It was inevitable that Bill Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods would be made into a movie. But does the film, starring Robert Redford as Bryson, live up to the book? Is it a good adaptation?
The other day, I wrote about Bill Bryson’s 1997 book, A Walk in the Woods. Chronicling Bryson’s long-distance hike on the Appalachian Trail (AT) with his old friend Stephen Katz, the book is a slightly sluggish travel-report-meets-trivia-collection that could have used a bit less scholarly ambition and a bit more life between its pages, but still a somewhat engaging read, all in all.
Now, regarding the 2015 movie adaptation of the same title, one cannot help wondering whether the creative team saw the problems with the entertainment value of the original book and then consequently decided to go against the grain in every possible respect: If Bryson’s book slows you down in places with its various digressions, the movie feels positively rushed. Where Bryson floods you with facts and figures, A Walk in the Woods (2015) makes a point of telling its audience – albeit only in the closing credits – that actual facts were not much of a concern during its conception and production:
This film is inspired by historical events. Dialogue and certain events and characters contained in the film were created for the purpose of dramatization.
This is a pretty accurate, if slightly euphemistic description: Bryson’s book, of course, already appeared to take occasional liberties with reality, which is just what you can expect from a piece of travel prose. But the adaptation, in turn, makes such blatant changes to Bryson’s account of the events that even its status as an adaptation seems seriously questionable.
Among the more notorious of these changes is the fact that a massive portion of the journey was cut out, basically making it seem like Bryson and Katz only walked the first part of the AT (when in fact, they walked several portions in very different areas, and with breaks in between). The order of appearance of certain scenes was changed, too—which is bewildering if you consider that this basically alters how the route works.
Also, certain characters and situations are embellished beyond any credibility here. The book already might have forced a frown of disbelief on the face of a more skeptical reader when, for instance, Bryson describes a mysterious and frightful encounter with a wild animal: How one night, he woke up in his tent to shuffling noises outside, then alerted Katz (who was sleeping in another tent), discussed with him (from tent to tent!) what to do about the situation, and finally decided to get out and throw sticks at whatever was lurking in the dark. Bryson never found out what it was, by the way, but clearly wants to believe that it was a bear.
What the film makes of that dubitable description of events is representative of its generally, let’s call it liberal, treatment of facts: We see Bryson and Katz crawl out of their tents, and then, finding themselves face to face with two actual bears, spontaneously start to act like ghosts, or monsters, with their tents weirdly raised up as rather silly-looking wings. The Hollywood bears, sensibly, decide not to bother with our endearing couple of loonies and leave.
Of course, the problem here isn’t whether or not this is a smart approach to dealing with real-life bears in the wilderness. The problem (if indeed it is one) is that scenes like this one are so far removed from the book and its spirit that one wonders how the producers were even allowed to slap the same title on their movie.
The film’s general tendency, consequently, is to simply line up comic scene after comic scene after comic scene—and the bear encounter described above doesn’t even figure among the most absurd of these. It hardly needs pointing out that, with one-and-a-half hours to cover the entire journey as well as the collected results of a busy comedy writer’s lifetime of work, there is virtually no time for reflection, for considerations of nature—or of hiking itself. It’s ironic, to say the least, that a film about one of the most inward, slow-paced and meditative activities is as calm as a kindergarten group on field day and as contemplative as a visit to a football stadium.
To be fair, A Walk in the Woods, in its best moments, is quite funny. There also is a bit of purposeful drama here and there. It is altogether a harmless, family-friendly entertainment movie—which, perhaps, isn’t surprising if you consider that it had Ken Kwapis at the directorial helm (the guy who brought you Dunston Checks In and The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants). What it is patently not, however, is a movie about traveling or hiking in anything but the general plot—or a movie that you will have anything to take home from, beside the question whether it was worth your investment of time (and, probably, money).
When I found out that the screenwriter responsible for the adaptation, credited as Rick Kerb, was in fact Michael Arndt, who previously wrote Little Miss Sunshine, and who co-wrote Oblivion as well as Star Wars: Episode VII, I was, at first, baffled—and then I understood why he did not want to have his real name attached to this movie. Funny enough, even the film’s two principal actors, Robert Redford (as Bryson) and Nick Nolte (as Katz), seem weirdly detached from their roles throughout. Redford, in particular, plays his part as if he doesn’t really care—in fact, I’ve asked myself several times whether he really played a part at all, or just shoulder-shruggingly stumbled from scene to scene at minimum effort, hoping for everything to be over soon and get back to more important things. Which, by the way, I intend to do in a minute, too.
So, let’s conclude: A Walk in the Woods is an amusing little buddy movie, the kind you might want to watch in order to unwind and/or fall asleep. Tame and emotionally castrated as it is, it certainly won’t hurt you like, say, a day of hiking on blisters with a heavy pack. That being said, it won’t reward you in any substantial way, either. So you’re probably better-off going for a walk in the woods instead. Or, indeed, grabbing Bryson’s book and at least learning something about the woods. I can’t say why, but the 130 different species of trees in the Smoky Mountains suddenly seem like a matter of great interest. Isn’t it all a question of perspective?
A Walk in the Woods (US 2015). Directed by Ken Kwapis. Written by Michael Arndt (as Rick Kerb). Cinematography: John Bailey. Starring Robert Redford, Nick Nolte and Emma Thompson. 104 min.