Two old men walk through the forest, chasing a vague feeling that a physical challenge will clear their minds. But they mainly talk about women.
A Walk in the Woods is a re-enactment of the same book by Bill Bryson. In this comical travelogue, Bryson is the main character and he describes his adventures on a grand hike through the Appalachian mountains. The reason why the book was such a success, and why it invites a film adaptation, is because of the comedic tone. Bryson is the king of the anecdote and can bring everything in an interesting and funny way. Add to that that the story is based on real events, which raises the feeling of absurdity. The question is whether this is possible to translate to film.
The comedic element of the book is not about the dialogue nor about the specific scenes, but about the writing style of Bryson, and in the knowledge that it mostly actually happened, told by the one who was there. In a film adaptation there is the danger that the scenes of the book are directly translated to role playing and so loses a dimension of absurdity, and in effect that the director didn’t really understood where the humour was coming from. But that problem is avoided. The nice anecdotes of the book are made part of the movie by making Bryson himself into some kind of awkward school master who tells a lot of facts about the world around him, and reacts in a sort of comically honest way to people around him.
For the movie it was necessary to create Bryson as a character, played by Robert Redford. Redford is about 20 years too old for the role, but no matter. A quick scene establishes his character: he is being interviewed, and it sets the tone and background but it is over so fast that it felt like the director just wanted to get this introduction over with and get on with the story. We learn that Bryson feels uncomfortable and old. A walk inspires him to hike the Appalachian Trail. His wife is the voice of reason and tells him that he is an idiot, but Bryson only knows that he has a vague feeling that he has to do it. He just doesn’t really know what he is doing.
Bryson’s travel buddy Steven Katz (Nick Nolte) is given a great introduction: we only hear his gurgling voice through the phone, but we can immediate picture him. We he next stumbles out of the airplane, he seems like the least suited man in America to do a hike with. By the way, what happened to Nick Nolte? He looks like shit! I hope it is just acting. A nice element in the movie is that they make fun of the elitism surrounding hiking, about that you need all the right expensive gear and need all the experience. Bryson and Katz don’t know anything. They just have a backpack and a tent. Mary Ellen (Kristen Schaal) embodies this elitism and plays a wonderfully horrible character.
A Walk in the Woods isn’t Into the Wild (2007). It isn’t dramatic, and it leaves the deeper meanings of the hike to a couple of hints here and there. Bryson himself doesn’t know either why he is walking. After a few months and countless hardships, it slowly dawns to them why they are hiking anyway. Nature around them becomes some sort of escape from their dusty or dead-end lives. But like Bryson, I don’t want to make more of it than it is. And it is just two old men in the woods, arguing about women.
It is a very light comedy, ephemeral and quickly forgotten, but funny and harmless too. I would have liked to have some deeper material to chew on. It’s ok for a Sunday afternoon.