Went to see The Road, finally. It's only playing at one theater in Hawaii now, and I figured if I wanted to see it, I'd better see it before it disappeared. The theater was empty but for a couple of middle-aged couples and a couple of guys behind me who probably only decided to see it because Avatar was sold out again. On the way out after the movie, one of them said to the other, "You know what the best thing about that movie was? The popcorn." The other laughed ruefully in agreement.
I didn't see it that way, but I can understand their disappointment. Judged simply as a movie, an entertainment, there's not much to go on. There are only a few characters, very little dialogue, not much in the way of action, and it's dark. Really dark. It comes by the darkness honestly. The novel is an exercise in the exploration of physical and moral darkness, and implicitly (in the movie the point is made perhaps too explicitly) against the light individuals may choose to carry against it. But McCarthy's novel is carried and made convincing by its language, and the language is a distillation and extension of the style McCarthy has been honing throughout his life as a writer. Take away the language, and you strip the story of its most of its resonance. Unless you manage to find a way to substitute something else for the language. And in cinema, what you've got instead of language is images. That's what made this movie fascinating for me to watch, to see how close, given the inherent problems, the movie could come to re-creating the impact of one in the realm of the other. I'm reminded of a line from Robert Frost where he says (of the attempt to convey spirit in terms of matter, which in this context seems apt) "That is the greatest attempt that ever failed." Take the following passage from the book, for example:
They crossed the river by an old concrete bridge and a few miles on they came upon a roadside gas station. They stood in the road and studied it. I think we should check it out, the man said. Take a look. The weeds they forded fell to dust about them. They crossed the broken asphalt apron and found the tank for the pumps. The cap was gone and the man dropped to his elbows to smell the pipe but the odor of gas was only a rumor, faint and stale. He stood and looked over the building. The pumps standing with their hoses oddly still in place. The windows intact. The door to the service bay was open and he went in. A standing metal toolbox against one wall. He went through the drawers but there was nothing there that he could use. Good half-inch drive sockets. A ratchet. He stood looking around the garage. A metal barrel full of trash. He went into the office. Dust and ash everywhere. The boy stood in the door. A metal desk, a cash register. Some old automotive manuals, swollen and sodden. The linoleum was stained and curling from the leaking roof. He crossed to the desk and stood there. Then he picked up the phone and dialed the number of his father's house in that long ago. The boy watched him. What are you doing? he said.
This is a very pictorial description, and in the movie this scene, or the first part of it, is rendered exactly. (There were in fact very few surprises in the movie. The scenes they choose to include were often perfectly literal transcriptions of scenes from the book.) But what is a director to do with a line like "The weeds they forded fell to dust around them," and the chains of association that go skittering through the mind after reading those words? Or the line about dialing the number of his father's house? In prose, that line is both revelatory and reverberatory: it's a conscious choice that reveals a subconscious inclination with origins that we can perhaps infer. But there's no way to make it work in the movie. (In this case, in the movie the phone calls gets left out entirely.)
That much said, director John Hillcoat has worked very hard to create a visual style for the movie that does in fact serve as a plausible visual analogue for McCarthy's prose. It's a beautiful movie to watch, for all its darkness. The world it creates does look and feel like the world McCarthy has created. The problem is, if anything, the dark grandeur of the burning planet generates more appreciative attentiveness than the human drama being played out. Maybe that's the point, I dunno.
And Robert Duvall has a wonderful ten minute cameo as an old man they encounter on the road. I didn't realize he was in the movie, and I didn't recognize him at first, underneath the layers of makeup — wrinkles, bad teeth, a beard, and cataracts — that transformed him into reality-wracked old-timer, but as he went into his spooky monologue over the campfire in the evening something in the intonations of his voice and the tilt of his head made me say, "My god, it's Duvall." And sure enough, it was.
Anyway, I'm glad I saw the movie. And the main impact of it was to make me want to go back and read the book again.
(Why "again" in the title? Because I wrote about the book before, here.)