By Jay Stringer
I finally saw The Road at the weekend. I didn’t hold off for any particular reason, I wasn’t to scared to see it, or too precious of the book. Timing just didn’t allow it until now.
That said, I’ve made no secret recently that I am ‘over’ film adaptations. I don’t need them. But still, sometimes you want to take a chance. Especially for a book that moved you.
I first read The Road in proof. I was the only McCarthy fan in the bookshop, and the rep remembered me and saved a copy. In fact, if I remember the timing right, it was one of my leaving presents. There was nothing spectacular about the copy –some proofs are wonderful editions, better than the books themselves, some are pretty basic. This one was the exact definition of basic; blank white cover, no hooptedoodle, a few quotes on the back, and straight in to the sparse prose.
And in a masterstroke, it suited the book perfectly. The official version was nice enough, it had a dark looking picture of some trees and the title was shiny and silver. If you like that sort of thing. But in truth, the edition I’ve always held to be the true version of the book was the proof copy.
McCarthy’s prose has always held something special for me. I wouldn’t want to imitate it, and I couldn’t if I tried. But his voice speaks to something very basic in me, this is one of the perfect distillations of fiction.
The book itself wastes no time. There’s no messing, no set up, and no epic oblivion. We just get straight into the core of the story;
When he woke in the woods in the dark and the cold of the night he’d reach out to touch the child sleeping beside him. Nights dark beyond darkness and the days more gray each one than what had gone before.
Books don’t need to worry about establishing shots, whereas the language of film seems to demand them. So the film does start with establishing what the world was like ‘before’. At first, I thought this was pointless. I mean, we know what the world was like before, because we live in it. I’m reminded of when DC comics killed Superman and the storyline that followed was called ‘World Without A Superman’. Which, I remember thinking, was a world I already knew all about.
So anyway, the film opens with idyllic scenery, a loving couple, a home. And then some unexplained shit storm goes down outside and we hit the ‘present’ like a slap of cold water to the face; the man and his boy, starving and travelling.
It’s a different choice, a different telling of the same story. The film uses a different framing device to the book. In the book the man dreams of dark things, like the monster near the beginning, and has the occasional flashback to his wife. In the film, his dreams are all full of his wife, and sunshine, and then the creeping darkness that takes her away. We feel the pain of it, of the husband who insists they survive simply for the sake of surviving; he has no rationale, no rhyme or reason for his survival. It’s just instinct. It’s what he needs to do. His wife, she sees the world differently after everything ends. And The man’s inability to save her from her own demons, and Viggo Mortenson’s quiet acting, can break your heart if you let it.
I remember how much the book moved me that first time. I actually remember getting in trouble at work because I sat and read half of it in one sitting on the shop floor when I had a million other things to do –chief of which was ‘work’. But the story, and its soul, wouldn’t let me go. And as soon as I finished it, I wanted to talk to people about it. I wanted to talk about the powerful message of hope and survival, of the incredible love story at its core, and the love of life that I found in its pages. But every conversation I had went the other way. It was a dark book, a hopeless book, a depressing book. I just didn’t see that, and not for the first time I found myself wondering if I lacked the ability to actually understand books.
But it seems that everyone involved with the film got the same idea I did, and tried to put it onto the screen. They’ve tried to lift out the things that I saw, the things that kept me returning to the story, and made them the heart of the film. It’s not always successful. There are a few bits that just don’t work, the boy’s questioning of his fathers use of a gun, whilst well done and important later in the film, feels forced the first time it happens.
But throughout, the hope and the love shine through. Yes, the man feels like he’s running on empty. He becomes a husk of who he used to be and, in his will to protect his son, starts to become the monster that he’s taught his son to fear. His choices become questionable, and left to his own devices he would have lost himself. But he’s not left to his own devices, he has passed on the best of himself to his son, taught him the difference between right and wrong, and given him the moral compass that keeps the both of them going. For me, this is the most realistic kind of hope, the most necessary; it’s not a feel-good sentiment that relies in jingoism or speeches, it’s a simple drive to keep moving. Always keep going. Because, as the man says to his boy, “you don’t know what might be down the road.”
And throughout it all, there’s a very real sense that none of the crap matters. The world has ended, the race has gone cannibal, and the two characters are seeing horrors every day. But for the man, none of that matters as he has one very pure and very simple vision. His boy. As he says, “the boy is my warrant. If he is not the word of god, then god never spoke.”
And hidden away in that wonderful line, only slightly changed from the book, is the heart of the film. Every scene of Viggo washing his son, or feeding him, or reading to him. Every moment of happiness, such as a beetle taking flight, or the child’s first can of coke, these are celebrations of life. Of the things we can overlook because our world hasn’t ended. We are all like the man in the book, who sometimes forgets to be on the lookout.
In seeing the child kick the empty coke can, as every one of us has done at some point, and seeing his child-like drawings (after the apocalypse what would a child draw? Blackness.) We are reminded what it is that the father is fighting to preserve. And this is offset against the moments when he teaches his son how to kill himself, when he reinforces to him that someday it might be important. Control your own fate, because you can’t control anything else.
The acting is great. Truly great. Viggo is one of my favourite actors, he does the very thing that the academy likes to overlook. He acts. There’s nothing showy or flashy, there’s no laboured worthiness or shouty-Pacinoism. He simply turns up, finds the character and quietly nails it. He manages to turn a piano into an instrument of heartbreak without a word, then return to it a moment later and make the same instrument into an object of healing and remembrance.
And this performance is probably more remarkable than any of his others for the fact that it never lets up. Much like one of the other great performances of my lifetime, Ray Winstone in Nil By Mouth, Viggo never gets a moment to switch off. He has to be ‘on’ for the entire duration of the film. Ever single scene centres on the story he's telling with hi eyes, and his stillness and his motion.
Is it a perfect film? No, by no means. Perfect films don’t really exist, especially when it comes to adaptations. But it is a film that has the right idea. It knows that film is a different language to prose. The filmmakers wisely digested the book word for word, then re-told it. And, in doing so, they remained remarkably close to the story, and completely faithful to the characters. They managed to make a film of heart and soul from a book that was, to me at least, all about those two qualities.