Make no mistake: I am not a proponent of comparing film adaptations to their literary inspirations. It is a foolish task from top to bottom. A book is a book and a film is a film, and whether one is based on the other doesn't much matter; both can exist on their own, and stand alone as individual pieces of art, to be parsed and evaluated on their own merits.
It is with that in mind that I posit this seemingly contradictory argument: The Road should have never been adapted into a film.
Directed by the very talented John Hillcoat, who dealt with similarly raw, spare material in his great 2006 film, The Proposition, The Road is based on the already-legendary Cormac McCarthy novel of the same name -- you know, the novel that won the Pultizer Prize and is widely recognized as the best book of the last decade. Prestige never went into my belief that the book shouldn't have been adapted. Pulitzer Prize winners have been brilliantly adapted before and they will be brilliantly adapted again. I am even willing to admit that Hillcoat is the perfect filmmaker for this adaptation and that he does as well with this adaptation as anyone ever could have. But based on results, the film doesn't work.
Why? Very simply, I didn't buy it. The atmosphere feels forced and the characters seem like they are acting their hearts out without creating believable characters. Viggo Mortensen plays a father and young Kodi-Smit McPhee plays his son. This two-person family unit roams a post-apocalyptic America, trying to survive amid harsh, spare, hopeless circumstances. How the world became so ashen is not discussed and is not necessary; the heart of this story is how this father and son rely on one another to survive, most of the time coming up against danger after danger, from spontaneous brush fires to cannibalistic cultists, and occasionally coming upon a breakthrough, as when they discover an abandoned underground shelter stocked with non-perishables of all sorts. That underground shelter is a glorious discovery in the profoundly dirty world of this film. No one is better than Hillcoat at creating nasty, barren muck on the screen, and if nothing else can be said for The Road, it is this: Spam has never looked so appetizing.
Mortensen is a wonderful actor, and he musters all his hope-slash-cynicism to play a man on his last legs, living in a world on its last legs, and attempting to find any last shred of hope that his son might be able to build a future on. As the son, McPhee is bright-eyed and engaging. Charlize Theron and Robert Duvall are solid in extended cameos. But these characters feel less like living, breathing human beings and more like pawns on the Apocalypse Game Board, literary creations that don't feel three-dimensional on the big screen.
Of the story and its visualization, Hillcoat and screenwriter Joe Penhall do what they can, but it is difficult to realize catastrophic apocalypse in a believable way -- too difficult, in the final analysis, for this filmmaking team to fully pull off. The emotion occasionally hits hard but mainly feels like by-the-numbers survivalist storytelling. And the canvas, which is especially important to a film like this, feels staged and unreal in my view. Where The Proposition felt vividly, powerfully real, The Road feels like lots of ash and wreckage was placed on a soundstage, even if most of it actually wasn't.
No, I don't think anyone should be stopped from optioning novels for the big screen -- ever. But for some reason, The Road seems like a story best left in the imagination, where the enormity of its disastrous scope and the power of its intimate story can play out without any stagey trapping.