My playwriting teacher Arlene Malinowski likes to jokingly warn us against writing and producing “two hours of death and despair.” In the film adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s 2006 novel and Pulitzer Prize winner The Road, director John Hillcoat and writer Joe Penhall give us exactly that. And while I do admit to taking an hour’s breather in the middle (I was watching on Amazon prime and could hit pause), these two hours of death and despair were completely compelling.

Intrigued by the premise, I read the book last summer before seeing the film. I’ve long had an attraction to realistic post-apocalyptic works (not so much to zombie movies).

Set in a contemporary post-apocalyptic United States after an unspecified planetary disaster, a father (played by Viggo Mortensen) and son (played by Kodi Smit-McPhee) struggle to survive. All nonhuman life has died, and the sun is never seen behind perpetual ash. It has been some years since the event. The son was born in the aftermath, though we’re not told his age (Smit-McPhee was 11 at the time). The world is growing colder as the remaining humans grow more desperate. Cannibalism has broken out as a survival strategy. The father and son define themselves as the “good guys,” who will not resort to eating other people as the “bad guys” do. They “carry the fire”—the goodness that may still exist in humanity.

No matter how bad a day I’m having, I think of the world in The Road and look at my world. The sun is still here, and so far no cannibals.

As Mad Max as this plot sounds, this is not at all how the book or movie come across. The filmmakers specifically avoid these clichés, modeling their refugees’ appearance and actions after real homeless people rather than science fiction movie characters.

Mortensen plays the father with a mix of fierceness and vulnerability. “All I know is that the boy was my charge. And if he was not the word of God then God never spoke,” he says in voiceover. We see a man who defends the life of his son past all hope and reason, in a world that can only die. His wife, the son’s mother, has already committed suicide in fear and hopelessness. The father kills a man who captures his son in one scene; he also tenderly warms, feeds, and hides him. He reads to him, tells him stories of life “before,” cleans him, soothes him. In one scene, he finds him a treasure: a can of Coca Cola. Above all, he keeps a loaded pistol to kill the son before the cannibals can get to him. He teaches his son how to put it in his own mouth and pull the trigger if need be.

The Road fire sceneThey trek south hoping to find warmth and community. The boy imagines a blue ocean and other children. Smit-McPhee plays the boy with subtly developing maturity. He starts out pliant and dependent, and sobs in the cold water in which his father washes the blood from the man who tried to kill him out of his hair. But the boy grows in the strength of his own convictions as the film progresses. He maintains the moral standard of the two, and questions the father’s desperate and defensive actions toward other characters. When his father denies food and abandons an old blind man on the road, the boy tells him, “That old man wasn’t a bad guy—you can’t even tell anymore.” The boy also grows to understand his own unique position in this new world. Near the end, the father yells that the son isn’t the one who has to worry about the future all the time. The son looks at him square and says, “I am. I am the one.”

Hillcoat develops several supporting characters beyond their roles in the book. The roles of the wife (played by Charlize Theron), the old man (played by Robert Duvall), and the thief (played by Michael Kenneth Williams of The Wire) are all expanded. In an interview with USA Today Hillcoat said, “I think it’s fine to depart from the book as long as you maintain the spirit of it.” While the purist in me compulsively noted all literal variations between the film and book, I felt that the expansions were well-done and added to the story, especially based on the strength of these actors. The film website notes that part of the expansion of Duvall’s character was actually improvised by Duvall on the spot.

What I’m more ambivalent about is the voiceover. Hillcoat makes the decision to have the father narrate parts of the story that seem self-evident to me. The worst example is at the beginning, when the father tells us up-front that there has been a cataclysm and that people have resorted to The Road reading scenecannibalism. We have already seen the disaster occur in a prior scene; and the cannibalism would have been better revealed as a gradually-dawning horror, as it was in the book. I suppose Hillcoat believes this makes the plot more accessible, but it seems like an unnecessary level of dumbing-down. Post-apocalyptic plots and their conventions are already a well-established genre that audiences are familiar with.

In one scene, father and son camp in an abandoned church. Close-ups show us flaking religious murals on the walls. This scene reminded me of the passage in the book that most affected me:

“Years later he’d stood in the charred ruins of a library where blackened books lay in pools of water. Shelves tipped over. Some rage at the lies arranged in their thousands row on row. He picked up one of the books and thumbed through the heavy bloated pages. He’d not have thought the value of the smallest thing predicated on a world to come. It surprised him. That the space which these things occupied was itself an expectation.”

In the end, the story is another warning against killing ourselves off. At the end of the film, the boy is taken in by a family, and I found myself thinking, What’s the point? They’re going to die anyway. But the story is also an exploration of what it means to fight for survival of yourself and your children and your moral courage when there is no future left to mean anything.

The Road truck sceneThe creation of the look of this film is fascinating. Hillcoat and crew were able to find actual blasted-out locations and use very little CGI. They filmed on location around Katrina damage, Mt. St. Helens, and a huge abandoned coal mining area in Pennsylvania. The Pennsylvania landscape included a crumbling expressway, burnt out trees, and an abandoned amusement park. According to the film website, CGI was used mainly to drain color from the scenery. The movie benefits from this realism, and the visual impact is the single way in which the film is definitively superior to the book.

But McCormac’s prose is what I miss the most. The dialogue and the father’s voiceover are paraphrased closely from the book, and so McCormac echoes there. But the language sticks closely to the action of the film, and lacks the lyricism that makes the book sing. Of course, this is inevitable.