When Robert Redford first set himself about adapting Bill Bryson's 1998 memoir A Walk In The Woods , he fully intended that his friend Paul Newman would star alongside him. Newman passed away in 2008, so the film that opens this weekend has been in some stage of development for several years. Bryson's book, about his experience attempting to hike the Appalachian Trail with his overweight and alcoholic buddy Stephen Katz, is a meandering and witty travel tail. Call it the "anti-Wild." Now 17 years old, A Walk In The Woods is still sitting comfortably in Amazon's Top 100 bestsellers, and it's the reigning work in several categories, including "Biographies & Memoirs — Travel & Explorers." Clearly, this book is beloved by its fans, who pay it forward to their friends. So, how accurate is A Walk In The Woods in representing the memoir?
The book itself isn't what one might call "tightly plotted." The structure is loose; rambling conversation and wry observations take precedence over twists and turns to the story. Any screenplay would have a more defined structure. Contemporary movie audiences are programmed to expect certain points of action in a particular order, otherwise they can get lost in the mire. Novelist Richard Russo put time into a draft of the adaptation back in 2012, but the final shooting script and the writing credit belong to Rick Kerb and Bill Holderman. It's the first screenplay credit for both writers.
Woods author Bryson has put his full support behind the film, and of Robert Redford's portrayal of him. In an interview with ABC News Australia, Bryson sidestepped any assumption that the author of the original work might spend the entire adaptation process looking over the filmmakers' shoulders.
It was his company that bought the rights. For me, that was a complete comfort right from the very beginning. Because, you know, Robert Redford just makes intelligent movies.
Emma Thompson plays Bryson's wife Cindy in the movie; she encourages her husband to consider the fact that he and his friend aren't exactly in peak physical condition for such an aggressive hike. The author's actual wife is named Cynthia Billen; like the fictional versions of themselves, the two are long married (40 years!), and Cynthia is as British as her onscreen counterpart.
And what about the real Stephen Katz? Bryson always maintained that Katz was a pseudonym. On the eve of the film's release, USA Today ran a feature interview with the man behind the moniker, Matt Angerer. Now sober and happily married, Angerer has no hard feelings about how he was depicted in his friend's book or by Nolte's amped up portrayal in the film. Still, don't expect to hear his voice anywhere in the movie. Katz remains a mostly fictional creation, reported USA Today.
It's billed as film about two old friends who reconnect after their lives take them in different directions. But nobody, including Nolte, ever called him to ask more about the Katz character.
Unfortunately, mixed reviews indicate that the spirit of Bill Bryson's travel tale didn't survive the transition. In The New York Times, Manohla Dargis mourns the loss:
It’s a pleasurable read and Mr. Bryson’s writing does what [director] Ken Kwapis’s filmmaking can’t do, which is take you on the trail so that you too trudge, struggle and soar while observing flora and fauna and man’s inhumanity to each.
Bill Bryson's book is a firmly established travel and humor classic. Unfortunately, the film version is unlikely to leave that kind of legacy.
Image: Broad Green Pictures