What do you want from me? or, This one might be a little gloomy.
Well, last week’s column certainly raised a few eyebrows amongst those who thought I was trying to have my cake and eat it, (I’ve always thought that was an odd expression) so today I’ve decided to review something for this week that is a little more straightforward. Now, don’t worry and don’t get me wrong I’m not trying to play it safe – this would be an incredibly dull blog if that were the case…
Still, a few people have mentioned through various means and in different ways that I have yet to find a book and an adaptation that I was equally fond of, or that I thought were equally good. Whilst I have found adaptations I’ve hated – don’t worry, I’m not going slam Ben Affleck again, and those I’ve really loved, (oh, Christopher Nolan, don’t ever change) I haven’t found a book that I liked just as much as the film. Untill now, anyway.
So, today I think I’ve found one that fits the bill, an outstanding novel that was fluently and classily adapted in to a highly successful film, (well, in a critical sense at the very least – I haven’t yet looked up what the box office looked like…one sec…)
Yes, it was critical success, and though the box office returns weren’t necessarily all that impressive thanks to what is a tense and bleak plot the film is still incredible and probably deserved more success at the end of year party where all the film critics give out the awards. Alright, enough being coy, lets talk about The Road by Cormac McCarthy.
Firstly though, I hope you’ll allow me a small digression. Those who were reading the blog back in the mists of time when I reviewed Atonement by Ian McEwan may remember that I spent some time listing the many achievements and accolades that the author had been lavished with. McCarthy? Yeah, he’s a won few too and to make sure I get across the quality of the book under review today, taker a look at this list. In his career McCarthy has amassed the following…
The Faulkner prize for a first novel for The Orchard Keeper, the Traveling Fellowship from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, the Guggenheim Fellowship for Creative writing, a MacArthur Fellowship, the National Book Award for fiction, the national Book Critics Circle Award, the James Tait Black Memorial Prize for Fiction, the Believer Book Award, a little known award called the Pulitzer Prize for fiction and the Saul Bellow Award for Achievement in American Fictionfor a career whose writing “possesses qualities of excellence, ambition, and scale of achievement over a sustained career which place him or her in the highest rank of American literature.”
And if this wasn’t enough, the novel of The Road was declared by Entertainment Weekly to be the best book of the last 25 years and the most important environmental book ever written. There isn’t anyone currently in the world of fiction who can really match him, in terms of talent, poise, and literary merit. Which is why many who come to The Road for the first time may have felt a little disappointed. Instead of being a literary firework that immediately rewards your attention, The Road is one of the sparest and simplistic books I’ve ever read. For those of you who haven’t already clicked over to Wikipedia allow me to offer a brief summary of the important details.
At some point in the future something happens. A cataclysmic event has completely destroyed the environment and society has fallen into ruin. An unnamed man and his son are making their way from an unknown place, to somewhere further south for warmth. On the way through the utterly devastated landscape they have to keep warm, find food and survive others who, in this dark dystopian world have turned to cannibalism to keep themselves alive.
That’s pretty much all I can say with regards to the plot, but the true beauty of the book is in the artistry of its construction. Prose is bleak and simple, reminiscent of Hemingway in its minimalism and the lack of any punctuation to separate the dialogue, narration and description seems like a simple stylistic trick but proves to be an incredibly immersive device that sucks you in to massive effect. I read this on a bright and sunny day in St Andrews and I could not tear myself away from the world the book creates, horrifying but possessed of a bleak and elegant kind of beauty. If you haven’t read the book, find it, but make sure you don’t have any plans for a day because you will struggle to put it down. It is THAT good – by no means easy to read, but not in the same way as American Psycho; the book is difficult to deal with rather than being graphic and violent, The Road documents the end of the civilised age, and it is simply entrancing.
Since the book was such a huge success it took only three years to turn the book into a film, directed by John Hillcoat, best known for the gritty Western The Proposistion and his latest film has been chosen to compete for the Palm d’Or at Cannes. He chose Viggo Mortensen to take the role of the Man and the film crew discovered the young Kodi Smit-McPhee to play the boy.
Let me be utterly straight-forward about this, this film is utterly superb. Mortensen is as usual completely lost in the character, all layers of clothes, encrusted filth and dirt and a desperation in his eyes to keep his son safe. The complete new-comer Kodi Smit-McPhee is just heartbreakingly good, the moral centre of the film and a tragic innocent in a world that has completely lost all traces of the humanity and vulnerability that the boy embodies.
The production design and the cinematography are also pitch perfect, filmed in places across the mid-West of the States deliberately using the ruined towns and environments of the old rust belt to perfectly evoke the film’s world. In short everything about this works, and to highlight my point there is one brief sequence worth highlighting.
At one point the man and the boy skirt round a group of bandits and find an empty house. Desperate for food the two take the chance and break into the house. In the space of a couple of sentences the book creates a scene of incredible power as the man and the boy find in the cellar dozens of people, kept as food for the others.
The film takes exactly the same approach – the moment is kept, brief and sudden and the horror is all kept implied. The film doesn’t feel the need to explain why what we’ve just seen is horrifying, the look in Viggo Mortensen’s eyes in the brief moment we see the shapes in the gloom of the cellar is enough, and the subtle hints of cannibalism throughout the film means that the sense of menace is preserved throughout rather than degenerating into cheap cinematic tricks and jump cuts.
Another moment, as this is what the film and book essential boils down to, is one that the films takes from the original source, and loads with a huge amount of pathos. Finding a derilict house, the two go to look for food. As they pass the open door to the bedroom the boy sees a dried out corpse lying on the bed, and freezes in fear as you would expect. Viggo Mortensen simply turns and mutters the heart-breaking line that this is ‘nothing you haven’t seen before’, a line not only depressed but resigned to his own inability to protect his son.
Now, I could keep going on about this I really could, but I shouldn’t as this blog should probably be under 15,000 words long and I’m already quite tired. So I sign off with this, the way that this brilliant book is written, so minimal, so sparse and so elegant translates so well to film it has to be seen to be believed. Now, this isn’t a fun film to watch; if the article hasn’t given it away, the film and the book are often hard to read and hard to watch – but great art really should be.
And then let me know what you think, it’s what this whole thing is here for.