Will We Ever Really See “The Road?” Difficulties in adapting McCarthy’s novel.

Posted on 31 March 2009 by Quaid

I just finished reading Cormac McCarthy’s The Road.  Just now, not five minutes ago.  By the time this finally gets posted, I’m sure I’ll revise most of what is about to spew forth from my fingers, but for now I’ll just let it all come out.

roadposterI know we are a movie site, not a book site, and this article will eventually get around to talking about the adaptation of McCarthy’s post-apocalyptic (in every way) novel.  I want to look at the problems the filmmakers must have had in adapting it.  I want to look at the themes, the characters, and the cinematic value (or lack thereof).  Right now, though, all I can do is sit back and say “Damn.  That was a powerful ending.”

Reader be warned; spoilers await.  If you want to remain pure, this is not your article.  With that in mind, though, know that the novel has very few twists, turns, or surprises.  Like its title suggests, the plot trudges ever onward, our “heroes” on a journey whose end is telegraphed and clear. 

As I read the book, I didn’t like it very much.  Nothing really happened.  It was bleak and clear and obvious, and eventful moments didn’t amount to much.  Every small episode meant little in the grand scheme…this was truly a novel about staying alive, surviving, and seeing if you had the strength to do it all again tomorrow. 

About the time I reached the part where the father and son stumble on a fully-stocked bunker, though, I started to get it.  I smiled as they partook in the small joys of canned fruit and a warm bed.  But it was all bittersweet.  Any comfort could not last, and resignation to death might be the only kindness offered in McCarthy’s bleak world.  So when our characters stumble on a means to survive, to continue in this hell indefinitely, is it really a blessing?

That’s what the book is about.  Carrying the fire–that’s what the boy calls it.  And there is a huge price to pay for doing so.

roadbookI finished this book off in a book store.  Big mistake.  I sipped my Tazo (registered trademark) tea and tried to shield my welling tears from a concerned-looking barista.  The book ends the only way it could have.  And even though you see this death (and hope) coming down the road a mile away, it’s still wildly emotionally (and dare I say spiritually?) affecting.

Here’s what it comes down to: it’s really fucking easy to make a novel about “hope” and pretend it’s profound.  Put characters through some terrible shit, and just when they can’t take it anymore you rescue them from their predicament.  Or, in the end, they find inner-piece through some other-worldly enlightenment.

It’s trite, it’s easy, and it’s cheap.  This story, though, doesn’t do that.  There is no great enlightenment.  There is nothing at the end of this novel that wasn’t there when it started.  It’s just “the breath of God” and, more importantly, “maps of the world and its becoming.”

The final paragraph of the book tells you what this story is.  And you know why this story is good?  Because its theme can’t be summed up in a simple sentence like “Hope is good.”  Hell, it can’t be summed up in a paragraph, a page, or even en entire analytical novel.  The meaning exists in the poetry of the way the story unfolds–the way it says what can’t be easily put into words.  That’s the mark of a great work of art.

Needless to say, this does not bode well for the film adaptation, directed by John Hillcoat.  Its release date has already been pushed back twice, and early rumblings on the film were that it was not good.

roadimage1I can see where it might go wrong.  There are a thousand places to misstep.  For one, the novel really has no story to speak of.  There is no “three act structure” with obstacles to be overcome in order to reach a goal.  The goal is nebulous, and the obstacles are fleeting and incidental.  The characters conquer one threat after another, only to find themselves in exactly the same predicament and in the same emotionally hopeless state.

This does not usually make for good cinema.  There are two ways to handle this problem–a good way and a bad way.

The bad way would be to inflate a few of the book’s encounters.  To make them wildly affecting to the two main characters, life-changing even, and to artificially string a plot around these that has no business being there.  The movie becomes hopeless for no reason, and the plot injects meaning that has no purpose.  The whole film, then, is just another man-against-the-world apocalypse movie.

The good way is to let the movie feel episodic.  Let the audience squirm in their seats.  Develop this AS A THEME, and do everything you can to bring it out (short of having the actors ham-handedly muse about it).  The monotony of these characters’ circumstances is as important as anything else in the book.  That’s the central question the novel raises…when do you give up?  When is it not worth it anymore?  When is dying better than living?  This answer cannot be raised in an action-packed film.  When a man is fighting for survival all the time, he is too busy to ask these questions.  When he performs horrendous acts and finds himself back where he started, making his way down a long road with time to think, that’s when these ideas really start to take shape.

roadimage2I have not seen the movie yet, so this is all random musings and pure speculation.  I hope John Hillcoat gets it.  Based on his previous work, I think he might.  The subtlety in The Proposition was breathtaking, and its ability to illustrate themes without overtly stating them is what makes that movie affecting.

The other key to adapting the novel comes from a very specific passage near the end of the book. 

“This has been a long time coming.  Now it’s here.”

When we meet the man and his son, the man should know how this whole story is going to end.  He should know his fate.  Whether he is sick or not, he knows it’s only a matter of weeks, months, days, until he can’t continue.  But he has to continue.

“Existential” is a buzz word, but if there ever was a novel that fit the term, this is it.  The book is about continuing on in the face of God’s absence, the face of human suffering, the face of absurdity, and the face of your own certain doom.  Continuing on simply because you choose to.  If the movie isn’t 100% about that, I will not like it.  The filmmakers can change anything they want, but if that theme is not central and apparent and well-developed, then this movie should not have been made.

Many have said the book is inherently cinematic.  If you mean that it clearly defines situations and locations and movement, then yes.  If you mean it flows like a movie, feels like a movie, or reads like a movie, you’re dead wrong.  This one is a challenge, and I pray the filmmakers are up to it.  Because it could be classic cinema.

Then again it could become just another bleak, dark, and well-made movie without anything important to say.  That’s how the book felt when I started it, but I was dead wrong.  


Categorized | Commentary, Featured

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