I’ve heard a few things about recently-released film “The Road” – the story of a man and his son struggling for survival in a bleak, wintery, post-apocalyptic world. Starring “Aragorn” Mortensen and based on a book by Cormac McCarthy, it sounded like it is an engaging and thought-provoking reflection on the human spirit. When I was in Waterstone’s the other day I saw the book and bought it.
It’s a relatively short book, easy to read and a tense, gripping narrative, so I got through it in a couple of days. The story details the attempts of a American father and son, known only in the book as the man and the boy, to head south in search of warmth and food through a land devastated by what appears to be huge fires or nuclear storms that have ravaged the whole country. Most of humanity appears to have died or fled, and plant and animal life has been all but wiped out, leaving towns and cities abandoned and food scarce. Many of the few survivors have drifted towards scavenging, robbery, violence and even cannibalism.
The tone is dark, bleak and fearful, with the man and boy’s long days’ trekking punctuated by desperate searches for food or occasional interactions with other survivors. But what rescues the mood is the optimism held by the man – perhaps only for his son’s benefit – that hope will emerge, that survival itself is a victory, and that they deserve that victory because they are “the good guys”. The style of writing is uncompromising in the portrayal of the world as it has become, and yet poetic and rhythmic in a way that has the reader clinging on for hope of good news and willing the man and boy to survive. I hope I get to see the film soon.
“The Road” follows hot on the heels of my having watched a couple of TV programmes on the BBC iPlayer that tell similar stories of life after a cataclysmic global disaster. The Day of the Triffids was adapted to the modern day and felt broadly faithful to the original book by John Wyndham; while series 2 of the Survivors remake has just restarted with its one-dimensional characters and fairly predictable plot development but interesting portrayal of a world devastated by a deadly virus.
Having seen the Day of the Triffids adaptation, I’d love to see more of John Wyndham’s books on-screen. The Chrysalids, for instance, his best book in my view, paints a picture of a world so unfamiliar that its rendering on-screen would be magnificent.
The genre – post-apocalyptic science fiction – is a compelling one, and I’ve found it fascinating to read and watch a fair bit of it. The appeal of the genre lies, I think, in the fact that it strips away everything and focusses on the human condition, exploring what makes us tick. Other forms of fiction, and even other types of science fiction, cannot do this, because there is too much of the world as known or imagined involved – some form of society, structure, civilisation. By removing all the man-made influences on our lives we can imagine how people react when faced by nothing more than a Hobbesian hell; presenting a real exploration of society and human nature itself.
It sounds all doom and gloom, but one of the most interesting aspects of the genre is that eventually, and against all the odds, the optimism and hope inherent in humanity usually shines through, if not triumphing then certainly enduring. Even in the dark and bleak world in “The Road”, we are encouraged by the compassion showed by the man and boy to each other and often others despite their circumstances, willing them on in their belief that simply staying alive and holding on to hope is a sign that the fire within them keeps burning. In that sense, it reminded me a great deal of the phenomenal film “Children of Men“.
Of course, not everything in the genre has room for this optimism. 1980s film “Threads” – which is easily found online if you can stomach it – is a chilling, terrifying mix of drama and documentary set in and around Sheffield about the days, months and years after a nuclear war. The unrelenting, uncompromising, brutal pessimism make it a haunting watch (and not for the faint-hearted), but it no doubt struck a chord on its release in the 1980s when the threat of the Cold War turning hot still lingered in people’s minds and hearts.
Not quite post-apocalyptic but exploring a lot of the same ideas is “Lost“. And it’s not too long now until the final seasons commences…