The Road

The Road (movie)

I finished reading the book The Road just a month or so prior to seeing the movie. That was a big influence on my experience of the movie. I pretty much spent the whole time comparing it to the book in my mind—what was changed, what was retained, which scenes were most enhanced by being presented in movie format and which scenes were equally or more effective in the book, etc.

There wasn’t any suspense to speak of as far as what actually happens in the story, so I couldn’t focus on that.

In comparing the movie and the book, there are things I’m confident are different in the movie, but there are also plenty of things that didn’t match up with the book as I recall it but possibly are in the book but I just forgot them or never picked up on them when I read it. I think I had a decent grasp of the book, but my reading comprehension and retention are nowhere close to 100%, so it’s entirely possible that a lot of what seemed new or changed in the movie did indeed come from the book but just got past me on a first reading.

While a lot of my attention was on these differences, or possible differences, I should say that in fact the movie is pretty darn faithful to the book, both in the events depicted and the overall style and feel of it. And the quality is solid as well. It’s a cliché to say “the movie is never as good as the book,” but in this case I really don’t think there was a big drop-off.

One notable difference is that the movie retains very little from the whole sequence at the seashore where the main characters scavenge what they can from the boat they find. It also for some reason changes the part in that same section where the man and the boy return to their campsite to discover their stuff has been stolen. In the movie, only the man is away, and the boy—implausibly—naps the entire time the thief steals the entirety of their possessions from the campsite around him.

When they catch the thief, he pleads in his defense that at least he didn’t harm the boy. Already in the book he was a not unsympathetic character, since he was motivated by extreme desperation to do what he did, but the movie adds that additional element in his favor, rendering the father’s harsh treatment of him even more eyebrow-raising, and makes the point even more emphatically that the father is moving farther and farther from the conscience and innocence represented by the boy.

Probably the two elements that stand out to me most as examples of things I’m not sure are changes, but instead maybe brought out aspects of the book I missed or interpreted differently, occur at the beginning and end of the story.

My impression from the book—and again it may clearly say otherwise and I just didn’t catch it—was that the wife killed herself fairly early after the initial debacle, and that the father and son had been wandering for a considerable period of time already by the start of the book.

The movie presents it otherwise. There are flashback scenes prior to the wife’s suicide where the boy is pretty much the same size as in the story proper. Further, the movie has the wife being the one who told the father to embark on this southward journey to the coast in the first place, just before she killed herself.

So evidently the father and son only just started living on the road on their own at the beginning of the book. Prior to that, for a decade or so after the initial cataclysm, the three of them were together, and they lived in their house (or at least some house).

That just doesn’t seem right to me. Social order hasn’t just broken down; it’s been hell on earth for a very long time, indicated by how inured the father is to all the violence and cannibalism and such he and the son encounter in their journey. I really, really doubt that just because they had a handgun or whatever that they could have survived at home for a decade with the world crumbling around them.

So I still want to say the wife killed herself many years before the movie implies and the man and boy have been on the road since, but I don’t know.

The other thing is, when the family of “good guys” arrives at the very end to take in the son after his father dies, they say they’d been following them all along.

And that does make sense of the son having glimpsed a little boy early in the story. According to the movie, that was their little boy. Probably it was in the book as well, but I never made that connection. (I do remember the son seeing a boy early, but I didn’t realize the boy was the same as the one who shows up with the family at the end.)

But even assuming that’s an accurate carryover from the book and I just missed it, that raises some questions. The father and the son traveled through varied terrain at a non-constant pace—sometimes moving as quickly as they could, sometimes stopped for a significant period—and they had numerous misadventures, including the father getting shot with an arrow, their stuff being stolen, and very, very close brushes with suicide, being murdered, starvation, and being cannibalized. And this family was traveling along with them the whole time, staying just out of view until the very end? How? Or perhaps more importantly, why?

If they were guardian angels of some sort, watching over the man and boy in case of trouble, they weren’t very good at it. As I say, the protagonists went through harrowing and near-fatal experiences, and not once did this family intervene to help. Yeah, they’re stepping in now to take the boy in and help him, but their assistance would have come in plenty handy earlier.

Were they hovering around because they hoped to ultimately join forces with the man and boy, to give the “good guys” more strength in numbers? If so, why did they never make contact to suggest that? Why just secretly follow along for (at least) months?

Maybe they just hoped the father knew where he was going (he didn’t), so they followed so they could get there too. I don’t know. It’s just odd that they’re presented in the movie as if they’ve had this vaguely benevolent presence in the journey of the father and son all along.

Perhaps this is one of those things that works symbolically or thematically for the filmmaker or author, without fully making narrative sense in the story as a story.

I’ll mention a couple other differences, more stylistic. Granted the movie is as bleak as you could want visually and otherwise, but somehow I never felt the same depth of physical privation and suffering in the movie as in the book. From the encounters with other humans, yes—that’s handled very well—but not so much just from the elements, from the circumstances.

The book constantly brings you face to face with the kind of attention-monopolizing physical misery of their plight. It’s cold, viciously cold. It’s nearly always raining or snowing, so they’re soaked to the skin. Better and warmer shoes are a constant need. They’re nearly always hungry, at times approaching starvation. They’re walking this whole time, for hours and hours and hours most days, trudging along like Napoleon’s army retreating from Moscow. They’re crossing mountains. At times some impediment blocks their cart (when they have one), and they have to painstakingly unpack it and then repack it on the other side of the impediment.

It’s relentless, mind-numbing suffering.

As I say, in the movie they’re cold and hungry and all that, but it just doesn’t have the intensity I pictured when reading the book. They converse fairly normally, for instance, instead of weakly, shiveringly mumbling at each other through chattering teeth.

Maybe that’s just too hard to fully convey in a movie. A lot of it, for example, depends on the passage of time. You can imply that they’re walking for hours, or haven’t eaten in several days, but you can’t properly show that. A tree falling and almost crushing them you can show, because that happens in an instant, but not grueling, slow-developing, constant misery.

Maybe in part because the human elements are easier to depict in a movie, I thought the film maybe tried to hit too many emotional high points (“high” in the sense of intensity, not always positivity) in the relationships, especially between the father and son.

There is a certain ratio in the book between, say, scenes of trying to scavenge any kind of food or junk that can be fashioned into something useful for their survival (think Tom Hanks in Cast Away, only more extreme), versus meaningful emotional dialogue between the father and son, and in the movie that ratio is far different, with the latter given vastly more prominence.

The example that stood out most to me is the way the father’s death is handled in the movie. The “goodbye” scene goes on and on. In a sense it’s multiple scenes in fact. He’s seemingly about to die, and the son’s crying, and they say what they have to say to each other, and then they do it all again. Then it even fades to black and fades back in—and he’s still alive.

Then he dies and there’s the emotional scene of the boy and his father’s corpse. But after the family makes its presence known to the boy, there’s yet another scene where he has to return to the body for a final farewell.

Not that these are unusually weak or corny scenes, but it just seemed excessive to me.

All-in-all though, to be clear, this is a powerful, moving film, mostly true to the book, well worth seeing. Better than the much ballyhooed The Day After, and maybe as well as the very good Testament, it conveys that the “better dead than Red” folks are idiots, that Mutually Assured Destruction is not better than anything. I have no hesitation recommending this film.

I’ll close by noting the scene in The Road that maybe hit me the hardest emotionally.

It’s in the section where they come upon the house that turns out to have the soon-to-be-cannibalized victims locked in the basement. That’s as shocking and ugly as one would expect having read the book, though it differs in certain details. In the book the protagonists run away before the bad guys enter the house; in the movie they get trapped for a time hiding upstairs.

The other difference is in the book there’s no dialogue or anything amongst the bad guys, at least that I recall. They’re more just an ominous presence that the father and son scoot away from just in time to avoid. But in the movie, you see them interacting and talking as they enter the house, and somehow that’s what struck me as most chilling in the whole film.

One reason why is that at least one of them is female, and maybe it’s just more heartbreaking to me to see that level of depravity in a woman. They enter the house, for all the world looking like folks returning home after a typical work day in the “rat race,” and she casually says “I’m gonna go up and change” as she starts up the stairs.

Their day consists of hunting humans for prey so they can stash them in their basement to then hack pieces off them to cook up for food. But in content, in tone, in body language, there’s no indication in her, in them, of guilt, high stress, or intensity of any kind, even sadistic glee. Nor is there the kind of mental illness or peculiarity one might associate with a serial killer.

There’s no moral gravity to any of it any more for them. They’ve made their peace with it. Killing and eating people is simply an unquestioned part of their lifestyle, as banal as mowing the lawn or dealing with rush hour traffic is for us. That’s the scariest part of all.

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