For one thing, the project has been kicking around for many years since Robert Redford first bought the rights to the book - not usually a good sign in the movie world. For another, the casting of Redford himself and Nick Nolte, both septuagenarians, as Bryson and his friend, Stephen Katz, who were both forty-something at the time of their epic adventure, just seemed too wrong to pull it off successfully. But after viewing the advanced screening last night I have to say that overall I was pleasantly surprised.
For those of you unfamiliar with Bryson, he is a former journalist and chief copy-editor for The Times, who has written more than 20 books on a wide variety of subjects including travel, language, science, architecture and history. A Walk in the Woods is the story of Bryson reuniting with an old friend with whom he has lost touch, to undertake a gruelling hike along the Appalachian Trail, which runs for more than 2,100 miles along the USA east coast from Georgia to Maine.
The film, directed by Ken Kwapis (famous for TV's The Office and Malcolm in the Middle), produced by Redford, and with a screenplay by Michael Arndt and Bill Holderman, introduces us to Bryson in a very funny opening scene featuring Redford and a smug TV interviewer, which had the preview screening audience laughing out loud. This, together with a following scene of Bryson's faux pas at a funeral, demonstrates Bryson's particular brand of wry humour from the outset and establishes the tone for the rest of the movie.
The age of the main actors necessitates some minor changes to the story. Redford, apart from his age, seems just a little wooden overall. His Bryson on occasions comes across as a bit too much of a know-it-all, keen to impart his knowledge of the world and nature to Nolte's Katz. This could also be a problem with the script, which seeks to include some of Bryson's observations from the book as conversation in the film.
Robert Redford as Bill Bryson and Nick Nolte as Stephen Katz. Image from movie website.
Nolte, his voice sounding like someone has just gone over his vocal chords with 80 grit sandpaper, is very good as Katz, Bryson's potty-mouthed, alcoholic, down-on-his-luck friend from school days, who is looking for an escape from the disappointments of his life. Nolte captures all of Katz's pragmatic realism and always looks like he is having a good time.
The ever reliable Emma Thompson, as Bryson's wife, Catherine, is very funny, especially in her attempts to dampen Bryson's enthusiasm for the trip with tales of decomposing bodies, bear attacks and dreaded diseases on the trail. Mary Steenbergen has a nice cameo as a motel operator and Kristen Schaal is excellent as the grating Mary Ellen, the obnoxious, know-it-all hiker, whom Bryson and Katz meet on the trail.
Robert Redford as Bill Bryson, Nick Nolte as Stephen Katz. Image from movie website.
The scenery is glorious in many parts, and you can imagine that hikers all over the world will be pulling out their packs and hiking shoes to plan a date with the Appalachian Trail. The soundtrack, featuring songs from American indie folk band, Lord Huron, is the perfect accompaniment to both the powerful scenery and the introspective moments of the protaganists. To the Ends of the Earth was still rolling around in my head long after we'd left the cinema.
I think the key to really enjoying the movie for Bryson lovers is to just go with the flow of the movie, which is faithful to the atmosphere Bryson created in his book. Trying to reconcile an ageing Robert Redford as the congenial, curious teddy bear that is Bill Bryson could send you just a little crazy.
This isn't one of your thigh-slapping, hysterically funny mirthfests. There are certainly plenty of moments of laugh-out-loud fun (watch out for the bears), but overall the atmosphere is more about chuckles and smiles. It's gently wry and entertaining, much likes Bryson's book. It doesn't delve too deeply into the more dramatic aspects of undertaking a journey of such magnitude.
In many ways A Walk in the Woods doesn't rise above the predictable, old guys, journey of self-discovery buddy movie, but overall it's an engaging and entertaining way to spend a couple of hours.