Friday, February 5, 2010

Forms of The Road

Here is an example of one of the more dramatic moments in Cormac McCarthy's The Road:

They lay in the leaves and the ash with their hearts pounding. He was going to start coughing. He would have to put his hand over his mouth but the boy was holding on to it and would not let go and in the other hand he was holding the pistol. He had to concentrate to stifle the cough and at the same time he was trying to listen. He swung his chin through the leaves, trying to see. Keep your head down, he whispered.
Are they coming?
On the page, the drama is palpable, but on a very small, intimate scale: the man lacks a free hand to help suppress a cough since one grips a pistol and the other braces the boy's body and courage. He has to focus on quieting the cough but he also has to remain alert to the looming danger. As rendered, the scene's tensions are sharp and brilliant.

Yet given the absence of flying dragons, giant robots, or fields crowded with battle, how can this transfer to film? Or try this, from a little later in the book:
They plodded on, thin and filthy as street addicts. Cowled in their blankets against the cold and their breath smoking, shuffling through the black and silky drifts. They were crossing the broad coastal plain where the secular winds drove them in howling clouds of ash to find shelter where they could. Houses or barns or under the bank of a roadside ditch with the blankets pulled over their heads and the noon sky black as the cellars of hell. He held the boy against him, cold to the bone. Dont lost heart, he said. We'll be all right.
Much of the book consists of passages much like this one: spare descriptions of a grim world across which a man and his son are making their way. It cuts a striking enough visual, but even if stripped to its visuals, it leaves the glaring problem that two dirty people walking down a road doesn't make for a compelling cinematic experience. Directors have done worse than to deal with such problems with a cheesy montage sequence, but that doesn't make it right.

Consider one last:
They picked their way among the mummied figures. The black skin stretched upon the bones and their faces split and shrunken on their skulls. Like victims of some ghastly envacuuming. Passing them in silence down that silent corridor through the drifting ash where they struggled forever in the road's cold coagulate.
Here again, passing things in silence and "struggling forever" in a "road's cold coagulate" do not leap onto the big screen, whatever their substantial qualities in print.

What prompts this pity-party for the challenges of directing The Road are the criticisms in the latest The Film Talk podcast, in which Jett Loe claims, among other things, that the scenes involving the boy's mother, played by Charlize Theron, take up too much time and emphasis in the film as compared with the book.

I came away from the film with the same impression, but I re-opened the book and found that the most riveting and significant scene involving the woman does appear in the book, and is moreover quite closely represented in the film. I will agree that the film's version is more memorable than the book's version, but I think it's fair to ask whether this bespeaks a flaw in the film or the book: it is, after all, among the most compelling human moments of the entire story. A scene like that should cut like cleaved obsidian, and in the film, it does so. I think it's fair to suggest that the spareness and brevity of McCarthy's style falls short in conveying this particular moment, occupying, as it does, no more than a single page; and I say that as a deep admirer of his work generally and of The Road's poetry especially.

That's arguable enough, but I want to emphasize that McCarthy's skill is such that he can leave precisely the impression he wishes to leave, no more and no less.

My assessment of the film is that its emphasis is well-placed and utterly defensible. I would not want to see a a page-for-page transfer to film, as it would be a monotonous few hours consisting mostly of a man and a boy walking across a barren countryside repeating the same conversations. Whatever its departures from the book, the film leaves very much the same emotional dent as the book, and that being so, it captures the book faithfully. I encourage people to read the book and watch this film, and I don't think the order is important.

What we have here is an illustration of the limitations and possibilities of storytelling across forms of media: not everything that can be done with words on a page can or should be done on film, and vice-versa.


Bpaul said...

Well said.

John Carter Wood said...

Finally got around to watching The Road last week.

Yep, you're right.

And I think that's all that needs saying.

Dale said...

@Bpaul, thanks ( ... if you're still out there. I'm not sure how I missed this comment.) @John, thanks to you too, though I issue the qualification that your comment caused me to re-read the post, and the quotes from McCarthy brought back the book and the film. Now I'm back in an emotionally-hobbled post-The Road state.

I can't blame you -- it all falls on Cormac McCarthy. No, true blame rests with reality.