Text-to-Screen Ratio: The Road

December 31, 2009

I’ve never claimed to be prescient when it comes to the world of literature – more content to use my energies on what’s in front of me rather than what’s coming up – but I do have to admit I feel rather smug whenever I think about my take on “No Country for Old Men.” When I first reviewed the title back in 2005 I predicted that the Coen brothers (who had just acquired the rights) would make a powerhouse film, their directing techniques perfectly matched with Cormac McCarthy’s brilliant gift for minmalist dialogue. And I was completely right, as the film would go on to not only take four Academy Awards but also turn out to be one of the most faithful adaptations I’ve ever seen.

As a result of this success, I kept a close eye on the approaching release of “The Road.” Expectations were high – the 2006 novel received the greatest critical acclaim of McCarthy’s career and even earned him a Pulitzer Prize – but there was some uncertainty as “The Road” is a completely different animal to “No Country for Old Men.” It is not McCarthy’s typical Western with soft-spoken protagonists and open plains, showing one event and the consequences it brings, but the end of the world with no uncertainty. It had to hit despair and hope with equal measure, and while it doesn’t quite match the book’s connection it is a technical and emotional success nonetheless.

At first glance, the story of “The Road” seems like it will be simpler to adapt. After an unspecified disaster, the world has been reduced to a desolate wasteland of ash and snow, where nothing will grow and the few remaining humans travel in cannibalistic packs. In this world a father and his son continually walk south to the coast with no supplies save the contents of a shopping cart, no weapons save a pistol with two bullets and no company but each others’. The theme is once again survival, but money doesn’t matter here – all that matters is the indomitable will of one person to keep another alive.

However, while the story is easily summarized and the cast can be counted on two hands, filming “The Road” has one hurdle to climb beyond any technical aspect: atmosphere. Winner of my Silent Hill Award for Bleakest Setting, “The Road” may well be the most grippingly immersive book I have ever read. This isn’t the tension of pursuit but the cold certainty that everything around you is dead, with skeletal trees and ashen air and corpses dried to leather as if there was “some cold glaucoma dimming away the world.” Compounding the loneliness, the reason for the apocalypse is never even touched on – the only thing that matters from the world that was is whatever it left behind for you to survive on.

The atmosphere of “The Road” is such that, even in the hands of a director like John Hillcoat (no stranger to broken lonely worlds himself with 2005’s “The Proposition”) it can’t be transferred completely. While a film can project the scope of what has happened to the world with long scenes of death and the worse-than-homeless condition of its survivors, the pure despair always feels just out of reach. It’s especially noticeable due to the quality of McCarthy’s words, brief dark sentences that all add up to show how little there is to be said in the face of nothing.

But while the film cannot match the level of despair the book has, that doesn’t mean it fails at drawing you in – quite the opposite in fact. Hillcoat has expertly crafted “a world in severe trauma” as he described it to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, filmed in the bleakest ares of Pittsburgh’s coal country and the sides of Mount St. Helens. The cinematography is beautiful in a sad way, with spilled matchboxes of dead trees and ashen decay on every farmhouse, and rare glimpses of color in canned food or bullets coming across to the father and son as artifacts to bond over.

And perhaps more the atmosphere, it was mastering this relationship that would make or break “The Road” – and set it apart from “No Country for Old Men.” While the first one was heavily reliant on longer dialogues between three complex main characters and a cast of officers and civilians, “The Road” distills McCarthy’s gift down to only the father and the son, two people bound by an eternal pact and whose few words hold more meaning than any longer speech.

Thankfully, this relationship is treated with all the reverence it deserves. Viggo Mortensen cannot help but inhabit a role with every fiber of his being, and he brings the father to life with tenderness to his son and tightly wound caution toward the rest of the world. His interactions with his son (the excellent Kodi Smit-McPhee) are all transferred from the book, and there is an undeniable connection in each scene: sharing a scavenged Coca-Cola, bathing in an ice-cold waterfall, explaining the right way to shoot yourself in the head.

The film’s supporting cast, though defined only in their relationship to the father-son dynamic, also captures the book’s feel admirably. Charlize Theron as the wife is appropriately angelic in the Man’s fantasies and fatally broken in his memories, although her role has been expanded from the book and in several places the stretching shows. Robert Duvall steals the film as the Old Man on the road, half-blind but still able to see the world’s end, and HBO alums such as Garrett Dillahunt (“Deadwood”) and Michael Kenneth Williams (“The Wire”) capably carry the roles of the future’s predatory wanderers.

In an advance review Tom Chiarilla of Esquire said there was “not a single stupid choice made in turning this book into this movie,” and it’s hard to argue with that statement. From a technical perspective, it captures all the right notes from its source material – characters, conversations and storyline – and from an emotional standpoint its only fault is that it’s trying to reach the impossibly high standards of McCarthy’s eloquence. “The Road” is frightening, captivating and makes you need to hug your parent or child afterward – and I apply that statement to both versions.

Extra Credit:

For more on McCarthy’s relationship with his writing, his son and the films, check out these absolutely phenomenal interviews with the master himself.

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Book Review: Tomato Rhapsody

December 29, 2009

Tomato Rhapsody: A Fable of Love, Lust & Forbidden Fruit

By Adam Schell

Published June 23, 2009

Delacorte Press

352 pp.

ISBN 0-385-34333-7

Reviewed December 29, 2009

With 2009 coming to a close, the book journalism world is awash in lists of the best titles of not only the last year but the last decade. The lists vary in terms of depth and focus, and the majority have selected some genuinely good titles, but nevertheless it feels like something’s missing. Words like “sublime” and “captivating,” “nuanced” and “illuminating” are all being tossed around regularly, but the one word that seems to be missing on the majority of these lists is “fun.”

Now I would never insist that literature try to avoid these heavier adjectives – being the aspiring alpha male of the literary criticism world that I am – but I do feel that too often literature is in the position of bringing people down. Sprawling character studies and painful memoirs have their place, but sometimes one wants to sit down with a book and feel good rather than insightful, pleasantly satisfied rather than enlightened. And this year, “Tomato Rhapsody” by Adam Schell was a book that provided that feeling in spades, an appetizing and ultimately joyful novel to brighten up a frequently dark field.

“Tomato Rhapsody” takes place in 16th century Tuscany, where where its titular fruit is limited to one farm where it is grown by a young Jewish farmer named Davido and his grandfather Nonno. When a papal decree of free trade and allows them to bring their produce to the village, it brings them into contact with the village’s unique inhabitants: an almost mystical priest, a restless duke, a conniving orchard owner, his beautiful stepdaughter Mari and a drunken puppeteer to name a few. The events that follow generate a great deal of wine and partying, luck that leads to love and recipes which will shape the country forever.

Stylistically, “Rhapsody” is very similar to a Shakespearean comedy, broken up into three parts and involving a series of interwoven plot threads such as star-crossed lovers, clever servants and comic foils. Lively discussion in taverns and festivals is prevalent, as are the occasional comedy of errors and nobles “slumming” with the common folk for a change of pace. Don’t expect iambic pentameter though, or any other kind of formality: Schell’s is a writing style that goes around in many occasions, prone to asides and comments to the reader on Italian drama tradition.

It’s in the dialogue that the Shakespearean influence is much clearer. The majority of the peasants speak in rimatori, an “aabbcc” rhyming style that lends a singsong cadence to the book’s conversations. It could easily be forced but Schell handles the writing more than competently and in many occasions often veers into bawdy limerick territory, discussing the ravages of syphilis or the arousal of a donkey. The speech is quirky without ever being grating, particularly if you have a strong tolerance for dirty jokes.

And for those who don’t have a taste for dirty jokes, the book’s culinary obsession will more than make up for it. Fittingly for a book that deals so heavily with food – gardens, orchards and markets are the main settings, and food analogies regularly describe the main characters – much of the inner dialogue and conversation is devoted to recipes. Be it the Good Padre’s fried eggplant with mint pesto, Mari’s technique for curing black olives or simply the contemplation of a tomato on the vine, “Rhapsody” quickly makes the mouth water. This is a book that demands you have a small carton of cherry tomatoes on hand to pop between your teeth as you turn pages, or be sitting in a restaurant that serves big plates of bruschetta.

And in its culinary focus, “Rhapsody” manages to once again prove the old adage that the quickest way to the heart is through the stomach. Emotions regularly run high in the book, be they the ebullient joy of the Drunken Saint festivals, debate over letting the Jewish farmers into the village or the growing romance between Davido and Mari. Much like the tomatoes and olives that drive the plot along, this is a story that is full of life and joy – chaotic to be sure, but undeniably alive.

While “Tomato Rhapsody” is certainly far from perfect – the ending scenes of each act go a bit too long, and only a couple members of the cast have any depth beyond stock characters – its flaws are masked under a seasoned sauce of energy and humor. It would be hard to see it fitting into the more prestigious “best of 2009” lists, but if you let it take you in you’ll feel better after finishing it than most of the year’s releases – and still have the energy to head down to the local Italian place for an early supper.


Links of Literacy: Good News in the Book World

December 15, 2009

As I spend my nights carving into a pile of articles sure to challenge your perceptions on literature (or at least tell you what I think of various books and films based on books), a few things that make me happy have popped up in the world of bibliographic news. I would like to share them with you in the hopes they bring you good cheer in this holiday season.

1. Yahtzee moves to maximum punctuation!

Dark Horse Books have quite a reputation in the world of graphic novels – Sin City, The Mask and Hellboy are only a few of the unique intellectual properties that have been distributed under their imprints – and now it appears they have a solid stake in traditional literature. This October it was announced that their stable of authors will be joined by Ben “Yahtzee” Croshaw, creator of the Escapist video game review series “Zero Punctuation,” with his debut novel “Mogworld” in August of 2010.

In Yahtzee’s own words from his website:

Mogworld is the culmination of a few years’ work from an idea that took root back when I was playing World of Warcraft. It’s NOT a graphic novel, as you might assume from Dark Horse publishing it. It’s a proper wordy thinky brainy book. I feel that if I give myself free reign to go on about it here I’ll end up calling it a lot of pretentious things that it isn’t, so at the most basic level it’s a fun little comedic fantasy. But it’s also a bit of a satire on MMOs, the games industry, and the concept of heroism, and incorporates perhaps a hint of existentialism WHOOPS there I go.

I personally could not be happier about this – not only because Dark Horse is based in Portland and I support any and all creative minds who find links to the city. Yahtzee’s ZP videos were an endless distraction for me during my darker unemployed days, and his writing style has been a considerable influence both in my critical and humorous writings (as you may have noticed in the more colorful analogies I try to insert, as well as more subtle ways). I’ve enjoyed many of the longer pieces on his website – even though he disowns much of his early work they’re worth skimming – and his weekly “Extra Punctuation” column on the Escapist shows his thought processes and writing techniques are far more advanced than simply swearing at Sonic the Hedgehog.

So, August 2010 – mark your calendars for that. I believe this is a book worth anticipating, even though Yahtzee has called hype an invention of mean-spirited marketing executives who never discovered the true meaning of Christmas.

2. Natalie Portman aims for the head!

While I heard author Seth Grahame-Smith dropping hints about this during his book tour (mostly mumbling titles like “The Professional” and “Garden State” when asked about films) it’s a relief to see the formal news break. Natalie Portman, star of films as diverse as “V for Vendetta” and “The Darjeeling Limited” has been tapped to play the lead role in the film adaptation of the critically acclaimed title “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.”

I’m slightly disappointed that my original idea of reuniting the original cast of the 2005 film in a brilliant burst of metahumor won’t come to fruition, but I have nothing to complain about with the selection of Portman. An actress who can move from drama to action films seamlessly – and survive the briny slop that was the “Star Wars” prequel trilogy – I have no doubt she has the talent and charisma to be on par with the college girls and amputee strippers who thrive in the zombie apocalypse.

At least I hope we’ll have a chance to find out. The film is pegged as in development with a potential 2011 release, and any number of things could happen between now and then. Hopefully this won’t wind up eternally in development hell, unlike some other book adaptations I’ve been waiting around for.