Cormac McCarthy’s The Road is almost impossible to put down after the first few pages. It’s a deceptively simple tale of a man and his son traveling through a post-apocalyptic world that is almost empty, silent, lightless. “A blackness to hurt your ears with listening.”
The few people who remain after the event that burned up the world have nowhere to be. They have become cannibals in order to survive. It’s impossible to entertain any notion of residual humanity in human beings. The man and his son are headed for the coast, but don’t really know why. It’s a random goal, to give them something to strive for. Even though life as it was can’t be that far in the past, it’s hard to even remember what it was like to have shelter, food, communication, society. The man is dying. The boy is probably too young to take care of himself. The Road is so relentless in its hopelessness that when you’ve finished the last sentence, you’re afraid to put it down, because the next thing to do can only be to walk in front of a bus.
According to a 1992 New York Times article (“Cormac McCarthy’s Venomous Fiction”), none of McCarthy’s early books sold more than 5000 copies in hardcover. The Road was bought by over a million people. There were no reports of mass suicides. The fact that all those readers chose to live on has nothing to do with anything McCarthy offers in terms of hope.
In the same New York Times article, he said that “the notion that the species can be improved in some way, that everyone could live in harmony, is a really dangerous idea. […] Your desire that it be that way will enslave you and make your life vacuous.” It’s a statement amply supported by a look at all the dreadful things that people do, have always done, to each other. It’s also a statement so negative and elitist that it elicits the immediate desire to contradict. Trying to do the right thing is not a shallow endeavor. The world is not limited to what it is; it’s also what it should be. Listening to Bach does not enslave you. This statement also contradicts McCarthy’s own creative impetus.
His novels contain words that are reality rather than standing in for something real, a poetry avoiding quotation marks, apostrophes or dashes that makes every word something singular, unrelated, a sculpture. If a sentence like “and on the far shore a creature that raised its dripping mouth from the rimstone pool and stared into the light with eyes dead white and sightless as the eggs of spiders” doesn’t improve the species, nothing can. It’s an incredible piece of art, but The Road is also a very moving testament to the indestructible love of a father for a son. This survives, even as the world crumbles and turns to dust around them. So why not walk in front of a bus? Because there are such things as a parent’s love for a child, because there’s beauty of the kind that can be found in McCarthy’s words.
John Hillcoat’s The Road is probably a decent film if you haven’t read the book. As an eschatological text, it’s situated somewhere between Michael Haneke’s Le temps du loup, from which it takes its visual language, and Albert and Allen Hughes’ The Book of Eli, with its roving bands of scavengers and its protagonist’s determination to keep moving, always moving. In Hillcoat’s favor, he doesn’t shy away from the truly disturbing aspects of McCarthy’s book. His images (filmed in Pennsylvania’s industrial wasteland, the breathtaking waterfalls of the Columbia River Gorge, and on the truly frightening slopes of Mount St. Helens) are powerful, and he has Viggo Mortensen, who throws himself into his role with utter abandon.
Unfortunately, Hillcoat doesn’t trust his audience to find their own answers to the “why not commit suicide” question, instead twisting the book’s ending to construct a hopeful message. He also succumbs to the understandable desire to expand on the man’s memories of a time before the apocalypse, a respite for the audience that feels fake and unearned. And where McCarthy’s book is so great in expressing wordlessness through words, Hillcoat resorts to voice-over narration, a piece of extraneous writing that pales in comparison and is not performed well by Mortensen.
THE ROAD | Directed by John Hillcoat (USA 2009) with Viggo Mortensen, Kodi Smit-KcPhee. Opens in Berlin cinemas on October 7.