September 22, 2015 Leave a comment
Asked in an interview why he has never written about the US, travel writer Bill Bryson (Robert Redford) is unable to answer. He hasn’t written anything recently, instead spending his time attending funerals with wife Catherine (Emma Thompson) and strolling through the woods near his New Hampshire home. On one such walk he happens across the Appalachian Trail, and adamant that he has one last adventure in him decides to walk the full length of it from Springer Mountain in Georgia to Mount Katahdin in Maine, a distance of 2,200 miles. Understandably concerned that her elderly husband might be eaten by bears or swallowed by a ravine, Catherine insists that he travel with someone else, though it doesn’t come as much reassurance when that person is revealed to be Stephen Katz (Nick Nolte), an alcoholic ex-convict who previously inconvenienced Bryson as a young man in Europe.
A vaguely fictionalised account of A Walk In The Woods, the real Bill Bryson’s 1998 memoir — beloved by many — about walking sections of the AT, Ken Kwapis’ film attempts to find drama in what was originally just description, albeit eloquent, engaging and effervescent description in the Bryson style. This necessitates a clarification of motivation, increased characterisation of Catherine, and various attempts at foreshadowing, all of which result in a much larger opening salvo that attempts to establish some sort of narrative trajectory — something that was willfully missing from Bryson’s original manuscript, particularly towards the end. By far the most apparent change from the book, however, is Bryson’s age, increased here from fortysomething to sixtysomething, so that producer Robert Redford (79) could realistically star in the lead role. First announced in 2005, the supporting character of Katz had to be recast after the death of progenitor Paul Newman in 2008, prompting Nick Nolte to be hired in his place.
This particular amendment works perfectly well (though the inclusion of Nick Offerman as a sales clerk does make you wonder why they didn’t just use him for Bryson, instead), with writers Rick Kerb and Bill Holderman getting plenty of mileage out of the character’s age, whereas in reality his biggest obstacle had been his weight. Redford is perfectly fine in the role, if a little unremarkable, whereas it’s Nolte who feels like the better fit as Katz. He looks like he’s been genuinely living off of Little Debbie’s for years, so unhealthy does he seem in every single shot, while his raspy delivery seems to come straight off the page. Katz squeezes off of the plane fully formed, stumbling through the airport door and striding straight for the vending machine in the arrivals area. Inevitably, he gets many of the best lines (though sadly he never gets to say “flung”), not least a launderette-set seduction of Waynesboro’s Beulah, expertly intercut with Bryson’s ill-fated attempt to reach K-Mart across a busy highway to genuinely great comic effect. Also well cast is Mary Ellen, the hapless but hateful thru-hiker who the companions meet along the way, with Kristen Schaal perfectly capturing her intolerable ways without ever once cleaning her Eustachian tubes.
The reason that Bryson is ultimately shortchanged by the adaptation is Kwapis’ tendency towards broad comedy over acerbic wit. Undoubtedly informed by his two decades living and working in England, as well has his travels across Europe and Australia, Bryson’s wry sarcasm is what gives his books the edge over more emotionally earnest travelogues, recently seen adapted for the big screen in the form of Tracks and Wild (both of which were better films), not to mention Eat, Prey, Love (which wasn’t). The comedy in A Walk In The Woods feels much more typically American, decidedly cruder and somewhat less sophisticated, as when Bryson and Katz take on a pair of bears while wearing their tents or fall into a creek or down a cliff — events that never happened in the book. The more scathing lines that are lifted from the text fall rather flat, delivered in part or without the necessary dryness or derisiveness, Redford imitating sarcasm rather than embracing it, while many of Bryson’s observations are lost in translation — like his description of newlyweds Donna and Darren. His relationship with Catherine is also mishandled in an attempt to introduce marital drama where there wasn’t any to begin with, though the fact that it is directly responsible for Mary Steenburgen having a larger role as innkeeper Jeannie (“Mother, let go of the man’s hand”) is undoubtedly a welcome one.
Fans of Bryson will be familiar with his favourite words, two of which seem to be ‘amiable’ and ‘agreeable’, judging by their preponderance in his published works. Both could be used to describe A Walk In The Woods, which is undeniably amusing without ever quite capturing what made the original anecdotes — or for that matter the Appalachian Trail itself — so memorable. The title was meant to be ironic, but this really does feel like just a walk in some woods.