I saw the film of Cormac McCarthy’s The road at the weekend.
It’s very beautiful. The monochromatic scenes of dying forests and deserted motorways are eerily gorgeous, and the greyed out, sunless lighting reminds one of the quiet bleached out light of snowy days. This weird stillness means that the scenes of occasional terrifying violence are all the more scary; the experience of watching the film is as queasily tense as that of reading the book.
However, the film does underline the reason why the book is not as good as it could be. In the novel, Cormac McCarthy is systematic about depicting the actual death of the planet: there are no live animals, no live vegetation, no sun, and the humans who remain are either starving, or resorting to cannibalism — which is, in the long run, unsustainable. Having created such a meticulous picture of a dead planet, McCarthy then wants us to see the father and son’s struggle to survive as noble and even necessary, when in actual fact the mother’s suicide is the most rational response to the circumstances. There comes a point where it is not worth carrying on, and it must surely be when the only food still available comes in ever scarcer tins, and the earth is too poisoned to be able to grow anything.
In the film, the man tells his wife that she sounds crazy when she wants to kill herself; in both film and book the onward march of the father and son, seemingly irrational but representing the triumph of humanity and hope, is vindicated when, after the father’s death, the boy meets and is taken into the care of a family so nice that starvation has not even driven them to the point of killing and eating their pet dog (fools!). In the movie the light even changes slightly, as though the dustclouds obscuring the sun had cleared.
But the family come from nowhere; all the people we’ve previously encountered in the book have been violent, thieving, cannibalistic, desperate or insane. It seems as though Cormac McCarthy stepped back from the brink, not quite bringing himself to face the horror of the world he had so carefully constructed. Humanity cannot transcend the planet it lives on; once the planet dies, so must we.
Looking back, I see I really loved the book when I first read it – the unsatisfactory sentimentality of the ending has only gradually occurred to me. The film is still definitely worth seeing if you like watching the end of the world: details like the last can of coke, prised from the workings of a long defunct can-dispenser, are very pleasing. But both novel and film would be better if there were no triumph of hope over absolute disaster.