For a movie with a relatively small budget of $20 million, the big-screen adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s Pulitzer Prize-winning The Road has had an exceedingly long life in post-production. Originally scheduled to be released in November 2008, the latest of several release dates has the movie pegged for an opening of October 16, 2009.
Although McCarthy has had bestsellers before and two prominent film adaptations in All the Pretty Horses and No Country for Old Men, which won several Oscars, The Road eclipses them all for its massive Oprah-fueled sales and the book’s place in McCarthy’s career. When compared against the Biblically drawn, ultraviolent epic of Blood Meridian, The Road is a small, austere horror-fable, although the irony is that the latter’s straightforward narrative derives from an undescribed worldwide cataclysm, something that imparted far more violence than anything found in his previous works. The task for the novel, then, is to evoke the incomprehensible loss of this armageddon in the small totem of a nameless father and son, wandering through the savage wastes of a post-apocalyptic land. And McCarthy did so exceedingly well, earning occasionally hysterical praise that may have been, in some cases, an overreaction to the writer’s former status as an overlooked American master—a condition that McCarthy, despite rarely giving interviews and living quietly in New Mexico, has clearly overcome.
A film production is a large, ungainly endeavor, and even the most successful movies owe their greatness to the collaboration of many people, yet rarely does anyone beyond a writer, director, the principle stars, and the occasional cinematographer receive much recognition. And so it is unreasonable to have particular expectations for the movie The Road, despite its fine source material, and even if its casting of Viggo Mortensen and use of director of John Hillcoat (who directed the acclaimed Australian western The Proposition) do seem promising. The cast listing on IMDB also indicates the presence of two other excellent actors: Guy Pearce as a character named The Veteran and Robert Duvall as Old Man.
As the trailer embedded below shows, the film may end up being far different than the novel, or the film may simply be marketed rather conventionally: via promises of explosions, endangered children, gunplay, and gory death scenes. In the trailer, the boy’s mother, played by Charlize Theron, features prominently, whereas she hardly appeared in the book. We also are allowed an image of apocalypse in action, in the form of an encyclopedic array of natural disasters played out over a TV newsreel, echoing The Day After Tomorrow or a dozen other end-of-the-world flicks. Esquire contributor Tom Chiarella, who has seen the film, writes that, despite its trailer, The Road contains no scenes depicting worldwide armageddon; the implication is that, in choosing this trailer, film executive Bob Weinstein sees the visions of environmental catastrophe as useful for marketing purposes.
In Esquire’s June issue, Chiarella discusses The Road’s supposed “burden” of being labeled “The Most Important Movie of the Year.” In the end, he says, it is “a brilliantly directed adaptation of a beloved novel, a delicate and anachronistically loving look at the immodest and brutish end of us all.” That all sounds promising (save the oblique phrase “anachronistically loving”), as does Chiarella’s claim that the movie is a good story. I’m not sure where the movie’s incipient greatness is supposed to come from or who labeled it The Most Important Movie of the Year. The headline may in fact be the work of an exuberant editor, rather than Chiarella, or it may stem from the tremendous praise heaped upon the novel and the 2007 adaptation of No Country for Old Men. Even so, such hype is now a pathetically common form of Oscar-baiting. We saw it last year with the ridiculous The Reader, which shares with The Road the involvement of the Weinstein brothers.
If this movie lives up to any of the glory prematurely ascribed to it, fans and filmmakers alike should be pleased. But we would be better off tempering expectations and considering the book and the film (that almost no one has seen) as entirely separate entities. Densely wrought, recondite, soaring language works well in McCarthy’s novels; it’s far less compelling when the same aesthetic is applied to discussing the films his books inspire. Indeed, with the forthcoming adaptations of Blood Meridian and Cities of the Plain, more bloviated talk of McCarthy-derived filmic grandeur is sure to follow, no matter how good these movies end up being.