Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Is the better story always the better movie?

Bill Bryson has been around long enough that it's surprising it's taken this long for his work to appear as a movie. And lucky him, the first time it does, he appears as a character in it.

It's sort of a strange Bryson story to be adapted, though, for a reason I'll tell you in just a minute.

But first ... even though A Walk in the Woods is not the type of movie where you'd usually issue a spoiler warning, I'm going to do so anyway, out of a general courtesy to both you and to Mr. Bryson (who has given me the pleasure of reading two of his stories, A Short History of Nearly Everything and Down Under).

It's certainly a less strange story to adapt than, say, the aforementioned A Short History of Nearly Everything, which delves into nothing less than the creation of the planet Earth and its subsequent millions of millennia of geological, ecological and cultural development. A Walk in the Woods is a story of two old codgers -- aged about 30 years so that Robert Redford, who optioned the material back in the 20th century, could play one of them -- trying to walk the entire 2,200-mile Appalachian Trial, so it does have a certain cinematic quality that makes it logical for adaptation. It was written in 1998.

The reason it's a strange story to adapt is because they don't make it. In fact, they don't even make it halfway.

Spoiler alert! Wait, I already said that.

What I'm trying to determine today is whether the fact that they didn't make it makes it a better or worse movie.

It would certainly have been a better story if Bryson and his hiking companion, Stephen Katz (Nick Nolte), had made it all the way. But would it have been a better movie?

I'm leaning towards "no," but with reservations.

The only reason we're even having this conversation in the first place, though, is that usually, the story wouldn't even get adapted unless they did make it.

Bryson is a travel writer, which kind of means that he writes about his experiences whether anything actually happens or not. I haven't read A Walk in the Woods, but ultimately, the conclusion is kind of that "nothing" is what actually happened. Oh sure, they were beset by small adventures, the types of things you would definitely recount to your wife or to a friend once you returned from the trip. But nothing really happened that in and of itself would have made a great story, assuming that Rick Kerb and Bill Holderman's script does hew fairly closely to the actual details of the story. (I'll pause to acknowledge a few ways that it notably does not, however. As Bryson is only just now 63 years old, that means he wrote it when he was 46, a full 33 years younger than Redford is right now. Then there's the uncertainty of what time period the film exists in, exemplified by Kristen Schaal's character singing the Pharrell/Daft Punk song "Get Lucky" from 2013, but also by the contradicting fact that no one in the film uses a cell phone, when that kind of thing would obviously benefit someone hiking the Appalachian Trail.)

So obviously, Redford's reasons for optioning it had to do with trying to say something about testing personal limits, getting out of comfort zones, and reacquainting with long-lost friends, which are all themes of the film that resulted. (What's more, he envisioned this as his third film with Paul Newman, but Newman was too sick to make the film and died in 2008.) Those are perhaps better things to give us in a film than the standard "overcoming steep odds to prove everybody wrong" story, which has been done a million times and has basically ceased to be interesting.

The thing is, the only reason most stories are worth telling in the first place is because somebody overcame steep odds and because somebody proved everybody wrong. Otherwise, no one would have even recorded the story for posterity.

Because Bryson recorded everything he did for posterity as part of his job description, and thrived through his gift for spinning entertaining reading out of potentially banal activities, the conditions were created where Redford could adapt a story in which people failed at what they set out to do, and in which nothing very earth-shattering happened in the process of them failing.

Unless you consider the minute appreciations gained of life's fragility and the durability of friendship to be earth-shattering, and in the hands of a good writer, I suppose they are.

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