Through a Lens Darkly
Paved-Over Grace: The Road to Perdition
The artistic gulf between cinematic works and literary ones is so vast, I sometimes marvel that anyone is courageous enough to attempt to marry the two. Aside from the occasionally successful (if often bland) A&E or BBC miniseries, cinematic adaptations are forced by time constraints to simplify so drastically that there is little chance of accurately reflecting the topics and themes addressed in their source material. The necessity of using “cinematic shorthand” to compress story lines and distill dramatic elements often leaves screenwriters facing the unsettling question of whether or not their works are faithful representations of the very texts they love so dearly. In some particularly troubling cases, audiences are left to wonder if the creator’s intentions have been not only neglected, but even subverted by those most responsible for preserving them.
The critically-acclaimed adaptation of Max Allan Collin’s graphic novel Road to Perdition is a fascinating example of this very dynamic. This brooding neo-noir, wonderfully realized by screenwriter David Self and director Sam Mendes, recounts the tale of a prohibition-era mob enforcer battling to protect his son and avenge the brutal murder of his family while avoiding capture (or worse) at the hands of the mob “heavies” determined to rub him out. The production values, acting, and cinematography are all top-notch, resulting in a work that is faithful both to the mood and storyline of the original in many respects, yet one which, through a small number of seemingly-innocuous variations, is not simply unfaithful to the original material -- it is deeply and incontrovertibly opposed to it.
The film’s final lines, delivered by the young son, Michael Sullivan, Jr., underscore the message he learned during those grueling days on the road to Perdition, Illinois -- days spent crisscrossing the countryside with his father, one step ahead of the hired guns hell-bent on their destruction: “When people ask me if Michael Sullivan was a good man, or if there was just no good in him at all, I always give the same answer. I just tell them: ‘He was my father.’” Sadly, this answer seems to taint the film’s final moments with the insipid, toxic strains of moral relativism, and combines with Junior’s previous revelation -- “I saw then that my father's only fear was that his son would follow the same road. And that was the last time I ever held a gun.” -- to deliver the film’s final warning: the way of violence will always end in violence. A tired message copied directly from Hollywood’s well-thumbed handbook, “Moralizing 101”? To be sure -- but still, one that cannot be said to be entirely without value.
To someone familiar with Collin’s graphic novel, however, this ending cannot help but come as a disappointment. While the message of non-violence is present in the literary Road, it is clearly of much less importance to Collins and his characters than the themes of repentance and redemption that permeate the original work -- themes so severely downplayed in the film version that they sometimes seem entirely absent. (Mendes, the director, acknowledged that he was drawn to the script because it had “no moral absolutes” -- a claim that makes the film’s final lines a bit more understandable, but one that makes repentance and redemption undeniably tricky topics, if not downright irrational ones.)
Joseph Susanka has been doing development work for institutions of Catholic higher education since his graduation from Thomas Aquinas College in 1999. He blogs at Crisis Magazine, where he also contributes feature articles on a variety of topics.