Two recent novels that have already been classified in some circles as ‘classics’ of their time have been recently adapted for cinema. First we have ‘The Road’ (2009), based on Cormac McCarthy’s 2006 novel. McCarthy is of course hot property in Hollywood after the Oscar-winning success of ‘No Country for Old Men’ (2007), the Coen brothers’ adaptation of his 2005 novel of same name. Billy Bob Thornton’s 2000 film of 1992’s ‘All the Pretty Horses’ had been a critical and commercial failure, but that’s in the past. Expect more McCarthy novels, especially 1985’s ‘Blood Meridian’ to receive the Hollywood treatment shortly.
‘The Road’ is directed by Australian film maker John Hillcoat; a perfect choice one might think after the success of his 2005 film ‘The Proposition’, a collaboration with Nick Cave, starring Guy Pearce, Ray Winstone and Emily Watson. Its setting of a hostile, uncivilised Australia in the final years of the 19th century makes the terrain of ‘The Road’, in a dystopian America where a natural disaster has destroyed civilisation as we know it, almost second nature to Hillcoat. ‘The Road’ was unique for how it was written. Seldom descriptive, it was based around memories and speech, mainly from its central protagonist, ‘the Man’, who tries to survive, along with his son, in these exceptional circumstances. One might imagine therefore that adapting it into a feature film might be difficult, but Hillcoat makes a more than accomplished stab at it, retaining the style in which the novel was written and making Viggo Mortensen, as ‘the Man’ both narrator and central protagonist. The film, as is the case in the novel, is based around a relationship between ‘the Man’ and his son. ‘The Man’ might know their journey is futile, that there’s little hope of survival and there are dangers everywhere. Hillcoat doesn’t shy away from showing these either and with this, he captures every potential emotion that his characters feel. Some have questioned the resolution of the film (which mirrors the novel), describing it as conveniently satisfying. I don’t agree this is the case. This is a world where the dead are fortunate as the living can never hope to develop any kind of civilisation. Survival exists purely on a day to day basis. In this respect, ‘The Road’ retains a deeply pessimistic message and is as every bit as emotionally devastating as one might imagine.
‘Disgrace’ (2008), on the other hand, is based on the 1999 Booker-winning novel of same name by the South African born, Australian based writer J.M. Coetzee. A much more modest production altogether, funded by Australian/South African finance, it’s directed by Steve Jacobs, another Australian film maker without much experience under his belt thus far. John Malkovich, with a South African accent that demonstrates effort rather than execution, will inevitably provide the film with more exposure than it otherwise would have received. He was no doubt attracted to the film because of its literary significance – with the central role of David Lurie being something that Malkovich can really sink his teeth into.
As if aware of Coetzee’s reputation, the film makers ensure they protect it, adapting his novel as though it’s a sacred artefact. It’s a careful, respectful adaptation, adhering to the text at all times. The strength of the film is the strength of the original source. Coetzee presented an allegory of the social and political circumstances of post-apartheid South Africa through the ‘disgrace’ of Lurie, a divorced, fiftysomething lecturer who seduces a young student and resigns from his position, before moving to the countryside to visit his daughter who owns a farm. It’s here where the political situation is really changing, as the white farmers are gradually replaced by the indigenous community, which manifests itself in a shocking, violent act that changes the lives of the central protagonists irrevocably.
Jacobs allows Malkovich to draw out Lurie’s character as far as Coetzee developed it in his novel. He holds little back. We are privy to Lurie’s arrogance, his impetuous nature, his complacency – all of which are dismantled in the allegorical changing of the guard in South Africa. Jessica Haines, as his daughter Lucy, arguably possesses the strongest role – seemingly more at home in these exceptional circumstances, able to come to terms with them. Her pragmatism in the wake of what she endures during the most powerful scenes sets her sharply at odds with her father. Since Coetzee had fleshed out these real, believable, complex individuals, it’s no surprise that ‘Disgrace’ showcases excellent acting talent and these actors are given perhaps the finest roles they’ll ever receive in their careers. The modest origins of ‘Disgrace’ means though that often it pays too much reverence to Coetzee, that we never see much external creative input. The same could be said of ‘The Road’. It’s not a criticism as such, but just an acknowledgement of what is usually considered when adaptations of great novels are prepared.
‘Disgrace’ is released on DVD on 8 February by ICA Films