Cormac McCarthy looked incongruous on The Oprah Winfrey Show. If he’d been denouncing the show, fine. If he’d been denouncing the show with blood on his hands and a burning church in the background, and a high plangent wail of a grieving mother shredding his words, and a look in his eyes as if Hell was close… no problem. But to see him chatting – for Cormac McCarthy to chat with Oprah – was disturbing. The very fact that his apocalyptic sermon, The Road, had been chosen for Oprah’s Book Club was strange enough. But I suppose (to use a Biblical parallel) even Moses had to talk to someone when he came down from the mountain.
It doesn’t sound like a best-seller: an end-of-the-world story written in Old Testament prose, about a father and son wending through a burned landscape. The tone: elegiac at best. The moral: man’s duty to live. We never know anyone’s name. There’s a scene where the father and son come upon people eating a baby off a spit. Human cruelty is everywhere. If you removed the words: “blackened”, “gray” and “dead”, whole pages would be blank. The father is dying. He coughs continuously, a dismal wheeze, like the ratty breath of the world. It is clear civilisation has ended. The only major female character commits suicide before the story begins.
If anyone but Cormac McCarthy had written The Road, it wouldn’t work. But his prose is as haunting as the savagery it depicts. It’s the same in All the Pretty Horses, the same in Blood Meridian, the same in all his books; like reading The Tyger and thrilling to its “fearful symmetry”. When you read McCarthy you see the world blood red and old as the first sword. Religion infuses his books, but it’s Old Testament religion, not Kum Bay Yah Christianity. God is the firm hand and man is like a jackal. McCarthy’s belief makes the void – society’s collapse – seem fearfully close. But to read it the way he describes, it’s like hearing your obituary read by Johnny Cash.
You can’t reproduce that effect on-screen. That’s the basic problem with John Hillcoat’s adaptation of The Road. No matter how faithful he is to the source material, he has to surrender the words. Read this: Nights dark beyond darkness and the days more gray each one than what had gone before. Like the onset of some cold glaucoma dimming away the world. If you filmed that you’d be looking at a gray sky. That’s the problem of adapting Cormac McCarthy. You can cast right and refuse any changes, avoid sentimentality, have everyone speak and act as if it’s the end of the world. But if you take away the writing, it’s a bleak and unfulfilling story. You wind-up watching two homeless people scrounge food for a couple of hours.
Viggo Mortensen gives his all to the part of “the father”; he’s bony and bedraggled as you could want, and his hair is rightly dirty. When he looks at his son you see love pared of evasion. When he says he’s scared, you believe him. He’s playing someone who’s seen the very worst that men are capable of, and who still feels life is sacred. To him, his son is the hope that sustains in spite of hopelessness (what sceptics dread to call “faith”). He may be the last good man in America. It’s a part that, short of resurrecting Henry Fonda, you need someone like Viggo Mortensen to play. You’ve got to look like rain and wind and dirt don’t bother you; a stoic (not a man of action). Luckily, Mortensen could eat Cheetos with forbearance.
What’s missing from The Road is the man telling the story. Narration in the movie is like hearing a survivor tell of disaster, it’s all about what happened and how terrible it was. In the book, McCarthy tells us things and we understand a great deal more is being spoken of. This is why the book sold in the millions. This is why Oprah had him on her show. Although McCarthy is much too shrewd to proclaim damnation on daytime TV, the moral of The Road is plain: keep God in your hearts, sinners! In print, McCarthy can express his pious sentiment the way William Blake described a tiger. In a movie, no matter how well-made, you mostly watch people starve.