“By day the banished sun circles the earth like a grieving mother with a lamp.” – Cormac McCarthy (The Road)
The Road is a heart wrenching tale of love and survival. It follows a young boy and his father on a post apocalyptic world, trying to make sense of life when all there is to live for is each other. They walk through the greyness of the world in search of food and other essentials, we so often take for granted. Along the way they encounter others with the same desperation and will to survive. At a time of such destruction there appears to be no clear cut distinction between good and evil.
The Road is adapted from a novel by American writer Cormac McCarthy. The novel was published in 2006 and won the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for Literature. The Road adds to McCarthy’s other achievements, which include his 2005 novel ‘No Country for Old Men’ and his 1992 novel ‘All the Pretty Horses’, which was also made into a motion picture and won the National Book Award.
The movie adaption of The Road stars Viggo Mortensen, most famous for his role as Aragorn in the Lord of the Rings trilogy, Mortensen plays the father in The Road. Director John Hillcoat was tasked with putting together McCarthy’s vision on the big screen, he was chosen by producer Nick Wechsler, who used independent financing to acquire film rights to adapt the novel. Wechsler chose Hillcoat after seeing his 2005 movie The Proposition. Wechsler was impressed by how beautifully Hillcoat presented the “stark primitive humanity of the West” in the movie. Being that The Road is in itself such a story of humanity in a world blasted into ruin, Hillcoat was certainly the man for the job. To truly bring the story to life a soundtrack was required; this task was taken up by Nick Cave along with Warren Ellis. Nick Cave is best known as being the front man of rock band Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds. He produced the classic track ‘Red Right Hand’ which has appeared on many motion pictures, including becoming the signature track of Wes Craven’s ‘Scream’ franchise.
I read the book last year, as part of my English Literature course I am currently undertaking at college. I was simply blown away by McCarthy’s presentation of such a bleak, godless world which remains honest and true from start to finish. McCarthy does not attempt TO sugar coat such human desperation; he presents it to his readers with a sense of actuality in its rawest form. So of course when I found out the novel was being made into a motion picture, I feared the vision of McCarthy could go to waste if presented the wrong way. I felt in order for the movie version of The Road to be a success it would have to stay true to the novel.
The story focuses entirely on the boy and the man with very few additional characters. The father and son relationship is delivered and developed with true grace over the course of the story and it is clear that the man only wishes to survive in order to protect his son. This protection I’m sure would be felt by any parent if the world were to be reduced to such rubble. As they travel the barren landscape the man carries with them, a pistol with only two bullets remaining. He tells the boy with brutal honesty that there is one bullet each, in other words if they time comes they must commit suicide than face the horrors of a slow death.
In one hugely dramatic scene such an eventuality is seconds from occurring. The man and the boy find an old farm house and as they investigate, the inhabitants return forcing the pair to hide in the upstairs bathroom of the house. As they are seconds away from being discovered the man puts the gun to the boy’s head and contemplates pulling the trigger. The terrifying emotion this scene creates is outstanding, as you feel the desperation and complete horror of the situation. It is clear that each other is all they have; this is a factor McCarthy beautifully illustrates in his novel:
“They set along the blacktop in the gun-metal light, shuffling through the ash, each the other’s world entire.”
This also illustrates the sheer nature of darkness the planet is suffering, with no sense of colour; everything is black and grey with no sign of hope. Each location within the movie keeps this sense of greyness, what I saw on screen is how I imagined it to be when I read the novel last year. The description of the “gun-metal light” just instantly painted a picture in my mind, as I imagined the man and the boy journeying down the road, among all the ash and destruction.
As mentioned earlier the story is primarily focused entirely on the boy and his father, however other characters do appear at certain points. The encounters are highly mixed as different people are shown to be dealing with the dying planet in different ways, which would be expected if such an event were to take place. After most of the encounters the boy constantly asks his father if they are the good guys, after certain extreme encounters the boy even wonders if they have become the bad guys. Due to the state of the planet, some have been lead to extreme desperation and even cannibalism as the fight for survival gets harder and harder. It would be easy to put those with hostilities towards the man and the boy in the category of being bad, but the man certainly doesn’t have perfect morals.
At one stage when they reach the coast a lone traveller steals some supplies, the man then takes back the supplies and everything else the traveller owns. In essence the man leaves the traveller for dead, so as with all the other survivors the man is simply doing what he must to survive and protect his son, despite the moral implications. It shows the level of desperation and makes you wonder how far you would go if something of this magnitude actually devastated the earth.
The boy represents the humanity which is slowly dying away along with the planet. Despite the grave fear he has, this does not stop him from questioning his father who at times, acts in a questionable manner. At one stage they come across an old man named Eli, travelling the road on his own. The man wants to continue on and leave Eli however the boy persuades his father to give the old man some food, despite having very little for themselves. The boy shows a huge level of compassion and selflessness, he clearly genuinely wants to help those in need, despite being in the same situation himself. Eli looks upon the boy as a symbol of hope calling him an angel. On a number of occasions the man believes the boy carries the fire inside, which many critics of the novel have suggested represents the fire of humanity, burning on and not being extinguished by the dysfunction brought upon the world.
Throughout the movie we see various montages of the man and the boy travelling the road. Over the montage Viggo Mortensen reads certain passages from the novel, word for word as it appears in McCarthy’s novel. This really reflects how the words of McCarthy are so powerful; his descriptions really do allow the reader to create a mental image of the devastated landscape. In addition conversations between the man and the boy are kept at a complete minimum just like during the novel. The movie has therefore remained true to the original vision of the story. Sometimes Hollywood influence can take a perfectly good storyline; pack it to the brim with special effects and despite there being a lot of action, the essence of the story is tarnished. The overwhelming point of The Road is to comment on the intense emotions of the man and the boy; I believe that is why the cause of the devastation is so minimal in McCarthy’s novel, as it aims to point out that the story is primarily centred on a father and son with a will to survive. If the cause had been revealed there would have been a significant risk of taking attention away from the main point of the story. It is refreshing to see something like this, relying on the portrayal of human emotion and not special effects. For example we have Avatar which has been packed full of special effects, fair enough it is visually stunning but let’s face it Avatar is really nothing greatly unique.
Whilst watching The Road I couldn’t help but think about the recent disaster which has taken place in Haiti. On January 12th 2010 an earthquake measuring 7.0 in magnitude struck at 4:53pm local time, it is thought the death toll may be as high as 200,000 people. The devastation left thousands of survivors without access to essentials such as food and water, this lead to many fending for themselves, in a fight for survival as aide efforts were delayed. Here we have a scene of complete devastation and simply a human will to survive in the face of such destruction. When I went to see The Road only 10 days after the Haiti disaster I just thought about the pictures I had seen of the Haiti crisis and thought about the realism the story of The Road presents.
In conclusion The Road brings out fears that the world is by no means eternal. The reason McCarthy wrote this book was because he looked to his son one day, then scanned the world around him. He imagined the world in ruins and how humans could survive on such a devastated planet. He thought that such an eventuality was not beyond the realms of possibility, especially when you consider discussion with regards to climate change. What we do to the world now has an everlasting effect, which will be felt by future generations; therefore should we all consider taking more responsibility. I believe that is the warning the story of The Road carries.
John Hillcoat has captured Cormac McCarthy’s vision perfectly and ‘The Road’ gains a UFO Radio rating of 9/10 for a thought provoking movie of intense human emotion.