When Bill Bryson’s humorous memoir of his abortive attempt to through-hike the Appalachian Trail, A Walk in the Woods, came out in 1998, it was one of those books that nearly everybody you knew was reading and praising. It was short, funny and accessible, but also thoughtfully addressed some important issues about the relentless destruction of what remains of the Eastern wilderness – not to mention quaint small-town and roadside Americana.
Bryson is a fine, droll storyteller, and much of his written humor derives from encounters along the way (probably exaggerated for his yarn) with “colorful” – read: annoying, scary or ridiculous – characters. The discomforts and downright dangers of rough hiking without adequate preparation are treated on the page with equal shares of rueful seriousness and a retrospective sense of the absurd. But the reader does get the sense that some lessons were learned on the AT, and the book is a serviceable primer on what not to do if you decide to undertake a comparable backwoods challenge.
Ken Kwapis’ new movie version of A Walk in the Woods, alas, is played almost entirely for slapstick laughs, punctuated by the odd jaw-dropping vista now and then to fill what feels like a small-but-obligatory quotient of reverence for the Great Outdoors. There’s an occasional visual juxtaposition of some industrial monstrosity, like a huge hydroelectric plant on the edge of nowhere, but it’s unclear onscreen whether we’re supposed to take it as a serious indictment of unplanned development – such as was quite clear in the book – or merely a historical travelogue of Tennessee Valley Authority sites. Robert Redford, who ably portrays Bryson, has a pretty solid track record of environmentalism, but whatever “message” might initially have attracted him to this project has gotten lost in the sauce of too many rewrites and changes of director.
If the cinematography seems somewhat lackluster, considering the potential of the spectacular Georgia settings, it’s the final version of the screenplay by Rick Kerb and Bill Holderman that truly disappoints. A Walk in the Woods, which started out as a wry, humor-leavened meditation on the loss of wilderness, has been diluted to a one-dimensionally comic buddy movie about two aging, out-of-condition men who set out on one last big adventure together to find out what life is really all about before retirement.
It’s a pity, because those two old guys are played by two true old pros: Nick Nolte as Katz, the overweight, grizzled apparent loser who was the raunchy travel buddy of Bryson’s younger days, is the best thing about the movie. He spins a vivid character from the flimsiest of threads, and he and Redford bring all their acting chops to bear as their cranky, footsore characters spar, trying gamely to wring some sparkling dialogue out of tepid writing. But the humor feels forced and sometimes gimmicky, and the homespun Zen philosophizing about how far one must actually walk in order to claim to have hiked the AT doesn’t transcend the moralizing level of a Disney cartoon.
The rest of the cast is similarly well-chosen but poorly used. Emma Thompson’s considerable talents go to waste as Bryson’s wife, written as a cardboard worrywart who nags him about the perils of his quest. A better fit, mainly because her part is smaller and her lines fewer, is Mary Steenburgen as the lonely, frazzled, stoic heir to a family motel business who is trying to run it all singlehandedly. She brings her trademark combo of twinkly/upbeat and wistful/resigned to her brief scenes with Redford, sizing up Bryson as a potential partner and discarding any hopes of winning him in a deft facial expression or two. Also good in her few scenes is Kristen Schaal as Mary Ellen, the gonzo accidental hiking companion who drives Bryson and Katz mad with her nitpicking superiority before they manage to ditch her.
Though Mary Ellen’s know-it-all pronouncements are often wrongheaded, the two old duffers do manage to bungle a lot of backpacking basics. Unfortunately the screenwriters seem not to have learned much on such subjects from the book (or from personal experience), as their treatment of the potential pitfalls of the trail is lamentably amateurish, sacrificing regrettable incidents that would be familiar to any semi-serious hiker in favor of cheap goofball scenarios. For instance, the duo have been on the trail for months before a bear mangles their food supply; that would’ve happened much sooner to anyone who didn’t know up front that you have to hang your food bag way out of animals’ reach every night.
Is that being too nitpicky? Maybe. But it would’ve been nice if the transformation of A Walk in the Woods from page to screen had preserved the tongue-in-cheek, sadder-but-wiser tone of the original, rather than going for the lowest-common-denominator belly laugh. It’s a slight and forgettable film, salvaged only – to some small degree – by the talents of its two stars. A walk in the real woods, surrounded by the glory of a Hudson Valley autumn, would be a far more rewarding investment of your time.