‘The Road’ on page and screen

Posted by · 7:55 am · July 15th, 2008

(from left) Kodi Scott-McPhee and Viggo Mortensen in The RoadThis weekend I opened Cormac McCarthy’s Pulitzer-Prize winning novel “The Road.” For whatever reason –- fright perhaps -– I’d hadn’t read it before now despite accolades from critics and friends.

In June, Guy Lodge wrote a thoughtful entry about Dennis Lehane and how his books have easily transitioned to the screen. He likened him to Jane Austen. Mr. Lodge accurately noted that “it seems the studios are snapping up his titles faster than he can write them.”

And for good reason. “Mystic River” and “Gone Baby Gone” were exceptional (and successful) adaptations. “Shutter Island,” which will open in 2009 as “Ashcliff,” attracted the eye of Martin Scorsese along with an exceptional cast featuring Leonardo DiCaprio, Mark Ruffalo, Ben Kingsley, Emily Mortimer, Michelle Williams, Max Von Sydow, Jackie Earle Haley and Patricia Clarkson, to name a few. But I wonder if similar consideration might be given to Mr. McCarthy.

John Hillcoat’s adaptation of “The Road” will hit theaters this November — just after thanksgiving. Unlike “No Country for Old Men,” the Coen brothers’ Academy Award-winning adaptation of the Cormac McCarthy novel, this film enters the market with far less fanfare. To date, it hasn’t screened for audiences or critics. It didn’t show at Cannes or Tribeca and, as of this writing, hasn’t been announced as part of the Toronto International Film Festival line-up.

The film stars Viggo Mortensen, fresh off an Oscar nomination for “Eastern Promises,” David Cronenberg’s moody and dark film about the Russian mafia in London. Mortensen seems to have this genre down. While he was thrilling in Cronenberg’s haunting drama “A History of Violence,” the actor arguably made his name as Aragorn in those miserable elf movies from Peter Jackson. Five pages into the novel, his casting made perfect sense.

In 2005, Hillcoat directed “The Proposition,” a brilliant western starring Guy Pearce and Ray Winstone. I found it to be one of the year’s best.

“The Road” also stars Oscar winners Charlize Theron and Robert Duvall as well as Mr. Pearce and newcomer Kodi Smit-McPhee, an 11-year-old boy who might just steal the film. Charles McGrath, writing in The New York Times earlier this year, noted that screenwriter Joe Penhall is “for the most part extremely faithful” to the story.

The Oscar season is crowded with adaptations of books and plays. “Revolutionary Road,” “The Reader,” “Doubt,” “Frost/Nixon,” “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,” “House of Lies,” “Defiance” and “Miracle at St. Anna” are just a few. But if there’s such a thing as McCarthy fatigue, audiences may have it this year. Where “No Country for Old Men was violent and scary to a disturbing degree, “The Road” is – -210 pages in -– chilling and lonely. They are both beautiful works of literature, but how much stomach will the Academy have for another bleak story, particularly one set in a post-apocalyptic world?

The critical success of “No Country for Old Men” may also work against Mr. Hillcoat. The Coens set the bar high — much higher than Billy Bob Thornton and Ted Talley when they adapted “All the Pretty Horses” in 2000. But I’m hoping that isn’t the case.

Then again, if “The Road” isn’t enough to satisfy McCarthy fans and film lovers alike, in 2009 Ridley Scott will direct “Blood Meridian,” an adaptation of another one of his novels, with a script penned by William Monahan.

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10 responses so far

  • 1 7-15-2008 at 8:33 am

    Guy Lodge said...

    Just finished “The Road” recently too. (I always lag behind with bestsellers.) To be honest, if the film is as good as I hope it’s going to be, it won’t be Academy material – if that makes any sense.

    Ignoring awards potential, my own personal hopes for the film are very high. I’ve heard some people say otherwise, but I found the novel, with its spareness and reliance on landscape as a character in itself, ideally suited for film. Hillcoat is an inspired match for the material, it’s beautifully cast, and Penhall is a really exciting writer. I’m not sure if the extraordinary TV adaptation of Jake Arnott’s “The Long Firm” ever made it onto US screens, but Penhall’s achievement there in filleting and reimagining Arnott’s (very dense) work was amazing.

  • 2 7-15-2008 at 9:05 am

    Jonathan Spuij said...

    I read the book, mainly because my father is a huge McCarthy fan.

    I liked it but I wasn’t blown away with it. It’s too minimalistic for my taste. Perhaps in a few years I might learn to appreciate it more, but right now I might just be too young to fully do so.

  • 3 7-15-2008 at 10:20 am

    Ryan Adams said...

    I’ve just now started The Road myself, and the script’s in a folder out of sight where it won’t tempt me until I’m finished.

    This promises to be another one of those years when it’s not simply a matter of what level of darkness the Academy can handle — but more a problem of grim worthy films being crowded out by too many dark ones at the top. (“American Gangster” elbowed out by “Juno”? Could only happen in a year when so many other brilliant movies at the summit were unremittingly bleak.)

    But I’m not giving up The Road just yet. (This coming from the guy who still can’t get over the Children of Men snubs, so consider the source.)

    As for Blood Meridian, Ridley Scott did an interview in Eclipse magazine June 4, and talked about the status:

    “We got it down as a screenplay and the problem is that it is so savage. But that’s what it is. If you did it properly it would be an X-certificate. But you can’t apologise for the violence and you can’t quantify the violence and you shouldn’t try to explain the violence. It is what it is…an exercise in brutality, savagery and violence.”

    Nothing would thrill me more than a brutal savage NC-17 film by Ridley Scott (about anything!), but I don’t know if financiers will feel the same way. Also, remember Scott has Nottingham slated for 2009, and keeps dropping hints that the film following that will be his return to Sci-Fi. (in spite of his reticence to reveal much, we all assume this will be Brave New World, possibly starring DiCaprio, right?)

    So the 2009 ETA for Blood Meridian might be optimistic.

    As for Lehane, some novelists have a cinematic style and Lehane is one of them. (McCarthy, not so much, though No Country was the exception. I always said, cut the pages out of that novel, punch holes and insert brads — voila! you’re done. But the Coens took it to the next level.)

    Another terrific and instantly filmable novelist is David Benioff who blurs the line between novelist and screenwriter by being both. (That, and being married to Amanda Peet, makes him not only filmable but enviable too… and ok, downright hateable. ;-)

    Benoiff’s latest novel came out last month, City of Thieves, and the subtitle is Oscar Bait.

  • 4 7-15-2008 at 10:22 am

    Ryan Adams said...

    Forgot to give the link for that Ridley Scott interview:


  • 5 7-15-2008 at 10:27 am

    Jonathan Spuij said...

    So what’s Blood Meridian exactly about? I heard it was native americans and settlers getting really violent and nasty.

  • 6 7-16-2008 at 3:01 am

    Guy Lodge said...

    ”American Gangster” elbowed out by “Juno”? Could only happen in a year when so many other brilliant movies at the summit were unremittingly bleak.

    To be honest, I think American Gangster got elbowed out by Juno because the latter is a better, or at least more distinctive, film. (And I really don’t like Juno.) I’m not sure the Academy has a dark/light quota – 2005 was a pretty grim year, wasn’t it?

    That said, the more I think about it, the less “The Road” seems like Oscar bait (save for Mortensen). Of course, I mean that in the nicest possible way.

    Nice to see you round these parts, Ryan!

  • 7 7-16-2008 at 6:23 am

    Ryan Adams said...

    “I think American Gangster got elbowed out by Juno because the latter is a better, or at least more distinctive, film.”

    hmm, ok, Guy. I’ll grudgingly grant you that.

    And the Oscar for Most Distinctive Screenplay goes to…

    That way Lars and the Real Girl won’t get screwed without protection and win Best.

  • 8 7-16-2008 at 6:55 am

    Guy Lodge said...

    Ah, if only, Ryan, if only…

    I was in Tamara Jenkins’ corner myself, though.

  • 9 7-16-2008 at 12:35 pm

    Adrianna said...

    I haven’t read “The Road” yet.
    But what makes me think that it might gather a lot of positive reaction, is the impression I get that this is a story about family love, about how the love between a father and son is what’s left, even while the world falls apart.

    Since both Mortensen and McPhee seem to be top-notch, the relationship they create together should be highly memorable. And cynically, since most critics are men, this theme should resonate, ie be critically welcomed. It also makes it different from NCFOM, because there’s love at the heart of it – which was one of the criticisms of NCFOM, nihilism, etc, etc.