“If motion pictures present stories that will affect lives for the better, they can become the most powerful force for the improvement of mankind” (Hays Code). Though slightly hyperbolic, William Hays, in 1922, seems to have presaged the overwhelming influence that motion pictures now hold within contemporary society; with their widely recognized didactic functions and innate ability to entertain, movies make the perfect medium for reimagining, and often reviving, generally respected works of literature. It must be acknowledged, however, that these film adaptations are exactly that, adaptations: the interpretation of a single person, adapted to a medium which, by nature, resists the transposition of certain ideas. By this definition there are two distinct reasons for directorial deviation from a source text: (1) alterations necessitated, specifically, by the medium and (2) modifications made to better suit the artistic vision of the director. This dynamic is apparent, and can be overtly examined, in John Hillcoat’s 2009 cinematic reimagining of The Road.
The original text, published by Cormac McCarthy in 2006, tells the harrowing tale of father and son as they traverse an unequivocally bleak, post-apocalyptic wasteland. Over an undefined period of time – assumed to be several months – the pair travel South to avoid “another winter” (McCarthy, 4) in their current location – which, presumably, is somewhat northerly. The perpetual hunt for food, and the accompanying fear of becoming someone else’s food, drives a majority of the narrative; while following ‘The Road’ the duo are presented with a series of obstacles which test their bond as father and son: a relationship through which McCarthy intends to comment on the nature of humanity. The father, who remains nameless throughout, represents the deceased world: a society, much like our own, in which corruption has overwhelmed humanity – leading, presumably, to the dismal state of the land in which they currently reside; the son, contrarily, is depicted as a paragon of innocence: having never experienced the ‘old world’ he represents hope and becomes, essentially, the last disciple of human compassion. The story, though admittedly bleak, ends with a twinkle of hope for humankind; the boy, having blanket-wrapped his father’s corpse, proceeds into the world, prepared for survival but also equipped with an inherent moral compassion – the only doctrine which his old-world mentor was unable to fully inculcate.
This suggestion of hope, though decidedly minimal, is an important component of McCarthy’s narrative; unfortunately it is also a component that Hillcoat’s interpretation seems to neglect. Hillcoat’s sepia toned death-scape is almost as devoid of hope as it is of colour. As stated previously, such a conceptual deviation from the book might be necessitated by the medium itself and not, therefore, indicative of a deliberate, directorial decision and, in the case of The Road, this argument holds some merit. Cormac McCarthy’s narrative is told from the perspective of an omniscient third party, though it is occasionally interspersed with first-person accounts; this, one might argue, leaves Hillcoat – who employs Viggo Mortensen sparingly as a singular first person narrator – at a substantial disadvantage when attempting to replicate McCarthy’s vision. “Indirectly filmable aspects of [McCarthy’s] print text” (Golden, 26) such as “metaphors… and specific word choice” leave Hillcoat, it seems, in a deficit; most directors, for example, would be hard pressed to present the “sun… [as] a grieving mother with a lamp” (McCarthy, 32) without resorting to some seriously obscure cinematic techniques. This argument might carry more weight, if not for the amount of dialogue in McCarthy’s text, and the emotional straightforwardness with which it is spoken; the bleak state of the world and the respective commentary on human nature are both presented carefully in the speech of McCarthy’s characters: an element that is directly transposable to film.
One must assume, then, that Hillcoat’s eradication of hope develops, not out of necessity – the impossible transposition of “indirectly filmable aspects” (Golden, 26) – but out of a personal deviation from, or misinterpretation of, McCarthy’s vision. Hillcoat’s movie, through very distinct modifications, removes the illusive hope found in McCarthy’s novel; instead of commenting, as McCarthy intends, on the ultimately indomitable nature of human compassion, Hillcoat focuses merely on the bleakness – implying a tipping point which, once crossed, signals the inexorable decline of humanity.
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McCarthy, Cormac. The Road. New York: Vintage Books, 2006. Print.