staple of cinematic delivery, especially if there is not to be a happy ending, there must at least be hope. The religious undertones are also less evident in the film and exchanged instead for dreams of the past.
Other moments from the novel are cut or slimmed down, such as the find of the ship full of supplies, which is entirely cut from the film; possibly because it was considered unrealistic and too similar to their find of the bunker. The film does not suffer from its exclusion; in fact, it flows more easily, and it might have interrupted the tone of the piece on its way to a conclusion. These changes allow the film to convey a depth of feeling and balance the emotional roller coaster ride, with more upbeat moments alongside the fear of death. The film’s biggest achievements come from the memorable performances, and its beauty, whether it’s the mammoth aspect of an abandoned dockyard or the blackened stumps of trees reaching up into the air, as far as the eye can see.
The film is easily as accomplished as the novel. It has the same message and carries the same emotions. Film can be more accessible, and in this case I would tend to agree. There is less weight to the sadness of the narrative in the film version, as with its lighter moments it’s easier to watch the director’s version of the desolate world, than it might be to read of it. However, all the events, emotions and characters started life in the imagination of the author and as such both versions can be highly recommended. Adaptation or realisation, it seems that either road is a worthy course to take.