Note: If you’re one of the few people who are interested in seeing The Road but haven’t read the book, be warned that there may be spoilers below.
Even as a child, I loved the parts of The Lord of the Rings in which Frodo and Sam (and sometimes Gollum) trudge across wasteland and marshes to finally reach Mount Doom. I’m well aware, though, that most people find those sections, whether in book or movie, boring and/or depressing. If you’re one of those people, then you probably won’t want to see The Road, which bears a good deal of resemblance to the Frodo-and-Sam bits of The Lord of the Rings—with everything else removed.
Our weary, dirt-caked pair in The Road is a father (Viggo Mortensen, who, as it turns out, makes a much better Frodo than Elijah Wood) and his young son (Kodi Smit-McPhee), traveling through a grayscale post-apocalyptic America. As in Cormac McCarthy’s novel, upon which the film is fairly closely based, a reason for the disaster is never given: it could be global warming, nuclear warfare, or some sort of natural disaster. Whatever the cause, it brings about the sharply delineated contrasts in human nature that we’ve come to expect of the post-apocalyptic genre: some people turn to mayhem and cannibalism, others turn to despair and suicide, and others merely try to survive without resorting to either of the above.
The father, as he does in the novel, tells the boy that they are the “good guys,” that they are “carrying the fire” in a dark world. Yet, in both book and film, it’s clear that that designation of “good” is a line that the father draws in the sand between those who rape women and children and then eat them—and those who do not. The real lines between good and evil are much more finely drawn, as the boy makes clear by questioning some of his father’s decisions. “Are we still the good guys?” the boy asks, after the father kills a man to save the boy’s life. It’s a fair question. The boy constantly challenges his father’s—and our—assumptions about whether “necessity” renders an action “good.” It is the boy who convinces the man to relinquish a can of fruit to an old man in need, and to turn the other cheek when a thief robs them of the few supplies they still possess.
The boy is not more innocent than his father merely because he is a child—if that were so, I would probably hate The Road for sentimentalizing childhood. Instead, I think the biggest reason for the child’s ethical questioning and compassion for others is that he’s never known a world except for the bleak one in which they now exist. He was born shortly after the initial disaster, so he has no memory of a sunnier time to weigh him down. The film is more insistent than the book in showing how much the father longs for the past, when his wife was still alive. I’m still of two minds about the effectiveness of the flashbacks in the film. On the one hand, it seems like they were added to give Charlize Theron a meatier role and possibly to make the wife into a more fully realized character. Cormac McCarthy has been challenged over the years for his either nonexistent or, sometimes, misogynist portrayal of women. In the book, it seems like the wife chooses to die rather than continue struggling for survival because she’s weak (presumably because she’s a woman) and can’t take it. In the movie, it seems like she’s suffering from untreated post-partum depression. Neither portrayal is very satisfying.
In both novel and film, though, we do at least see that some women are strong enough to press on for survival. There’s a tangible sense of relief when we meet a woman or another child, because of their rarity in this post-disaster world. Even more moving, because even more rare, are the few glimpses of animal life that the film allows us. The boy and the man discover a living beetle, and it’s a sign of hope, small though it be, almost as powerful as the white flowers that Frodo and Sam discover growing right on the borders of Mordor. And when the boy finally sees a dog, alive, the relief is so overpowering that it brings tears.
Ty Burr of The Boston Globe critiques the dog’s appearance in the film, occurring at a different point and in a different context from the dog in the book, as “a surrender to sentiment.” I can see his point, but if there’s one thing I’ve learned over the past few years, it’s the subjective nature of the “sentimental” label. Films that strike some as stark and realistic will strike me as sentimental and overblown—and vice versa. I can’t argue categorically that the dog’s presence in the film isn’t sentimental, but I can at least explain why, for me, it was legitimately emotional—and why it also communicates the most Christian themes of the book in a more cinematic form.
At the end of the book, after the father’s death, the woman in the family that invites the boy to join them says “that the breath of God was his breath yet though it pass from man to man through all of time.” It’s a beautiful line to read, but it would, unfortunately, be laughable if spoken on film. In the film, the woman simply says something along the lines of, “We’ve been following you. I was so worried about you.” It’s certainly not a line that stands out on its own, but it gains resonance when you recall earlier scenes from the film. In a brief moment of respite, the boy had been convinced that he heard a dog outside their shelter. The man, immediately on guard, had insisted that they leave. Whenever the man encountered another human on the road, he would ask, suspiciously, “How long have you been following us?” In the last scene, we finally learn that there was indeed a dog, and that someone was following the boy and the man, but ultimately to help rather than harm them. When we briefly glimpse the dog at the end, it allows us to put it all together, to see the pattern of providence and the remnants of human goodness in a bleak world. It tells us that God’s breath is still God’s, in all its mystery, even in us.
Unlike Frodo and Sam, the boy and the man in The Road do not have a definite task they’re trying to accomplish, other than not getting eaten. They are trying to reach “the coast,” in the faint hope that, somehow, something will be better there. When they reach it, it doesn’t seem to be much different from the barren territory they’ve crossed before. And yet the man and the boy manage to retain hope. Hope when you don’t know where to go, when you don’t even know if there is anywhere to go, is the most faithful hope—and the least sentimental.