Why The Road Is Better As A Book

Jamie Graham says some words can't be turned into pictures…


OK, there’s nothing worse than those people who bang on about how movies are not as good as books.

They say no filmmaker can ever match the detail and the richness and the characterisation, that no director could possibly visualise a world to compare with the one flickering before their bulging mind’s eye as they turn the pages…
Those people do not understand cinema.
They don’t get that the oh-so-perfect blend of images, acting, music and cutting can surpass the printed page.
They fail to recognise that the great directors are not directors at all: they are alchemists.
Or so I thought until I found myself traversing John Hillcoat’s The Road.

The problem is not that the movie is bad and can therefore be dismissed – it’s crafted with love, reverence and a good deal of skill, its bleak visuals cradling a committed performance from a haggard, hollowed Viggo Mortensen.

The problem is that no amount of grey skies, empty streets and sooty rain can evoke the cataclysmic power of Cormac McCarthy’s source novel.

Faced with post-apocalyptic landscapes rendered in prose so rugged it seems McCarthy has hewn his words into the faces of mountains, all Hillcoat can do is desaturate his palette.
Offered characters so ravaged and ravenous you can taste the dryness of their mouths, feel the throb of their joints, all Hillcoat can do is ensure Viggo goes skinny dipping to display the tines of his ribs.
Presented with mental anguish that runs deep and dark yet cannot stain the human soul, all Hillcoat can do is introduce a plaintive voiceover.

And let’s face it: just how the hell do you compress a tortuous journey through a broken world into 111 minutes without cheapening the pain, lessening the endurance?
No Country For Old Men aside (its thematic heft leavened by the thrill of the chase…), Cormac McCarthy’s novels don’t belong on the screen.

They’re too spare and sprawling, too simple and complicated, too small and big, and the one American filmmaker who could have wrestled with their beauty and their sadness – who could have tamed their grandeur by letting it loose - is dead. RIP, Robert Altman.

Maybe some books are better than movies, after all…

Do you have any adaptations you adore? Or are books best? Tell us!

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    • DanielMcA

      Oct 16th 2009, 13:54

      I'd like to see Pixar have a go at Blood Meridian

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    • Bojangles17

      Oct 17th 2009, 6:31

      I ultimately think that Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? was better than Blade Runner, but the two films differ in so many key areas, I consider Blade Runner it's own story with mere thamtic ties and inspiration associating it with PKD's novel.

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    • Bojangles17

      Oct 17th 2009, 6:31

      sorry, the two *stories* is what I meant.

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    • ewaterford

      Oct 17th 2009, 7:27

      I agree, especially considering the harsh realities of McCormack's book - some of the scenes in there surely will be cut from the final movie, considering few would like to see the graphic representation of what was pretty scary in word form!

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    • pauldolan8

      Oct 18th 2009, 21:39

      The road as a novel is without doubt one of the bleakest, frightening, saddest, heart breaking stories ever committed to paper and not matter who is directing they cannot capture the psychological and physical devastation that McCarthy evokes in his book. Whatever about Viggo as the father - the actor playing the son is way too old. He should be only a 7 or 8 year old boy. Did the produces and screenwriters not read the book? Still, having seen the trailer,I may be pleasantly surprised but somehow I doubt it.

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    • mrsmiawallace

      Oct 20th 2009, 0:49

      Okay Jamie Graham, there's a lot to disagree with in your article and although I'm not in the habit of posting extensive comments here on the TF website, you've hit a bit of a nerve with me. The Road has been my 'book recommendation' to others now for a couple of years. It's still the best book I've read in absolutely ages and when I heard about the upcoming film, I had mixed feelings about it, but resolved to give it a go out of interest (and am still planning to do so despite your comments in the TF blog) Whether the film is good, bad or mediocre, one thing will be certain; I won't be sat there with my copy of 'The Road' open to check what they got right or wrong. I won't be sifting through pages to be sure that Mr Hillcoat delivered on the 'bleak visuals' and 'sooty rain'. In fact, I've purposefully *not* reread my copy of the book in time for the release of the film, because even if a film was created from a book as source material, in almost all cases, the films are meant to stand on their own. Since when has any film come out asking the audience to have read the book first? Since when has any film come out explaining it's a companion piece to a novel? (the only exceptions that come to mind right now being the Harry Potter films which stopped trying to explain things to the viewers about 2 movies ago) Films simply cannot capture *everything* in a book - although Zack Snyder usually tries very hard to do that in his movies (see: 300, Watchmen) - and for that reason, the film must be viewed seperately from the novel. Or otherwise, you're forever going to be comparing the two and 8 or 9 times out of 10, you'll be left disappointed. You see, there's a reason why people do "bang on about how movies are not as good as books". I'm not saying that I agree with the consensus that 'the book is better than the film' but generally it *is* true. To me though, the two mediums provide two completely different experiences, and as such, should never be compared. Case in example: the first time I saw Fight Club I'd decided to read the book beforehand, thinking this would improve my viewing experience. Did it? Nope. I absolutely hated the film, because all I did was sit and compare the two - this didn't match that, and so on. When I finally caught Fight Club again a couple of years later, I absolutely loved it - even the bits that deviated from the source material. The same goes for 'One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest', 'High Fidelity' and yes, the Harry Potter franchise. But amidst my lengthy comments, there's a lesson to be learned here Mr Graham, and I hope for your future film viewing experiences, you're taking note: don't read the bloody book first!! I know that's not always possible, but at the very least, try and seperate the two. Finally "Cormac McCarthy’s novels don’t belong on the screen" is complete and utter b*llocks. There are elements of 'The Road' that are perfect for film and I'd be interested in seeing whether Hillcoat's interpretation works. But I think to go into the film expecting to see all of the harrowing moments from the novel, is utterly naive. How many times do studio pictures in Hollywood gloss over grittier material? They do it yet again in this film and you seem genuinely surprised? (which amazes me, since you're writing for TF?). Anyway, I need to stop shaking my head at this article and take myself away from the computer. Needless to say, I will be seeing The Road when it opens at my local and then maybe, just maybe, I might reacquaint myself with the excellent book - and prepare myself for hunger pangs, lots of nail biting and a fairly rational fear of ominous cellar doors.

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    • declangunn

      Oct 28th 2009, 13:14

      Revolutionary Road: another book i wish they'd left alone. How Mendes turned something so rich, heartbreaking and sad into something so bland, turgid and dull is a mystery. the miscasting of both Di Caprio and Winslet didn't help. i rate them both, but they were just wrong for the parts. Mad Men goes a long way evoking what Richard Yates was writing about... perhaps writers should use novels to inspire fresh ideas rather than roll out a lazy misjudged adaptations to cash in on a successful book... The Road I do want to see though.

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    • dalebiskit

      Nov 28th 2009, 0:42

      I was disappointed by to kill a mockingbird when I saw it. I'd just finished reading the book for school and realised I'd actually enjoyed it, so when I saw that the disparity between the book and film adaptation, I couldn't believe that it was regarded a classic. on the other hand, I saw fight club before reading it and almost - marginally - prefer the book. so now I'm tempted to see film adaptations before reading the source novels, almost as a test of the quality of the literature.

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