Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Novel/Film Review: The Road

It's time for some more fun with post-apocalyptic fiction! This time, it's Cormac McCarthy's The Road, a novel about a Man and Boy who wander through an America that's been mostly burnt to ashes. Unlike other dystopias, The Road doesn't feature any corrupt governments or major social commentaries. Rather, it focuses on a father and son relationship as they struggle to survive in an all but dead America. So instead of making me shout 'damn the man' as I take in the moral message, instead the novel just makes me want to hug my dad. Sure, there's murder, cannibalism, starvation, and all the down-sides to living on after the apocalypse, but the heart of the novel lies in the bond between an almost destroyed father and a son that's never known any other world.

I've been a fan of Cormac MacCarthy since I read No Country for Old Men about five years ago. I had seen the film adaptation and was so intrigued by the source material that I had to read the novel. Since then, I've read the novel three times. I've read The Road once, since that's all I could handle of such a bleak novel. McCarthy's writing style has a classic feel and I was surprised to learn that he is a current writer, I expected a story like No Country to have been written in the mid-1900s rather than early 2000s. McCarthy's themes of morality and fate are timeless and his writing style is beautifully poetic while being plain and reader-friendly at the same time.

The Road is one of the most challenging stories I've ever endured, as it basically tracks a man and boy (who are never named in the novel) as they starve and freeze to death. Throughout the narrative, the man has dreams/flashbacks of his wife, who commited suicide after giving birth to their son. Other than the father and son, there are only a few other characters, ranging between murderous cannibals and wayward drifters. The novel, however, is not action packed with violence and villainous showdowns, rather, the narrative stays close to the interactions between the man and the boy as he tries to teach his son that they can still be good people, even in a terrible world. The father has made his son's survival his sole purpose, and while he tries not to murder or steal from others, he'll also do whatever's necessary to keep the boy alive. The son constantly questions his father's decisions, concerned that they are doing the 'right' thing.

What makes this tale of survival and death so worthwhile is the style in which McCarthy wrote the narrative. In No Country for Old Men, McCarthy strips everything down to exactly what it is. In The Road, he paints a picture of a burnt-down America through poetic description and feeling-based language. There were several paragraphs where I had to stop and re-read just to fully take in the natural beauty or horrific nature of the scene. Since most of the time the duo are attempting to survive, there are a few amazing in the moments in the book where they do find food or are able to breathe, and it's a sigh of relief in an otherwise tough-as-hell read. If you're a fan of post-apocalyptic fiction and are looking for something with a different focus than the usual dystopia-fiction, The Road is both heart-breaking and rewarding. McCarthy shows us, through the power of language and masterful storytelling, that love can still survive even after everything else has died.

The inspiration for today's post is that I finally had the chance to watch the film adaptation of The Road, created only 3 years after the novel's release. While reading the story, I never would have guessed that the novel could be adapted anywhere close to how McCarthy describes the setting. It turns out that it's not an impossible feat to create a burnt-down America, with constant overcast sky and ashey-snow. Viggo Mortensen, who I've always been luke-warm on, brilliantly plays The Man and really does look like he's been starving for years. Charlize Theron plays the Wife, who's role was increased (in flashbacks) for the purpose of the film. Theron can annoy me sometimes, but I respect her ability as a dramatic actress and she does a wonderful job here. Kodi Smit-McPhee, who I was impressed by in Let Me In, really shows his talent as the Boy, bringing all the curiosity and naivety of a child to a very difficult role. There are also appearances by Garret Dillahunt, who most people don't know by name, but he almost always plays a villain/killer/rapist/asshole, and has one of the creepiest voices currently on television/film. And it's always nice to see Guy Pearce, who never seems too concerned about whether he's a leading man or has a 5 minute cameo. Here, he appears for about 5 minutes, but quickly proves why it's better to go with a talented actor even for the smallest bit part.

Written by Joe Penhall and directed by John Hillcoat, The Road is one of the best examples I've ever seen of an adaptation staying true to the source material. From the setting and character design, to the inclusion of all the iconic scenes from the novel, to the fact that they didn't alter the original dialogue in any way, the film version of The Road is about as faithful to the novel as you can get. Which also means that it's quite bleak and a difficult watch. Amazing scenes from the novel, from nice ones like the Boy trying Coke for the first time, or the father and son finding a bunker full of food, to horrible scenes of cannibalism and violence, are perfectly brought to life in this adaptation. Though there are a few minor differences/omissions from the novel, the atmosphere is so accurate that small plot revisions can be forgiven. If you can see through all the grey and get to the heart of the father-son relationship, than this movie can be rewarding. It needs to be said, though: This is NOT a date movie.

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