It’s a while since I read Bill Bryson’s brilliant and hilarious book A Walk in the Woods (first published in 1998). I was a little worried that the film would feel rather flat compared to the book. It turns out that I was right to anticipate this. The film is worth watching – the music is lovely, the scenery is wonderful, the actors are likeable – and it has a surprisingly warm-hearted tone. However, the wordy sardonic humour (which is Bryson’s trademark) was mostly missing. Some narration from the book would have been effective here. The film has been turned into a commentary on the joys of friendship and the importance of appreciating what you’ve got. The character of Bryson was significantly aged, as in the book he’s in his forties, while the wonderful Robert Redford was (I think) nearly 80 at the time he played this role. So the film becomes a meditation on ageing too.
The general outline of the plot is similar. Travel writer Bill Bryson gets itchy feet and decides to hike the Appalachian Trail, despite his wife being unhappy about it and everyone basically saying he’s nuts to attempt it. None of his friends want to accompany him on the walk, but then an old acquaintance, the foul-mouthed Stephen Katz, asks to come along. The two men have different temperaments and get on each other’s nerves. They meet various annoying people and have silly mishaps on the way. Will they finish the Trail? Will they even survive without being eaten by bears?
The incidents of the book are moulded into a feature-length story in this instance. Another change is the character of Stephen Katz, who is not nearly as irritating and foolish as his book counterpart. He is presented as a character to sympathise with. Bryson’s books are packed full of fascinating facts and musings but there were few of these in evidence in this film. I admit it would be weird to shoehorn in all these facts. That would make it more of a documentary. Maybe this book just doesn’t translate to screen that well and had to be altered to be more of a conventional film.
I liked it but I was expecting to laugh more.
Low-resolution image sourced from Wikipedia.