Writing, Reviewing and Criticism In The Internet Age

Tag: Ian McEwan

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.

Watch it.

Read it.

And then let me know what you think, it’s what this whole thing is here for.



Promising not to split hairs, or ‘Benedict Cumberbatch – world’s creepiest baby sitter.’


After last week’s post I was challenged by two people on roughly the same point; that a film based on a book has to be considered an adaptation – both made the point in a different way and both very eloquently too  -(you can check them, and me out on Twitter *SHAMELESS PLUG*.) The point they both raised was, I hope, well taken and I edited the article to admit that I was splitting more hairs than someone with trichotillomania in a hair salon.

However, I think that this week’s article will help me explain my point about the artistic problem of making an incredible literary/film adaptation. Step forward Ian McEwan. Put simply I believe he is one of the best writers currently living and working in the United Kingdon, nominated for the Man Booker Prize a frankly stunning, six times. He’s a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, Royal Society of Arts and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. He’s been awarded the Shakespeare Prize, appointed as the first visiting scholar and writer at Dickinson College, given a CBE and if that were not enough, The Times named him as one of the 50 greatest British writers since 1945. In short, this man has got some serious game.

So, if this is one of the UK’s finest writers who isn’t dead then it must be quite the ballsy step for a director to try to take on McEwan’s complex and inter-textual work – so who would step up? One of the heavy hitter’s of Western cinema? Well, how about a school drop out who left education with no GCSE’s? Step forward a certain young director – Joe Wright.

Joe Wright released his version of McEwan’s eighth novel in 2007 as his second feature film, Atonement starring Wrights near-ever present muse of Keira Knightly as well as the exceptionaly talented Saoirse Ronan. Almost immediately the critical reception was, bluntly, arse-kissingly good. Atonement and it’s newbie director set records as Wright became the youngest director ever to open that year’s Venice Film Festival at the tender age of just 35.

So, there’s the background. So, now, onto the critique…

And you know what? I think this might be one of the best adaptations I have ever seen. Seriously, it is just brilliant. From the opening credits the film demonstrates how to take a source material, (in this case the 2001 novel) and make into something uniquely filmic – not by trying to copy the methods of McEwan’s literary work but by using the film medium to do something the novel could not do. The way the title is brought up on-screen is simple, visual and yet nods to the inter-textuality of the original book. The letters appear as if ‘typed’ onto screen and the opening shot of Bryony Tallis’s doll house gives immediate foreground of the manipulation that she works in her fiction work and the real world relationship she destroys.

I will try not to provide too many spoilers, (this could well be futile as both but the book and the film were massively popular and deservedly so) so I will just say this. The plot of the novel hinges and depends on observation, point of view and the interpretation of things that we see not necessarily adding up to what we think. By and large I think this is a trick that the film pulls off a little better than the thoroughly excellent novel. The scene at the fountain in the novel’s opening section is a case in point. Here we read the same scene from the two opposing perspectives, Bryony from the window and Robbie by the fountain. The book dwells, (not unreasonably) on Bryony’s reactions and the scene forms, we later learn, the back bone of a short story.As much as I enjoy writers with the talent to pull off POV switches the whole things, when considered through hindsight feels more than a little like Mrs. Dalloway. This is in fact later added to the novel as a fictional publishers letter and makes the self-awareness feel like trying to have one’s cake and eat it…

The film, is in a sense less limited than the authorial voice and as such the sequence feels like it carries more weight, it’s quick but not superfluous and we as viewers see the tragedy of Bryony’s perception without the self-conscious literary-ness getting in the way. This really should go without saying as multiple camera angles are a stock in trade hall-mark of modern cinema and fit the bill perfectly for the scene at the fountain and in the library. Ronan really shines in the opening parts of the film, managing to convey not only the immediate reaction to what she see’s but also managing to show the viewer the immaturity of her character that leads her to these assumptions and the fateful accusation. The power of film is that it manages in moments what the novel would take pages to do. In seconds we can see the same event from multiple POV, and whilst as an English student I adore the writing of authors who master close third narration, the film switches things so immediately that it hightens the emotional  heft of the crucial scenes, – the library and the fountain etc.

To be honest I think this would be something one could say about the whole film, whereas Robbie’s time in  France are given over to his thought of his beloved and the limitations of being a solider by McEwan, Wright simply blows this part of the novel to dust. The five-minute tracking sequence, (a Joe Wright trademark) is simply jaw dropping. The viewer is given a sense of scale and mass suffering that the book comes nowhere near to accomplishing. The sequence in the cinema is another particular highlight, combining self-aware cinematics with pitch perfect romance.

Other particular stand out things about this as an adaptation is how the whole mechanics of the film work together. Everything here is contributing to the wider aim, the score especially does a great job, the type writer effect in the opening moments being an extremely good example and Wright’s arts training shines in the overall look of the film – the dress Knightly wears being declared as the most stylish to appear in film. To sum up, it capture the essence of the book and helps it transcend the limitations placed upon it by the novel form.

Just pause here for a second, because here comes the BUT that the whole article has been building up to. Ready??


There is one area where I feel that this transition from literature to film, as well as it is achieved, doesn’t quite work – the ending. Whereas the ending in the novel aims at pathos as Bryony is brought back to the scene of her crime and her internal guilt is left with her. Whilst the ending of the film is very VERY good the nature of the TV interview seems designed at explication of guilt rather than acceptance. In the book, Bryony recognises that she can give them happiness, but that it would be ‘self-serving to let them forgive me.’ As haunting as Vanessa Redgrave makes the final scene, to me it smacks a little of self-justification, which is a little beneath this film and book. (Damn it, realised I said I wouldn’t do this!) Whilst that is just my opinion, I think the exteriority of a TV interview fits in with the very film-ness of Atonement as a whole, though personally I

Oh, and if you haven’t seen Benedict Cumberbatch’s scenes go away right now and watch the film. See? Fucking terrifying! And don’t over simplfy, it isn’t just the overall creepiness of the scene with Lola or even the fact that he’s a rapist. It’s this. He marries his victim and NO-ONE says anything about it. No-one. At all. Not even Lola. Just think about that, but not for too long or you’ll have nightmares about that marriage…Now, back to the point.

So, there you are. An adaptation of grace, poise and cinematic worth that does credit to the original source material. Despite my few niggles with this I still think it’s just brilliant British culture at its best. Reading over, the keen-eyed reader may come to the conclusion that all I’ve done is, yet again, spend my time splitting hairs. But thanks to Ian McEwan and Joe Wright, they are, at the very least, interesting hairs to split.