Natural and Moral Decay in The Road: Fiction and Film
Natural decay directly influences moral decay in Cormac McCarthy’s The Road and John Hillcoat’s film adaptation by the same title. The end of the world in this narrative is so severe because of the loss of nature. When humans see the end of their natural environments, something in them is changed; by severing their ties to the natural world, they also subsequently lose their ties to humanity. This is seen in the contrast between the man and boy versus the cannibal gangs. The writing tool of setting is especially important for this topic because McCarthy often describes where the man and boy are based on natural setting. Throughout the novel we read descriptions of gray skies, fallen trees, and dark oceans—all markers of the earth’s decay. Some scholars have called McCarthy’s novel the first to write from an environmentalist perspective; while there have been other post-apocalyptic novels and films prior to The Road, McCarthy’s is one of the first to include decay of the earth as well as decay of humanity.
The sparse dialogue in the novel is perhaps a visual representation of the dying world; just as the earth has been stripped of its beauty and natural elegance so has human conversation. The scarcity on the page visually represents the scarcity of the world. John Hillcoat’s film adaptation of the novel also focuses on portraying an environmentally decayed world. By using real devastated locations, Hillcoat represents how the real environment and nature have been impacted. The on-set locations are especially impactful. The visual representation of American devastation accurately represents McCarthy’s novel. On-screen, we see the destruction of Mt. St. Helens in Washington, Hurricane Katrina damage in Louisiana, abandoned highways and old steel mills in Pennsylvania, and run down parts of Pittsburgh. Abandoned shopping malls, stranded semi-trucks, and ruined stadiums all visually represent how man-made neglect and destruction has impacted our nation. Marooned ships, dark landscapes, and a lake filled with fallen trees from a Mt. St. Helen’s eerily reveal how natural disasters have destroyed parts of our society. There is even a shot where Hillcoat chose to put real footage of the smoke cloud from September 11th. All of these on-screen representations communicate the devastation which can occur in our world. In addition, Hillcoat makes use of dark landscapes and matching lighting. Grays and browns in the landscape match the demeanor of the characters; from clouds in the sky to burnt trees, Hillcoat ensures that each scene matches the story. Both McCarthy’s novel and Hillcoat’s adaptation are warnings to their audiences: take care of your families; maintain your morals; value the natural world. Don’t let destruction like this happen to you. A likely response to this novel and film would then be to spend time with your family as you see families ripped apart and a father/son draw closer than ever in order to survive; to explore what it means to be the “good guy” and “carry the fire” in today’s society; and to spend time appreciating the value of our natural environment, realizing how vital it is to our survival. By examining the setting in the novel and the mise-en-scene in the film, we will discover how natural decay leads to moral decay.
In the film and the novel nature is linked somehow with morality. When nature decays and is destroyed, so is our morality. While natural disasters are out of human control, humans still suffer during them. During these natural disasters, human morality is tested; we hear of people stealing and looting, but we also hear of heroic rescues. In The Road we also see two sides: those who are the “good guys,” trying to maintain morality and “carry the fire,” and the bad guys, those who have forsaken their morality and have turned to violence and cannibalism.
The novel describes many scenes of nature’s decay. The second sentence of the novel reads: “Nights dark beyond darkness and the days more gray each one than what had gone before” (McCarthy 3). From the start, our characters Man and Boy are in a very dark, very bleak world. As we continue, there are more signs of destruction: “The city was mostly burned. No sign of life” (McCarthy 12). It is important to note that “no sign of life” includes animal and plant life as well as human life. In this post-apocalyptic world, not even animals or plants have survived. Later in the book we learn that the Boy doesn’t believe birds exist in real life; he has only seen them in books. The most eerie aspect of this world is its barrenness; it is utterly lifeless. Countless times as the man looks out over the landscape, all he sees is “everything paling away into the murk” (McCarthy 4). He looks out “among the dead trees” hoping to find “anything of color. Any movement. Any trace of standing smoke,” but he found nothing (McCarthy 4). The nature of this world is made up of dead trees, clouded skies, and bleakness. There is no bright light of the sun, only gray and lighter gray. The earth is deteriorating, and as it does, so is the humanity of the people still living.
Next to starvation and hypothermia, the heartless cannibal gangs are the Man and Boy’s worst enemy. They encounter them along the road, and they come across their houses multiple times in the book. Halfway through the novel it says, “The world soon to be largely populated by men who would eat your children in front of your eyes and the cities themselves held by cores of blackened looters who tunneled among the ruins and crawled from the rubble white of tooth and eye carrying charred and anonymous tins of food in nylon nets like shoppers in the commissaries of hell” (McCarthy 181). As these people have lost touch with the natural world, they have also lost concern for any sort of morality. Cannibals are seen eating a baby over a fire and spit in the woods, holding starving naked humans in a basement as a food supply, and stealing from anyone who they could benefit from. These people are ruthless and heartless. They are not the good guys, as the novel describes, and in fact, there are very few good guys left.
The film also holds up these themes. Setting plays a large part in John Hillcoat’s adaptation. The elements of design, as described in the Looking at Movies text, are very important in this film. In order to communicate the sense of decay and despair, Hillcoat made sure that the setting was as bleak and bare as possible. One aspect of the mise-en-scene is lighting, and Hillcoat used lighting to his advantage. In Looking at Movies, it says regarding light: “Often, much of what we remember about a film is its expressive style of lighting faces, figures, surfaces, settings, or landscapes” (Barsam 185-6). In the opening scene of The Road, lighting portrays emotion to the audience. As the movie begins, we see a brightly lit outdoor shot of a home and flowering trees. By minute 1:51, there is a jarring switch from this brightly lit scene, with Charlize Theron’s clean, soft face, to a dark scene showing Viggo Mortesen’s dirty, bearded face. The quick lighting change shocks the viewer, and subtly we realize that this brightly colored scene was a dreamed memory. Throughout the course of the film, lighting continues to play a large role as there is no sun in this world but only a dull gray light. Lighting effects were used when the sun came out during shooting, and sometimes scenes had to be shot multiple times if the sun shone on the actors. Another very important aspect of the film is the on-location filming which was expertly found by Hillcoat. Most of the scenes were filmed in real disaster locations. Mt. St. Helen’s, Katrina aftermath, abandoned highways in Pennsylvania, dark and dreary beaches in Oregon, run down parts of Pittsburgh and other places as well. This effect brought a truth to the screen; by knowing this seemingly trivial fact, the viewer is able to understand that this imagined world isn’t so imaginary after all.
One source on this topic is an article by Kenneth Brandt, who examines the final paragraph of the book. He argues that the ending paragraph “is meant to emphasize the totality of the loss of natural-world experience by the book’s characters and to highlight the dependence of humanity on ecosystems” (Brandt). As McCarthy and Hillcoat call for a return to gratitude and appreciation for family, nature, and blessings, Brandt echoes their message by saying that humankind is indebted to natural ecosystems. There is something about being in the beauty of nature that awakens a deep part of the human soul. The contrary is clearly also true: the death of nature kills something deep within the human soul. Brandt says the concluding paragraph of the book echoes “humanity’s essential need to exist in concert with functioning ecosystems” (64). Humankind and the natural world need each other. Brandt concludes his argument with this final line:
Aptly, McCarthy’s concluding passage spotlights a web of environmental interrelationships and presents a contrapuntal arrangement of images that implicitly conveys the totality of humanity’s dependence on ecological stability (66). Hillcoat echoes this in the final words of his director’s commentary. He says that the film and the book have been sort of a wake-up call to society. That in response people went home to be with their families and to cherish the things that the Man and the Boy had lost. Viewers can learn from these characters and from The Road that humans need each other and humans need the natural world.
Barsam, Richard, and Dave Monahan. Looking at Movies. New York: W.W. Norton & Company,
Brandt, Kenneth K.1. “A World Thoroughly Unmade: Mccarthy’s Conclusion To THE ROAD.” Explicator 70.1 (2012): 63-66. OmniFile Full Text Select (H.W. Wilson). Web. 3 May 2015.
McCarthy, Cormac. The Road. New York: Vintage International, 2006. Print.
The Road. Dir. John Hillcoat. Perf. Viggo Mortensen, Charlize Theron, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Robert Duvall, and Guy Pierce. Dimension Films and 2929 Productions, 2009. Film.
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