On a whim, Dixie and I decided to go and see A Walk in the Woods in the theatre yesterday. It’s based on Bill Bryson’s book about his hike through (much of) the Appalachian Trail in the eastern United States. I am huge fan of the book, which was what got me hooked on Bryson, who is one of my favourite authors (new book coming out in October, YAAAAY!). I knew from the trailer that significant elements of the book were changed for the purposes of the movie, so my hopes weren’t high.
Below are some brief thoughts on the film. But before I do that, I feel that I should mention that Dixie, who has not read the book, as I have (several times), enjoyed the film.
– The book is a travelogue, a sort of section by section account of Bryson’s journey through a large portion of the Appalachian Trail. The film is more of a memoir/”spiritual journey” story, which isn’t really in keeping with the spirit of the book, but then I’m not sure any adaption of the book could have been true to its spirit. But in order to make it what it is, the characters were made more advanced in age than Bryson was when he hikes the trail. Bryson was, I think, in his early forties when he did the hike, the character in the film of (at least) retirement age; Bryson was approaching the peak of his fame and powers as an author when he wrote A Walk in the Woods; in the film his character is at the end of his career.
– The biggest disappointment for me was that the film felt empty. That is, nearly every page in A Walk in the Woods has fascinating anecdotes and tidbits of information, sarcastic quips, and hilarious incidents (and often a combination of all of those things at once). The film was light in all those areas. The difficulty for any adaptation of an author whose primary appeal is his way with words is that what works in print often doesn’t work in film. Humour written for the page is not the same as humour written for the screen. (It’s the same with P.G. Wodehouse. As good as Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie were as Jeeves and Wooster, the TV adaptations couldn’t touch Wodehouse’s written page. And in my mind Bryson, particularly in his earlier work, is a sort of modern-day nonfiction Wodehouse.)
– The film was too light (which is probably related to its emptiness). I wasn’t drawn in. It showed potential at the very beginning, and even greater potential with the arrival of Kristen Schaal’s naively overconfident character. True to the book, they ditch her after a day or so, but if memory serves me right, in the book she shows up again. She doesn’t reappear in the film and she was gone far too quickly. Even if she didn’t reappear in the book, they would have done well by having her reappear in the film (since they were mucking about with the story anyway).
– The character of Stephen Katz was true to the book.
I realize that this has turned into a “the-film-wasn’t-like-the-book-so-it-sucked” sort of review, and for that I apologize. A film should be judged on its own merits, not on how well it represents the book on which it’s based (though if that really is true, I wish they’d stop putting “based upon…” in film advertising). Unfortunately, I can’t separate the two, so perhaps you should just go with Dixie’s judgement on this one. I do think the film was “light”: a story that doesn’t really go anywhere or land.