John Hillcoat’s Adaptation of "The Road" Is Too Faithful

Slate's Culture Blog
Nov. 25 2009 3:10 PM

John Hillcoat’s Adaptation of "The Road" Is Too Faithful

John Hillcoat's The Road finally arrives in theaters Wednesday, more than a year after its originally announced release date. Yet despite rumored cuts, tweaks, re-shoots, and an initial marketing campaign bizarrely committed to selling the apocalypse as a romance, the film is not the disaster many assumed it would be. Furthermore, rather than a bastardization of Cormac McCarthy's Pulitzer Prize winning novel, it's a scrupulous adaptation, from Joe Penhall's screenplay (A.O. Scott writes in the NY Times that, "Mr. Penhall's script follows the novel as faithfully as a hunting dog") to Hillcoat and company's haunting visuals. A great feature at juxtaposes passages from McCarthy's book with stills from the movie, and the similarities are uncanny. In this context it's easy to read McCarthy's prose as gnomic stage directions. "When the bridge came in sight below them there was a tractor-trailer jackknifed sideways across it and wedged into the buckled iron railings," he writes, and Hillcoat's composition follows this tricky contortion to the letter.


But Hillcoat's literal fidelity prevents the film from approximating the novel's power. It's a matter of proportion. Action and dialogue constitute but a fraction of what comprises McCarthy's grim epic. Yet it seems like all of the book's dialogue and main action has been shoehorned into the film's svelte two hour running time. Scenes and exchanges are steadily beaded throughout, relegating McCarthy's repetitions, silences, and blanketed dread to moments of scenic transition. Instead of quiet, anticipatory terror, the film plays as chatty, pulse-pounding thriller. Scenes that transpire over several paragraphs in the 250-page book loom larger when dramatized to five minutes out of 113. The film doesn't belabor its flashbacks -- scenes in which Charlize Theron stars as an intractably hopeless wife and mother -- but these are blink-and-they're-gone fever-dreams in the book, not moments ripe for star-powered drama.


Certain incidents in McCarthy's book are vivid and unshakable -- the fired bullet, the horrific basement discovery, the food cellar -- but the film doesn't provide enough room for these to stand out from numerous others. I want less action, less dialogue -- a Terrence Malick version of "The Road" shorn to the essentials.

Hillcoat's one stroke of genius has nothing to do with McCarthy's book, and happens when the narrative and expectations of adaptation have ended. It's easy to miss, but during the final credits Hillcoat slips in a soundtrack of ambient noise. You hear a sprinkler, a creaking screen door, a dog barking, children playing. Banal things that no longer exist in McCarthy's post-apocalyptic universe. Forget literal fidelity -- this is the closest the film gets to McCarthy's mournful tone. And it's the first time a blank credit-scroll put a lump in my throat.

Eric Hynes is a New York-based journalist and film critic.



The Democrats’ War at Home

How can the president’s party defend itself from the president’s foreign policy blunders?

Congress’ Public Shaming of the Secret Service Was Political Grandstanding at Its Best

Michigan’s Tradition of Football “Toughness” Needs to Go—Starting With Coach Hoke

A Plentiful, Renewable Resource That America Keeps Overlooking

Animal manure.

Windows 8 Was So Bad That Microsoft Will Skip Straight to Windows 10


Cringing. Ducking. Mumbling.

How GOP candidates react whenever someone brings up reproductive rights or gay marriage.

Building a Better Workplace

You Deserve a Pre-cation

The smartest job perk you’ve never heard of.

Hasbro Is Cracking Down on Scrabble Players Who Turn Its Official Word List Into Popular Apps

The Ludicrous Claims You’ll Hear at This Company’s “Egg Freezing Parties”

  News & Politics
Sept. 30 2014 9:33 PM Political Theater With a Purpose Darrell Issa’s public shaming of the head of the Secret Service was congressional grandstanding at its best.
Buy a Small Business
Oct. 1 2014 11:43 AM “I Didn’t Want to Build the Next Twitter for Cats” Search funds are the quiet, dependable, risk-averse sibling to the startup. 
The Vault
Oct. 1 2014 10:49 AM James Meredith, Determined to Enroll at Ole Miss, Declares His Purpose in a 1961 Letter
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 30 2014 12:34 PM Parents, Get Your Teenage Daughters the IUD
  Slate Plus
Behind the Scenes
Oct. 1 2014 10:54 AM “I Need a Pair of Pants That Won’t Bore Me to Death” Troy Patterson talks about looking sharp, flat-top fades, and being Slate’s Gentleman Scholar.
Brow Beat
Oct. 1 2014 10:44 AM Everyone’s Favorite Bob’s Burgers Character Gets a Remix You Can Dance to
Future Tense
Oct. 1 2014 11:41 AM Study: Narcissists Watch More Porn Online
  Health & Science
Bad Astronomy
Oct. 1 2014 7:30 AM Say Hello to Our Quasi-Moon, 2014 OL339
Sports Nut
Sept. 30 2014 5:54 PM Goodbye, Tough Guy It’s time for Michigan to fire its toughness-obsessed coach, Brady Hoke.