“Apocalypse Needs A Breather” — China Miéville Riffs on Hillcoat’s Adaptation of The Road

One of Biblioklept’s favorite weirdos, China Miéville takes on a perceived overabundance of apocalypse movies in his article “The End, The End, The End, Etcetera” published in McSweeney’s #33, aka The Panaroma, aka the giant-assed newspaper issue (here’s a quick review: Jeesy Creezy the thing is massive. It’s like a bizarre aesthetic tchtochke that just happens to be overstuffed with all kinds of great writers writing on all kinds of great stuff. I’ve been trying to digest it on Sundays after breakfast with a few coffees but it’s too big. It’s really too much, and it’s also the sort of document that should tell McSweeney’s-haters to fuck off, or at least reveal them as kinda mean-spirited. It’s like a strange, thorough dream, where Stephen King writes your sports section and William Vollman does in-depth national reporting and Chris Ware handles the comics page. Hang on–that’s probably not a legit review. Anyway).

So Miéville basically tells Hollywood to give it a rest with all the apocalypse movies, saying that it’s not that he doesn’t love them, it’s just that there’s such a surplus as of late. “Hollywood has studied at porn’s knee,” he writes, arguing that end-of-the-world flicks like Armegeddon, The Day After Tomorrow, 2012, Wall-E, 9, The Book of Eli and Deep Impact are “sexual fantasies . . . These apocalyptes are clearly scratching various itches.” Miéville dubs the trend in disaster flicks “bukkakalypse,” arguing that these films are “obsessed not only with the world-drenching spurt itself, but with the Face of the Earth wet with its effects, stoically putting up with the soaking.” Charming. +100 internets to any soul daring enough to google “bukkakalypse.”

Miéville focuses the thrust of his article on John Hillcoat’s film adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s novel The Road. His shorthand review kinda sorta captures my own ambivalence about the film: “Is The Road a good film? Sure. Maybe. Whatever. It depends on what you mean by ‘good.'” Miéville suggests that, “For all its portent, The Road displays a preemptive nostalgia perhaps even more pronounced than in its pulpier cousins.” Citing the father and the boy’s use of a consumerist emblem, the shopping cart, to move on and “carry the fire,” Miéville goes on to argue that,

The film, then, is structured around a punning triptych. There’s that good, lost consumption early on [the loss of a consumerist world]. Then, in the absence of commodity, there’s the terrible, Hobbesian predatory consumption of cannibalism, relentlessly stressed as an ultimate evil, rather than the relatively everyday sordidness it would almost certainly become. And refuse to eat each other? What then? Then the final iteration of the term. The father at last doubles up, coughing bronchially, and hawks up blood. In that shopless nightmare, what else is afflicting him but consumption.

Puns! Okay. As a committed Marxist or materialist (or whatever he is), of course Miéville’s gonna read The Road as an allegory of apocalypse as loss of consumerist possibility (he reads the whole Coca-Cola-drinking episode as a version of lost sacrament). Fair analysis, I guess–not one I particularly buy, but without getting into a whole ball of wax over the intentional fallacy and whatnot, I think that Miéville’s criticism that the film (and book) doesn’t recognize the Darwinian endgame of “Hobbesian predatory consumption” as “the relatively everyday sordidness it would almost certainly become” kinda sorta misses the whole point of the narrative. In my own review of the book, I argued that McCarthy’s refusal to give into the infanticide that the novel’s schema overwhelmingly predicated was hard to swallow (“cop out,” I believe, was my term), but it also seems to me that the moral impetus of the novel involves a refusal of cannibalism, an idea that to survive as a human is more than just to survive as a body. But back to film.

I didn’t particularly care for Hillcoat’s version of The Road, even though I wanted to, even though the actors were great, even though it looked great, etc. I don’t know what I didn’t like about it (okay, I thought Nick Cave’s score was both awful and intrusive, but that seems minor here). It just seemed thoroughly unnecessary and ultimately unfun. Miéville again, this time on an end-of-the-world film I can’t help but love:

The “hope” at the end of Mad Max: Beyond the Thunderdome is that the lost tribes have managed to turn on a few lights in Sydney. Such hankering for drab normality doesn’t have to be particularly convincing to do its rhetorical job. Just as well, really, because seriously? After all the splendidly coiffed and colorful shenanigans of Tina Turner’s Bartertown, is living in a partially revived Bondi really an improvement? Couldn’t we take everything in a different direction altogether? Do something new? The aspirational Good Futures of these Bad Futures are always their pasts–our present.

Although Miéville gives The Road the credit it deserves for being one of the rare apocalypse flicks that “evades this pre-post-facto nostalgia,” he also reiterates my own criticism: it’s just not that fun. And the end of the world should be fun. Miéville doesn’t mention films like Zombieland, a forgettable but enjoyable farce that posits apocalypse as freewheelin’ opportunity, or the self-aware (but not too-self-aware) pastiche Doomsday, a film that fuses every hoary apocalypse trope into 90 minutes of escapist, ass-kicking, thoroughly nonsensical fun. Neither film aspires to great art (unlike Hillcoat’s take on The Road), nor do these films aim for the catharsis-via-annihilation of blockbuster fare like Armegeddon. They’re just good fun, which is all I really want from the end of the world.

Movie Trailer for Hillcoat’s Adaptation of McCarthy’s The Road

Australian director John Hillcoat’s movie adaptation of Cormac McCarthy‘s bleak and beautiful novel The Road finally has a proper trailer as well as (another) release date, October 16th, 2009. Here’s the trailer:

I weighed in on the possible merits (and possible demerits) of a film adaptation of The Road way back in October of last year, back when the movie was planned for a Thanksgiving release (what better time than Turkey Day to watch a story with baby cannibalism?)

The trailer makes the movie look kinda “big”–explosions, way more people than I remember being in the novel, and what appears to be a heavily expanded role for the wife, played by Cherlize Theron. Still. I wanna see this. At the same time, the trailer seems to scream “Go read the book, now!” And you should. It’s great.

Road Movie

“Having your book turned into a movie is like seeing your oxen turned into bouillon cubes” — John LeCarre

Movies rarely compare favorably to the books from which they are adapted and almost never surpass them. Still, film adaptations of books can be fantastic if handled by the right director–take Mexican director Alfonso Cuarón for example, whose brilliant films Children of Men and Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (adaptations of books by P.D James and J.K. Rowling, respectively) convey richly imagined, engrossing worlds. Cuarón’s films join a small stable of adaptations that live up to–if not surpass–the books on which they are based. Most great film adaptations turn good genre fiction into great art. However, great literature doesn’t usually fare so well. Geniuses like Kubrick and Coppola have reconfigured airport reading like Stephen King’s The Shining and Mario Puzo’s The Godfather into cinematic masterpieces, but has anyone ever done justice to Melville or Hemingway or Hawthorne or Fitzgerald (of the four attempts at translating Gatsby to the screen, the 1974 Coppola-produced effort is arguably the best, but consider how short it falls of capturing Fitzgerald’s vision)? Which brings up the question: just how good, bad, or indifferent will the upcoming movie adaptation of Cormac McCarhy’s Pulitzer Prize winner The Road be? We thought we’d navigate the pros and cons here.

What The Road film adaptation has going for it:

The director: Australian director John Hillcoat’s 2005 feature film debut The Proposition captured the bloody violence and moral ambiguity of a world alienated from civilization. We loved the movie, and not enough people have seen it. The tone Hillcoat achieved in The Proposition seems well matched to McCarthy’s grim vision.

The producer: Nick Wechsler’s list of films includes Sex, Lies, and Videotape, The Player, Requiem for a Dream, 25th Hour, and Drugstore Cowboy–so it seems like he knows how to sit back and let a filmmaker create art without trying to, you know, have a massive Hollywood hit.

The leading man: Viggo Mortensen as the father seems like a great choice. Mortensen brought depth to the role he’s most famous for–Aragorn in The Lord of the Rings trilogy–something of a feat when you consider most of his screen time was devoted to scowling, brooding, or chopping up orcs. He was fantastic in the films he did with David Cronenberg, A History of Violence and Eastern Promises (his bathhouse fight scene is unbelievable). Mortensen’s a published author who started his own publishing house, Perceval Press, so he probably understands the literary gravity of The Road.

The story: Anyone who’s read The Road knows that it’s a sad and moving and strangely beautiful take on one of the most hackneyed devices of science fiction: the post-apocalyptic wasteland.

No Country for Old Men: The Coen brothers did a great job with No Country for Old Men.

Potential problem spots for The Road film adaptation:

The cast: We don’t know much about twelve year old Kodi Smit-McPhee who plays the son, but we do know that that is a major role. Let’s hope Kodi is more Jodie, less Jake Lloyd or (shiver) Dakota Fanning. However, Viggo’s had pretty positive things to say about him. Ringers Robert Duvall and Guy Pearce are also in there, but there aren’t too many other speaking parts in the book besides the father and the son, so it’s hard to predict what they’ll be doing–hopefully Hillcoat hasn’t fiddled with the story too much. Charlize Theron is also in the movie. The wife character showed up in a few dreamy flashbacks, but was more of a shadow than a fleshed out character; again, hopefully Hillcoat hasn’t chosen to expand the role to appease a wider demographic.

The story: Some of the best moments of The Road consist of the father’s inner monologues on memory and loss and very few directors can pull off a voice-over successfully (Terrence Malick is the only one who comes to mind right now). Of course, this problem of language is always the problem of movie adaptation.

All the Pretty Horses: Billy Bob Thornton’s leaden 2000 adaptation of the first of McCarthy’s “border trilogy” is pretty boring. I’ll admit that I’ve never finished the book, despite three attempts [ed. note: I finished the “border trilogy” in spring of ’09. Books are far, far, far superior to the film].

No Country for Old Men: Even though the Coens did a great job with No Country for Old Men, the book was still better than the movie–and No Country is, in some ways, McCarthy’s take on a genre novel, the crime procedural. In this sense, the Coens made a smart move, but they still couldn’t convey the depth and meaning of the book–again, much of it delivered via Sheriff Ed Tom Bell’s inner monologues. Although The Road may appear to have genre fiction elements–namely, the tropes of post-apocalyptic sci-fi–to describe it as such would be a severe limitation, as would be to film it in such a manner.

The advance stills: Sure, they’re grim and bleak, but are they grim and bleak enough?

Also, why the stylized cart? If you’ve read the novel, you know what I mean–the cart needs to be a grocery store cart, homeless style! Hang on–

–that’s better! (NB: images link to a gallery of advance images)

Does it seem worth seeing in the theater?

Yes. We’ll be carrying the fire on or around November 26th (and just in time for Thanksgiving!)