A Walk in the Woods (2015)

(On Cable TV, June 2017) Adapting a novel to the big screen is tough enough, but adapting a non-fiction book as a movie seems even tougher—it’s about jettisoning the informative material and building up the story, even if it means adding more to it. Bill Bryson’s A Walk in the Wood (which I read between seeing the movie and writing this capsule review) is a compulsively readable account of a forty-something man’s attempt to walk the Appalachian Trail, occasionally alongside an old friend who’s even less in shape than he is. In doing so, Bryson gets to talk about the state of American natural preserves, the environmental collapse of some tree species, the nature of the Appalachian trail, what kind of person voluntarily hikes 3000 miles in a few months, and assorted topics that come to mind while walking a few miles every day for weeks on end. The film elides the details, although a surprising amount of top-level information still finds its way in the dramatization. As a movie, A Walk in the Woods wisely focuses on the difficult relationship between the two hikers, and the various incidents that can take place along the trail. Much of the film’s first half sticks impressively close to the book—but both diverge later on as the book itself becomes less storyable and the film feels the need to build everything to a dramatic conclusion. Robert Redford is very likable as Bryson, given his weathered features and sympathetic persona. Playing opposite him, Jeff Bridges makes for a capable foil as “Stephen Katz”, an out-of-shape screw-up who tags along for the hike. A few name actors pop up in amusing small roles (Emma Thompson as an understanding wife, Kirsten Shaal as an intolerable hiker, Nick Offerman as a hiking gear salesman) but the focus here is on Redford, Bridges and the trail itself. The dramatic climax doesn’t quite work (it feels shot in a studio, far too engineered to feel natural, and on-the-nose as to what the characters learn from it) but the rest of the film has a warm feel to it—kind of an extraordinary adventure achievable by ordinary people. Some of the scenery is spectacular enough to kindle a diffuse desire to walk the trail, but in this case please do read the book—better than vicarious adventure, it’s detailed enough to make anyone reconsider ever walking the Appalachian Trail.

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