A Walk in the Woods

September 5, 2015
Robert Redford as Bill Bryson in the film, 'A Walk in the Woods' (2015)
Robert Redford as Bill Bryson in the film, 'A Walk in the Woods' (2015)

If they made a movie of your life, which actor should play you? In this old game it’s almost obligatory to say: “Brad Pitt” while friends offer less flattering suggestions. Not so long ago a chap might have suggested: “Robert Redford”, and received an equally derisive response.

Travel writer, Bill Bryson, is in the flattering position of being portrayed by Robert Redford in A Walk in the Woods, but somehow it’s not the same. Bryson’s best-selling book about hiking the Appalachian Trail came out in 1998, and it was soon suggested that the author and his walking companion, Stephen Katz should be played by Redford and Paul Newman, reuniting for the first time since The Sting (1973). The years ticked by and Newman died of cancer in 2008. Redford just got older.

When Bryson undertook his big hike he was 44, but when they eventually made the movie, Redford was 78 – which necessitated a slightly different approach. The comic premiss of the book concerns two unfit middle-aged guys setting out for the ordeal of their lives. The movie tells the story of two unfit, elderly guys trying to defy encroaching mortality. In the early part of the film Bryson goes to a funeral service, which makes him feel he doesn’t want to spend the rest of his life sitting around in New Hampshire, waiting for death.

Nick Nolte, drafted in to play Katz, is probably a better fit for the role than Paul Newman. Nolte, who is 74 this year, is every bit as gross, eccentric and overweight as Katz was in the book. Newman couldn’t have degenerated that fast.

Bill Bryson owes his popularity to a droll sense of humour, and a writing style that mixes self-deprecation with a keen eye for human stupidity. He also has the remarkable ability to cram his books with useful information without ever becoming dull. A Walk in the Woods is chockablock with stories and statistics relating to a trail that stretches from Georgia to Maine, a total distance of more than 3,500 kilometres. It encompasses extremes of heat and cold; steep mountains, dense forests, and rivers. The entire walk should take between five and seven months, but only a small percentage of hikers manage to make it past the first week. It sounds hellish.

The AT is not quite as long as the Pacific Crest Trail, recently traversed by Reese Witherspoon in the film, Wild (2014), but it may be even more forbidding. Wild was treated as a rite of self-discovery, a penance imposed on herself by a woman trying to reclaim her life. In comparison, A Walk in the Woods is a comic ramble by two curmudgeons who in real life would be lucky to make it up the first slope.

My guilty admission is that I much preferred watching the old-timers stumbling around in the woods, instead of one woman’s march towards self-actualisation. A Walk in the Woods is devoid of overheated introspection and flashbacks, although there isn’t much more to the story than a series of mildly funny episodes on the long trek from Georgia to wherever.

Director, Ken Kwapis, follows Bryson’s tale with reasonable accuracy, allowing for the usual embellishments, additions and condensations. He leaves out the historical profile of the AT, and the author’s anthologies of interesting facts. What remains is a script with a propensity to plunge into storylines that simply fizzle out. Kristen Schaal makes a brief but memorable appearance as Mary Ellen, a loudmouth hiker who attaches herself to Bryson and Katz early in the walk. Mary Steenburgen appears for about two minutes in the role of an inn-keeper who has a mild flirtation with Bryson.

The episodic style of the narrative may be an attempt to capture the fleeting nature of human contacts that occur along the trail, with the overwhelming priority being the need to keep pushing on. On the other hand, it may reflect the scriptwriters’ difficulty in making dramatic sense of the author’s conversational approach.

One of Bryson’s repeated themes is the disappearance of the distinctive fauna and flora of the American wilderness, partly as a result of the destructive mismanagement practised by the National Park Service. None of this makes it into the movie.

A Walk in the Woods is ultimately an unambitious film that will draw most of its audience from the ranks of Bill Bryson’s loyal readers, and those attracted by the star appeal of Redford and Nolte. It’s mildly amusing and always watchable, but doesn’t begin to capture the sheer agony that the Appalachian Trail represents to everyone who attempts this epic hike. By all accounts it is a life-changing experience, which is more than one could say about the movie.

A Walk in the Woods
Directed by Ken Kwapis
Written by Rick Kerb & William Holderman, after the book by Bill Bryson
Starring Robert Redford, Nick Nolte, Emma Thompson, Kristen Schaal, Mary Steenburgen
USA, rated M, 104 mins

Published in the Australian Financial Review, Saturday 5th September, 2015.