In an era when worst-case thinking has displaced any kind of open-minded approach to the future, it is not surprising that popular culture is awash with the themes and symbols of planetary catastrophe and of a depraved humanity.
In public life, there is now a studied casualness to proclamations about ‘the end of the world’ and the ‘final days of humanity’. In comparison to this contemporary misanthropic loathing for the legacy of human achievement, nineteenth-century and interwar manifestations of cultural pessimism appear almost as celebrations of the future.
When we go to the cinema these days, we are invited to wallow in the spectacle of the destruction of the world. You don’t need to have a sophisticated grasp of contemporary aesthetic forms, or even to have seen the film, to recognise that ‘The Day After Tomorrow’ is likely to be one that is inhospitable to human beings. It is becoming difficult to work out if film directors prefer to cast human beings as zombies or regard zombies as people… either way, scenes of mindless, predatory humans wreaking havoc on their communities and their environment are now presented as the brave new edgy and agenda-setting face of modern cinema.
So I wasn’t surprised when, last summer, a Spanish journalist asked if he could interview me on the current appetite for frightening end-of the-world movies. After mentioning the cruel future depicted in The Book of Eli, the ruined world portrayed in 9, and human life being haunted by a deathly virus in The Carriers, he added ‘and of course Cormac McCarthy’s post-apocalyptic The Road’.
Until he mentioned The Road we were in full agreement about decrying the widespread nihilistic aesthetic which manipulates, in a very one-dimensional way, people’s anxiety towards the future. However, I felt that The Road could not be dismissed as simply a product of today’s dehumanised scaremongering project that masquerades as an exciting public service designed to ‘raise awareness’ about humanity’s behaviour. My interviewer was taken aback when I said that, although I knew nothing about the film (then in production), I considered McCarthy’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel as something of a twenty-first-century literary masterpiece.
Outwardly McCarthy’s novel, which has been described as dark, frightening, scary, depressing, heartbreaking and even apocalyptic, resonates with the culture of fear that dominates the Western imagination. I have to confess that before I read The Road, I had convinced myself that I would probably hate it. I am usually turned off by works of fiction that are loved and celebrated by our cultural elites. The Road is said to be one of Oprah Winfrey’s favourite books. And the fashionable scaremonger George Monbiot described it as ‘the most important environmental book ever written’ (1).
But of course it is not at all surprising that these days the darkness that surrounds the human experience is invariably interpreted in a naturalised and environmentalist way. No doubt if TS Eliot’s The Waste Land was published today it would be hailed as yet another testimony to that horrible ‘inconvenient truth’; all that our fashionable critics would be able to recall from Eliot’s poem is the line: ‘This is the way the world ends.’
But despite my concerns, the novel The Road is not actually about the world ending – either with a bang or a whimper. Yes, it is a very bleak book about a world where human survival is continually put to question. McCarthy’s story about the journey of an unnamed father and son in the aftermath of a mysterious unnamed global catastrophe can be read as a cautionary tale about human wickedness and depravity. Their pilgrimage takes them through a lifeless world where food can no longer be grown. But what is even more disturbing than the physical and environmental destruction unleashed by the unspecified apocalyptic catastrophe is the moral disintegration of a human species that is now totally focused on biological survival.
As the father and son continue their journey, the survivors they encounter often appear as the personification of evil. Cannibalism is rife and people have been turned into slaves… and yet there is hope. Although the father is worn down by the devastation that surrounds him, and his fear that he will not be able to protect his son, he refuses to give up the struggle for survival. Though thoroughly brutalised by his experiences, he retains an emotional warmth and gentleness towards his child. It is almost as if the desperate circumstances bring out an idealised version of father as protector.
But it is the son who reminds us that, even in the worst-case situation, human beings can keep hold of their moral sensibilities. Throughout the journey the young boy is continually concerned that his father will be so overwhelmed by the struggle to survive that his humanity will perish. When he asks his father ‘Are we still the good guys?’, he is reminding the reader that there is more to life than physical survival.
There are many ways of reading and interpreting a story. I have no wish to begrudge or invalidate the experience of readers who were transfixed by McCarthy’s images of an Earth denuded of life. But if you pay attention to his simple, direct and unambiguous prose, it becomes evident that this is much more than a tale of environmental catastrophe and survivalism. It is what its title suggests: a variation on the age-old fable of the human journey into the unknown. It can also be read as a story about the relationship between father and son and about the triumph of decency over evil and of hope over despair. This is a book that only a father could have written. It is his legacy for the generation that still has a future.
That’s the book – but what about the movie?
Typically some reviewers have greeted the movie – which goes on release in Britain tomorrow – as yet another simple exercise in climate alarmism. One reviewer said that ‘when we see The Road, we can’t discard the fears provoked by the film once the lights come up’; he adds that we take these fears ‘home with us and, if we’re smart, act on them’ (2). In other words, the film works as climate-change propaganda.
Fortunately for cinemagoers, the film is actually more than a vehicle for environmentalist agitprop. Yes it is a product of the contemporary cultural imagination, and therefore cannot help but transmit the well-worn clichés of eco-politics. But although the film lacks the aesthetic depth of the novel, it remains partially true to the spirit of the book, and what it offers in essence is an old-fashioned Hollywood road movie. The film is a bit too miserabilist for my tastes, and is far too devoted to the mission of making its viewers feel awful and depressed, but it holds on to some of the elements of McCarthy’s novel.
I really wanted this film to be the contemporary version of Bergman’s brilliant Seventh Seal. Sadly its dialogue is too unmediated and sometimes it lacks tension and intensity. The acting is competent but lacks the kind of chemistry required for a memorable performance. The film irritatingly relies far too much on the technique of the voiceover. But for me, maybe the real problem with the film is that throughout it I kept thinking of the book. I am still not sure whether the film is a wasted opportunity, or a project which, in the current cultural climate, simply could not live up to its promise, the promise of McCarthy’s novel.
Apparently McCarthy has described The Road as a story about ‘the limits of our humanity’. Nevertheless, it gives meaning to humanity’s capacity for hope and our striving to transcend those limits. Sadly little is transcended in the film, and that’s the big difference between it and the book.
(1) The Road Well Travelled, Monbiot.com, 30 October 2007
(2) Climate change is inspiring the ultimate scary movies, Guardian, 1 January 2010