Legend has it that, after a private Vatican screening of Pier Paolo Pasolini’s ‘The Gospel According to St Matthew’, Pope Paul VI uttered the line: ‘I liked the book better.’
Apocryphal or not, this neatly illustrates the challenge facing those who dare to take an established book into their own hands. Pity, then, John Hillcoat, whose latest, ‘The Road’, is based on a book beloved by just about everyone from Oprah to the Pulitzer Prize committee (it won in 2007). What’s more, its author, the notoriously reclusive Cormac McCarthy, who is often hailed as America’s greatest living scribe, wasn’t about to be dragged on to the red carpet, however successful the outcome. ‘Cormac got a bit prickly about it,’ director Hillcoat tells me from a sofa on an icy morning at The Dylan Hotel on Prinsengracht. ‘He thinks that it’s a no-brainer; that the highbrow approach and the poetry of language belong to literature, and that film has its own language. But that’s no reason not to adapt something.’
‘The Road’ tells of a father and son trying to survive in a post-apocalyptic world populated by road gangs and cannibals. Stranded on a chilly American landscape, The Man (played by Viggo Mortensen, whom Hilcoat tells me ‘starved himself on a killer diet of dark chocolate and red meat’) attempts to deliver The Boy (Kodi Smit-McPhee) from evil.
‘In each of his steps, The Man loses his humanity for being too fearful and protective,’ explains Hilcoat. ‘The book is a great examination of the consequences of fear.’ I wondered how fearless Hillcoat’s own journey had been.
How did the adaptation process start?
When we hired Joe Penhall to write the screenplay, he read the book and then simply said, ‘Everything’s on the page, it’s just a matter of editing.’ But in reality we had to work on several aspects. Take the dialogues, for example. In the book they’re so sparse, yet so emotive. And the fact that in the novel there are different things happening at different times, so we streamlined it in order to make a clearer arc of the story.
Did the success of the other Cormac McCarthy adaptation, ‘No Country for Old Men’, put extra pressure on your project?
It had pros and cons. On one hand, I couldn’t control that, and I couldn’t take my eyes off my own film. On the other, that helped protecting ‘The Road’, keeping it faithful to the page. If it had been an original script by an unknown, there would have been pressure to make it a more conventional film, in the vein of stuff like ‘2012’.
So you deliberately stayed away from the conventions of the post-catastrophe film genre?
Very much so. We didn’t want any hint of ‘Mad Max’ in it. In the book those pages are chilling and work perfectly. We tried to avoid all the cinematic clichés, like the torn urban iconography, the Statue of Liberty and all that…
Did you get input from McCarthy himself?
He never got the script; he got involved in a much later stage. At first Cormac described the book to me as a story about human goodness. It’s also a great love story between father and child, but they never say ‘I love you’. As a matter of fact, the only thing [McCarthy] missed from the first cut of the film was a conversation that he had with his own son, where he’d asked him, ‘What would you do if I died?’ To which his son replied, ‘I would die too.’ A beautiful exchange. This was very personal to him, and it’s in the final version. When you see McCarthy with his son, you realise the close connection they have. Cormack’s son calls him ‘papa’ just like in the book, and as a matter of fact he introduces him as ‘the co-author of “The Road” ’.
So what’s the best way to approach a cinematic adaptation?
This book struck such a personal chord with so many people, so all we had to do it was honour and respect it.