Sep 032015


Based on Bill Bryson’s 1988 book of the same name, A Walk in the Woods follows Bryson and friend Stephen Katz as they attempt to walk the Appalachian Trial, a 3500km hiking trail which runs from Georgia to Maine in the USA. While this may sound like a peaceful, yet challenging venture, a whole lot more than just walking went down. Grizzly bears, snowstorms, angry husbands and precarious cliffside adventures. My review after the jump.

Bill Bryson (played in the film by Robert Redford) is a renowned author, who became well-known due to his travel writing. He returned to live in his home country of America some 10 years earlier, but had yet to write a book about the country or explore it in any great depth. After returning from the funeral of an acquaintance, Bryson, in a pensive mood, takes a walk and stumbles across a section of the Appalachian Trial, which passes nearby his house. He decides that walking the trial is something he wants to do, much to his wife’s (Emma Thompson) concern; and she stipulates he can only attempt the trail if he isn’t alone. Bryson searches for a friend to take, eventually being contacted by former friend Stephen Katz (Nick Nolte, surprisingly good here), who wants to do the hike. Katz appears unfit and the two haven’t been in contact for years, but as Bryson is out of options he accepts Katz’s offer to walk the trail with him.

Films which are adapted from books should be judged as films in their own right, but when one has adapted a beloved book (well, beloved to me anyway) so poorly, it’s simply impossible to do so. The book “A Walk in the Woods” is a funny, deeply personal book about Bryson searching for a way to identify and connect with his American roots. The motivation for the trip is quite clear in the book, and therefore you’re more invested in their journey. With the film, Bryson’s reasons were less apparent. It felt more out of boredom, and a sort of ‘cease the day’ mentality, than any deep need to seek identity and connection.

Inserting facts about the local flora, fauna and region is a common trait of Bryson’s books. He can be telling an amusing anecdote or talking about the trip ahead, before slipping in a paragraph about a rare flower, or an early settler who lived on the land. This works in print, but it didn’t work in the film. It came across as Bryson being a know-it-all, spouting off random facts just because he could. I’m not sure if it didn’t work because of Redford’s dry, sarcastic delivery, or the fact that in written form Bryson is speaking directly to the reader. The screenwriters seemed to just lift facts from the book and insert them at random intervals.

A Walk in the Woods also has a rather nasty undertone which is decidedly anti-women. Katz’s character spends much of the journey talking about his sexual conquests. At one point the men go off the trial to use the launderette and Katz has a really sleazy interaction with a woman there. It’s so grimy and sits so awkwardly in the film. Katz also goes on and on about Bryson being faithful to his wife for so many years and actively encourages him to cheat with a rural motel owner. Ugh. The only women who have more than a couple of minutes on-screen are Emma Thompson as Bryson’s wife, who is seen as a wet blanket and nag; and Kristen Schaal, who plays a neurotic, annoying hiker, much in the same vein as her characters from Flight of the Conchords and The Last Man on Earth.

The film is pretty to look at, there’s a few decent chuckles, and Nick Nolte is rather good (even though his character is awful), but I can’t recommend this film. And just a warning – if you’re going to see this for Nick Offerman, he has a 3 minute cameo, it’s not even a real part. Just read the book and look at photos of the trail, I guarantee you it will be a far more satisfying experience than watching this film.

By Sam McCosh

The Facts

Director: Ken Kwapis
Writer(s): Michael Arndt & Bill Holderman (screenplay)
Starring: Robert Redford, Nick Nolte, Emma Thompson, Nick Offerman
Runtime: 104 minutes
Release date(s): Australia: September 3 2015