PAGE TO SCREEN: “The Road” by Joe Penhall

Posted by · 12:26 pm · September 2nd, 2008

Page to Screen at In Contention“You think I come from another world, don’t you? Filled with all these strange things you’ve never seen…Well I do, I guess.”

Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road” debuted last year to one of the biggest literary love fests in recent memory. From Oprah to Pulitzer, the author had one hell of a year, not to mention the Golden Globe- and Oscar-winning adaptation of “No Country for Old Men.” And so, after failed attempts like “All The Pretty Horses” (still one of my picks for director’s cut I want to see the most), McCarthy’s books are hitting the film world hard. Adaptations are coming from Todd Field and Andrew Dominik, and in just a few months, “The Road” hits screens from director Joe Hillcoat (he of the fantastic “The Proposition”) and screenwriter Joe Penhall.

And rest assured, fans — from the looks of this script, you have very little to worry about.

A quick catch-up for those who don’t know what “The Road” is about: It’s a post-apocalyptic world. Character names are omitted, leaving mere pronouns as items of identification. A man (to be played by Viggo Mortensen) and his son (Kodi Smit-McPhee) make their way toward the coast, hoping to find warmer weather in the desolate despair that surrounds them. The script is as sparse as the book; I honestly couldn’t tell you if there was a single scene added.

Much has been made about the enlarged role of the man’s wife (Charlize Theron), but that really only adds up to a good cameo for Theron, each scene meatier than the last. Theses were the few sequences that seemed new to me, flashbacks of events before whatever terrible event took place, quite subtle and unassuming. No dialogue, no big moments, just a couple in love going through their routine lives, enjoying each other.

These sequences, told from The Man’s perspective, add to the heroism of the character. However, the argument could be made that The Wife still comes across as difficult to like and even easier to hate, for reasons that would be spoilerific if you’ve not read the book. I’m sure Theron will bring her A-Game to the role (in a weak year, it’s a definite contender for a supporting actress nomination, based solely on the fact that every scene she has is a perfect contender for an Oscar clip), but I wished I could sympathize with her just a little on the page.

Along the road our duo meets a variety of folks, including more good cameo time for Robert DuVall and Guy Pearce toward the film’s conclusion. While their parts are fine and good, I can’t help wondering if their casting will be more distracting than helpful (neither character has more than five-to-10 pages).

The bigger encounters The Man and The Boy face are much more horrifying and emotionally wrenching, chief among them being an ungodly terrifying scene in which the two stumble upon a group of cannibals and the dying humans they eat alive in their basement. I was sweating just reading these pages (as I was in the book), and it has the potential to be one of the most nerve wracking sequences in film history. It’s moments like this that make me wonder about the film’s Oscar prospects. These scenes are pitch black and hopeless, and much more in the horror vein than any Oscar-bound movie that I can remember, including “The Silence of the Lambs.”

The movie’s secret weapon, and the root of whatever failure and sucess it might face, is the casting of The Man and The Boy. I’ve never seen Kodi Smit-McPhee in anything, but needless to say if he pulls off the role, it’s impossible to imagine him not garnering an Academy Award nomination. It’s the type of role that is the only legitimate threat to Heath Ledger in my opinion.

Whereas Ledger’s performance is one of showmanship and iconography, Smit-McPhee has the opportunity to pull heart strings and in a non-cloying or baity way to boot. Just like people were reduced to puddles reading the book, I imagine the film could play out in the same fashion, and that really rests squarely on this young man’s shoulders.

Luckily for Smit-McPhee, one of our greatest actors shares every scene with him. Viggo Mortensen is perfectly cast. Was anyone even surprised when he was announced as The Man? It’s a challenging role for any actor, but one can’t help but see it as something as a culmination of the excellent work he’s been doing since appearing in that little fantasy film a few years ago.

There’s real pain and bravery to The Man, a character whose sole existence is to take his son closer to a better life one step at a time. It’s a beautifully written role (again, like always, we have McCarthy to thank for that) and it’s hard seeing Mortensen not receive his second nomination in two years. It’s the type of role AMPAS dies to award, a family hero, deglamed, beloved actor, etc., and Mortensen has been quietly building up his reputation year after year. With three films this year to support his campaign, I’d have to say you’d be pretty ignorant to vote against his odds at this point.

A potential downfall of “The Road” could simply be that it lacks the beautiful wordplay of McCarthy. Some of the great lines, “If he was not the word of God, then God had never spoke” or “There is no God and we are his prophets” are not present, and I’m sure that’s bound to disappoint the loyalists. Personally, I didn’t mind it so much. “The Road” is an incredibly faithful adaptation that is more than just a cut-and-paste rehash of the book. Joe Penhall has clearly taken the time and care to craft the story into as livid an adaptation as possible.

As a big fan of the novel, I guess I can say that my fears have been laid to rest. While the success of the film on the screen lies in the work of the actors, at least we can rest assured that they’ll be working from a damn fine piece of writing.

→ 16 Comments Tags: , , , , , , | Filed in: Page to Screen

16 responses so far

  • 1 9-02-2008 at 3:05 pm

    Daniel Crooke said...

    That is SUCH a relief.

  • 2 9-02-2008 at 11:43 pm

    JD said...

    Most of your comments seem competent and agreeable, but your description of “A man (to be played by Viggo Mortensen) and his son (Kodi Smit-McPhee) make their way toward the coast, hoping to ‘find warmer weather in the desolate despair that surrounds them’, Tells me that you either haven’t bothered to read the book upon which film you postulate your opinions, or else you have, but possess a truly lousy memory.
    C’mon Brian, this journey has NOTHING to do with a warmer, more gentler climate. It is ALL about a dying man trying to secure the best percentage of survival for his son in a very nasty world, most likely of our own making.
    I don’t mind the extra interloping of the wife’s scenes, as they seem a breath of fresh air in an otherwise visually and emotionally depressing scenario.
    But that is, after all, what the content is, and what we have to deal with, and embrace, and suss out in our minds and consciences.
    It aint Disney.
    And yes, I read further, and you did manage to acknowledge the true purpose of the Father eventually, but then why the former ignominious remark about the weather?

  • 3 9-03-2008 at 12:03 am

    JD said...

    My bad. Joe penned the piece, but Brian redistributed it without any fact-check. See how easy it is? All apologies.
    Sorry, Brian.
    Kind of.

  • 4 9-03-2008 at 2:38 am

    Kristopher Tapley said...

    Redistributed it? Fact-check? It’s a screenplay adaptation of a book, what’s not to get…

  • 5 9-03-2008 at 4:25 am

    Noel said...

    Smit-McPhee is a superb actor. He completely stole the show in Romulus, My Father from Eric Bana and Franka Potente and shows great potential. From what I saw in that film, he will be able to do justice to The Boy

  • 6 9-03-2008 at 4:28 am

    Noel said...

    but i think its pointless to expand the part of the wife other than as a marketing ploy to have charlize in it. i liked the relationship with the wife being left up to the imagination. i dont want her to ruin the gilm

  • 7 9-03-2008 at 4:43 am

    Guy Lodge said...

    Fair enough to disagree with the expansion of her role, but isn’t speculating that Theron’s character will “ruin the film” a bit harsh? She’s a fine actress – I look forward to seeing what she brings to the table.

  • 8 9-03-2008 at 7:40 am

    Noel said...

    It’s hard to articulate why i revere the book, but it is a work of such simplicity. two unnamed characters walking down a road. everything is hinted, implied and subtle – the dialogue on the surface says almost nothing yet it has so much depth. the flashbacks involving the wife are sparse and brief and somehow understated but add to the novel. putting an oscar winning actress (an overly dramatic one) in what should be 2-3 minutes of a film (and extending the role) shifts (bastardizes) the thematic focus, changes the marketing of the film (best supporting actress lol) when its really not what the role is about – its a small role not a cameo as it would be with theron. it should have been someone unknown like kelly macdonald that will do the role justice while not damaging the delicate equilibrium established by mccarthy for the chance to be involved in an oscar calibre film. if she were a true fan as she claims she would stay away from the role. maybe its also because i find her performances quite painful and her choice of roles is quite baffling yet becoming increasingly predictable: The Road (suicidal wife), The Burning Plain (the product of a ‘difficult childhood’), Hancock (paycheck and affirming her b.o. pulling power), Sleepwalking (neglectful mother), In the Valley of Elah (the follow up to crash which was the kind of tragi-porn that appeals to her), Monster (lezboserialkiller). i guess she can only play one kind of role or is reluctant to show her range.

  • 9 9-03-2008 at 8:21 am

    Jamie said...

    It still is a 2-3 minute role. I believe they only added one scene with the wife giving birth (which incidentally i feel provided some of the humanization brian felt was lacking in the character). Why would it not be equally distracting for the man to be played by viggo mortensen?

  • 10 9-03-2008 at 4:16 pm

    Guy Lodge said...

    Kelly Macdonald is “unknown?” Ouch.

    Anyway, each to their own. But adapting any novel, however great, requires a degree of structural reimagining — the screenwriter is a writer in his own right, after all, not just a transcriber. Let’s keep an open mind.

  • 11 9-04-2008 at 12:26 am

    Noel said...

    1.She’s not an unknown but she still fits inside the role given to her without detracting from her.

    2. Viggo Mortensen is a chameleon. From playing Aragorn to his role in A History of Violence to Eastern Promises, and even spanish speaking roles, I don’t think he ever plays the same character, unlike Ms Tron.

    I’m willing to keep an open mind. All I’m saying is that the role might have been expanded for pragmatic reasons.

  • 12 9-04-2008 at 12:26 am

    Noel said...

    *from it.

  • 13 9-04-2008 at 8:55 am

    Joel said...

    One I’ve been looking forward to since it was announced…or at least since I heard about it.

    Thanks for the review, Brian! I need to read that book…

  • 14 9-04-2008 at 9:40 pm

    head_wizard said...

    Sounds good, I just finished the book yesterday and I also share the concern with having someone like Duvall show up at the end but that is a small part of what it sounds like the over all film will be like. ‘d love to think the Academy would consider this but it may just be to dark for them. I pray they just get over it.

  • 15 9-04-2008 at 10:09 pm

    Brian Kinsley said...

    For the record, The Man remarks several times that they need to make it to the coast because they’ll freeze to death if they don’t. In the screenplay, that is. I took that to be literal, but of course there are plenty of other reasons why they need to get to the coast. I didn’t want to spell out the entire movie in a back-cover blurb…

  • 16 5-15-2009 at 8:19 pm

    Nathan said...

    Mr. Kinsley,

    I’m a philosophy and literature scholar, and I’ve written a couple of articles on The Road. I’m currently contemplating presenting a conference paper on the film, but the conference is only 3 weeks after the film opens in October. So, it’s a bit of a risk.

    A great deal of my presentation will depend on how much the film lets us in on the Man’s thoughts, beyond simply the dialogue between him and the boy. And, your comment about some of the “great lines” being missing is worrisome, since both are in the Man’s thoughts alone.

    So my question is, do we get the Man’s thoughts in the screenplay? For example, will the movie let us in on the rich McCarthy prose describing the man’s mental flirtation with despair, on his reflections re. goodness and beauty tied to pain and regret, on words and their lost meaning in retelling, and on the importance of speaking new stories into being, even with the loss inevitably involved in such speech?

    In short, do we get the Man’s inner life at all?

    Many thanks on any feedback here!