The epic of the wasteland, at worst, beats you over the head with a cricket bat. At best, the epic of the wasteland is the greatest analysis of the absolute depravity humans can sink to and the heights to which they can soar. It is the ultimate nightmare of a world obsessed with its own survival. As the wasteland scraps and claws it’s way into the public eye, with The Walking Dead striding across television until March and the triumphant return of Mad Max in May, it seems a perfect time to return to the wasteland and take a closer look at her golden child, Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, and his feeble, lack-luster brother, the movie adaptation of The Road.
I love the wasteland. I love everything about it. I even loved Thunderdome. So when numerous friends and advisers commended The Road to me as a triumph of modern fiction, I jumped at the chance to read it. I got the book, forgot about it for two months, rediscovered it, and absorbed it in three days. The book is a masterpiece: perfectly paced and beautifully bleak. It will rope you in with the most astute observations about love and sucker punch you with the most vulgar, despicable acts of humanity. It’s a simple enough story: a man and his son slowly trek their way across the Road, an abandoned, at times, almost-sentient highway leading to the coast. The man and the boy are self-proclaimed bearers of “the fire” of humanity and they avoid the desolate, animalistic “bad guys”. The man struggles with a debilitating, hacking cough and reminisces about the boy’s mother as he struggles to provide basic means of survival for him and the child in the stagnant, picked-apart world.
When I started reading The Road, everyone wanted to hear my input, not necessarily because I had anything worthwhile to say, but because, currently, The Road occupies a special place in the public lexicon: just famous enough for everyone to regard it as a modern classic, but new enough, that no universal public opinion exists. In short, everyone knows The Road is good, but everyone hasn’t decided why The Road is good. When faced with the question “How do you like the book?” I never really had an answer, so I acted like I was contemplating for a few seconds, then I would look at the person asking the question and say, “It’s heavy, man, real heavy” and nod slowly. I simply wasn’t equipped to deal with the book, as I felt I would be “dumbing it down”, somehow.
The movie adaptation has the exact same problem. It’s the trap that adaptations of books often fall into. On one hand, make a movie of a book that a lot of people read, and you have a built-in audience. On the other hand, movie adaptations rarely improve upon the works from which they are drafted. Everyone knows that. The movie adaptation of The Road, however, is haunted by the ghost of its literary brother much harder than, say, an adaptation of a Harry Potter book would be. Some books are action or dialogue heavy, and are easy to adapt. Some books are heavy on inner monologue or description, and as a result are deemed unfilmable. The Road, unfortunately, lies somewhere in the limbo between these two. The real beauty of the book is that it feels like an epic myth. It’s open ended enough to feel like it’s telling a story larger than the words on the page, while still being tangible enough to be coherent. In fact, half way through the book, I read the synopsis on the back of the book and was disappointed to find that it said the novel took place in America. The Road doesn’t take place in America; it takes place on “The Road.” “The Road” is bigger than just a place, and what it represents is universal. Viggo Mortensen is a fantastic actor, but no matter how great a job he does, he will never be “the man”, because the minute anyone is “the man”, “the man” means nothing. Kodi Smit-McPhee could be the greatest actor of all time (and honestly, compared to other child actors, he’s Laurence Olivier), but he could never portray “the boy” correctly.
Most of the film’s flaws stem from this. The first half of the film relies heavily on flashbacks, a narrative device the novel uses, but far less clumsily than the movie does. The book doesn’t need to tell you an in depth back-story for the man. It is inconsequential. Never once does the book posit that the man has some secret kryptonite, because no weaknesses are needed to humanize the man. His weaknesses are the same as yours. Scenes that made my jaw drop as I read them, made my eyes roll as I saw them. An ending that feels beautiful and poetic in the archetypical hyper-reality of the novel feels schlocky and convoluted in the film. It’s not that the film is bad. It’s well shot, well acted, never takes liberties with the source material, and never feels gimmicky, and where it really succeeds is when it brushes shoulders with the universal tone of the book. But, even at its best, the movie is still disappointing. The book is the crown jewel of the wasteland story: It’s Mad Max with a beating heart. It’s Lord of the Flies (which is just the Muppet Babies of wasteland stories) on a larger scale. The film, however, felt like someone trying to paint a watercolor of a platonic form.