A Walk in the Woods: A Thru-Hiker’s Movie Review

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The view from the Chestnut Knob on the Appalachian Trail in Virginia.

I was cautiously optimistic as I walked into the theater with my mom and dad to watch A Walk in the Woods… the trailer looked good, the cast sounded awesome, and I believed that there was plenty of comedic gold in Bryson’s book for the screen-writers to work their magic with… My optimism didn’t last long… The movie lacked coherency, character development, and to my surprise, it even managed to dilute the parts of the book that I thought were funny, and highlighted the parts that I thought were awful… I didn’t love the book, but I’d recommend it over the movie any day!

  • Title: A Walk in the Woods
  • Release Date: September 2, 2015
  • Duration: 104 minutes, rated “R”
  • Starring: Robert Redford, Nick Nolte, and Emma Thompson
  • Producer: Robert Redford, Director: Ken Kwapis
  • Screenplay: Rick Kerb and Bill Holderman
  • Bechdel Test: 1/3

The Good: Emma Thompson did a great job setting the scene. The chemistry between Thompson and Redford at the beginning of the movie felt believable and provided the context for Redford’s character, Bryson, to be 70 instead of the 40-something he was in the book. As expected, the moment Nick Nolte came on screen, he stole the show… His character, Katz, was well-written (actually had a character arc) and Nolte did a good job playing the part. He was believable, he was funny, and I completely agree with the folks that suggested he was the one good part of the movie. Although some of his jokes were offensive, and not all of them hit the mark, by the end of the movie I couldn’t help but love Katz… His character felt like a refreshing breeze of honesty flowing through the muck and mire of the rest of movie.

The Bad: Despite getting off to a good start and having a scattering of funny moments throughout, the movie felt very disjointed. The introductory segments felt like they had been thrown in as an afterthought to try to explain why Redford seemed so old and senile during the rest of the film.  As soon as Bryson (Redford’s character) and Katz (Nolte’s character) hit the trail, the screenwriter from the intro must have taken a hike too, and a different, less skilled writer, must have taken up the reins… Sure, most of the comedic moments later in the movie came straight out of the book and would apply to people whether they were 40 or 70, but there weren’t any obvious tie-ins to the intro scenes, and many of the scenes felt like they were slapped together without meaningful transitions… After Bryson and Katz reached the summit of Springer Mountain, the movie started to unmistakably go downhill.

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Pushing myself to get over my fear of heights and sit on the edge of McAffee Knob on the Appalachian Trail in Virginia.

Although I didn’t expect A Walk in the Woods to be a movie about the trail, I had hoped to see a lot of beautiful shots of the Appalachian Trail (or at least Appalachian Mountain scenery). I was disappointed there too; they only showed two great sweeping shots from the Appalachian Trail: one from McAffee Knob, Virginia and one from what looked like Carvers Gap, North Carolina/Tennessee… The shots seemed like they were both taken by drones, and little to no effort was made to integrate them into the flow of the movie… Perhaps they were intentionally making the beauty of the AT feel detached from the characters that were hiking it? When they did eventually decide to immerse the characters in the scenery, it was so obviously a sound-stage that it was painful!

The Ugly: The movie removed some of the funniest scenes and mishaps from the book, the ones that resulted from Bryson and Katz’s ignorance about the trail and the inevitably steep learning curve that was thrust upon them as a result. Instead, the movie focused on the caustic and arrogant side of Bryson’s humor… This meant that most of the humor ended up relying on unsophisticated fat-shaming, class-shaming, and slut-shaming jokes… Comedy that’s really hard for a thin middle-class white-guy to pull-off successfully… In this, I thought that they sold Bill Bryson short. Though the comedy in the book was largely based on Bryson’s arrogance, ignorance, and negativity, it felt like it was handled in a more sophisticated and well-balanced way…

My general advice is to walk into this movie with very low expectations… That way if it exceeds them you’ll be pleasantly surprised, and if it doesn’t you won’t have lost anything more than 104 minutes of your life and the price of admission. On IMDB, A Walk in the Woods is listed as an adventure/comedy/drama movie. Roughly divided by genre, here are some of my thoughts about the movie…

Comedy/Buddy Movie (5/10):

  • A Walk in the Woods is primarily a comedy that I would put in the buddy movie sub-genre.
  • The central struggle or theme of the movie seems to be the friendship/relationship between Bryson and Katz. Though at times their dynamic is undeniably funny, the chemistry between Robert Redford and Nick Nolte never quite clicks. Despite the fact that Katz (Nolte’s character) is given more depth as the movie progresses, Bryson’s character remains aloof and seemingly unchanged… Does the friendship between Bryson and Katz evolve over the course of the movie? It seemed a stretch to me, but maybe that’s at least in part because they were trying to stretch the first part of Bryson’s book into a full-length feature film?
  • Do: watch the movie if you love Nick Nolte and want to watch him sneak in some funny lines.
  • Do: watch this movie if you’re looking for a comedy and don’t care about character development or plot.
  • Do: expect a lot of scenes with Robert Redford and Nick Nolte in the woods.
  • Don’t: watch the movie if you expect your buddy movies to include the development of characters, relationships, or plots.
  • Don’t: watch this movie if you are offended by humor derived from fat-shaming, slut-shaming, or class-shaming.
  • Don’t: buy any of the gear shown in the movie for your Appalachian Trail thru-hike.

Action-Adventure/Road Trip Movie (3/10):

  • A Walk in the Woods is not an action-adventure movie, although it does in part fall into the road trip movie sub-genre.
  • Based on the book and the trailer, I expected A Walk in the Woods to have a central struggle that involved traveling, and a progression/resolution that demonstrated a change in Bryson’s perspective on his everyday life and interactions… While it is true that Bryson did travel, it wasn’t clear to me that his perspective on anything changed…
  • Do: watch the trailer and consider skipping the movie… all the best parts are in the trailer!
  • Do: watch this movie if you are a Bill Bryson fan and want to let me know what you thought of the movie… I expect that you’ll like it.
  • Don’t: watch this movie expecting Bryson and Katz to go on a road-trip from Georgia to Maine.
  • Don’t: expect this movie to show realistic depictions of hikers or the Appalachian Trail
  • Don’t: watch A Walk in the Woods if you’re looking for an action/adventure movie… You’ll be bored out of your mind.
  • Don’t: expect the movie’s tagline, “When you push yourself to the edge, the real fun begins,” to have anything to do with the movie… the characters don’t push themselves to the edge of anything (stumble maybe, push, no), and they don’t ever seem to have any fun (except at other people’s expense).

Drama/Coming-of-Age Movie (2/10):

  • Despite the introductory scenes that suggest the central struggle of the movie might involve Bryson dealing with the challenges of finding his place in the world as he deals with aging and retirement, the movie abandons those themes as soon as Bryson hits the trail.
  • Do: Enjoy the funny bits in the beginning between Emma Thompson and Robert Redford.
  • Do: Enjoy Nick Nolte’s performance.
  • Don’t: Expect the movie to have any character development or to deal with themes of retirement and aging outside of the first 15 minutes of the film.

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I was actually surprised that I disliked the movie as much as I did… I suspected that it might not be 100% my type of movie, and that I might not love it, but I thought that it would be good for what it was… After watching the movie I’m not convinced… It didn’t quite have the dynamic, acting, or scriptwriting it would have needed to be a great comedy, and I thought that that was it’s best genre…

In terms of my reactions to the hiking component… Well, it was laughable, but not in a good way… How is it that Bryson and Katz never seemed to get dirty? or sweaty? Did they consult with anyone about what modern (or period) hikers wear or look like? Did they consider making the packs weigh more than 5 lbs so they’d look believable? From a hikers stand-point there were too many errors and inconsistencies to keep track of, but if you’re curious about some of my more detailed impressions of the movie, read the spoilers section below…

Look out, spoilers below (though I’m not sure there’s anything *I* could do to spoil the movie, the screenwriters did a good enough job of that without any of my help).

(begin spoiler alert) “Wow, Robert Redford looks really old!” was my first thought as the film started, and a host of unforgivingly bright lights focused on Robert Redford’s face. It’s not like I expected him to look young, but… I thought Bryson was supposed to be in his 40s in the book… As the opening sequences continued it became clear that instead of being a mid-life crisis road-trip/buddy style movie, this was going to a retirement crisis road-trip/buddy movie… The official movie trailer had sort of prepared me for that, but wow, they must have photoshopped the heck out of all the movie posters and magazine articles that talked about the movie, and they must have chosen the timing and angles of the shots in the official trailer very carefully… “Well, show biz,” I thought and shrugged, still hopeful, “let’s see what they do with it!”

(continue spoiler alert) In the first part of the movie the dynamic between Robert Redford and Emma Thompson was believable, and the dialog was more comic and witty than not… So I was still on-board with the movie especially when the screenwriter worked in a line letting us know that Redford (now 79) was playing a 70 year old Bryson, instead of the 44 year old Bryson in the book… My hope that a good screenwriter could make a great movie out of the book seemed justified!!

(continue spoiler alert) As the movie progressed the story arc started throwing in nods to hiking, and I started getting really confused…was Bryson shopping at an REI… Wait?! What?! Where would he have found an REI in New England in 1994… Sure, it was possible… He could have driven almost 90 miles to the REI in Redding, Massachusetts (which is still the closest REI to where Bryson lived), but REI was mostly a West Coast chain… In the ’90s and ’00s, people in New England either went to local outdoor stores (that’s what Bryson did in the book), or they went to EMS (Eastern Mountain Sports, which currently has a store 5 miles away from where Bryson lived). It was a noticeable, but trivial point… I figured that they were using some literary license and framing the movie as happening now, instead of in 1994, that was fine… But then they started talking about gear, and even though they were filming in an obviously modern store, they were talking about the equipment using antiquated terms, sizes and weights. In the movie Bryson ends up carrying an 85L Osprey pack (in the book it was a Gregory pack), which is huge by 2015 standards… There’s no way a modern REI employee would recommend an 85L pack, but in 1994 that size was pretty much standard… So, which was it, 1994, or 2015? I was never quite sure… Maybe 2015?

(continue spoiler alert) “Ugh,” I thought, “I hope people don’t get the impression that this is what people hike with nowadays!” But even though I was confused, I knew it was a minor point… If there was anything I learned on the trail, it was to be flexible and go with the flow… Besides, the movie was just getting started… They didn’t have to have the right gear for the movie to be an awesome retirement crisis/buddy movie… And Katz (played by Nick Nolte) still hadn’t come on scene yet… I thought the best of the comedy was yet to come!! I was wrong… When Nolte first came on screen, I was hesitant and unsure… The comedy felt a little stilted and awkward… Perhaps the fat-shaming had too much reality and not enough comedy to it, or maybe the dynamic between Nick Nolte and Robert Redford just wasn’t doing it for me… Nick Nolte definitely had some funny lines though, and he was holding up his end of the bargain.

(continue spoiler alert) “Ugh,” I groaned again, watching the scene at the restaurant in Amicalola Falls unfold… Did they really just do that? Say that? It was hard to see the comment about the waitress and Katz standards for women as anything other than downright offensive… “At least the scriptwriters didn’t seem be having any trouble translating Bryson’s contempt for other people to the screen,” I mumbled… It made me forget for a moment that the scenery outside the lodge was all wrong for March at Springer Mountain (I got there in May, and didn’t see anything approaching the lushness of foliage they were showing)… The poster inside the lodge for the Appalachian Trail “Kick-Off”(ATKO), cinched it… ATKO didn’t exist in 1994, so the movie must be set in 2015 (probably).

(continue spoiler alert) As Bryson and Katz began climbing Springer Mountain, I found myself laughing at the relatable image of everyone zooming by Katz and Bryson, including the troop of scouts. I had been overweight and out-of-shape when I started the AT, and the scenes depicting the first 1/4 mile of their journey resonated with me and kept me laughing and feeling fairly positive about the movie. There were a few nit-picky things about the scenery being wrong, but the writing and scene transitions seemed decent enough…But, as my dad always used to say, “sh** runs downhill,” and that’s exactly what happened to the movie as Bryson and Katz headed down Springer and onto the Appalachian Trail proper… From the “How to sh** in the woods” scene all the way to the final credits, it was hard to come up with positive things to say about the movie….

(continue spoiler alert) Sure, I was glad that they showed Bryson digging a proper cat-hole for his poop (6-8 inches deep, and 4-6 inches wide), but he was doing it within sight of the camping area!!! There was no way he was the requisite 200 feet from the trail, it looked more like 20 feet to me! I sighed and reminded myself that the movie was a buddy movie and not a hiking tutorial, and tried to withhold judgment… But by the time the next scene hit the screen my hopes that I’d find the movie enjoyable were diminishing…

(continue spoiler alert) “Hmrph…” I thought as Bryson and Katz interacted with Mary Ellen… Well, I guess they did a good job of portraying her as really irritating… She is the one and only female hiker portrayed in the film and she reminded me of a lot of the negative stereotypes that people have about women on the trail, and the dreaded “Wild Effect”-the fear that irritating, incompetent women would be hitting the trail in droves after the movie Wild came out… Was it funny enough to make up for reinforcing the stereotype? I didn’t think so… Have we all met irritating know-it-all’s on the trail and tried to avoid them? Yes… and it’s definitely true that figuring out how to get away from them can be a real challenge, but… I sighed and tried to muster positive feeling about the movie… “I suppose that means there’s at least one female character in the movie that isn’t a sex object, and that’s good, right?”

(continue spoiler alert) As the movie continued I discovered that the scenes from the book that I thought were funny had mostly been cut, and the comedy that I found offensive, the comedy at the expense of women and southerners, remained… It started to become hard to find good things in the movie to focus on, and easy to focus on the unrealistic interactions with other hikers and the trail… How come they never seemed to get dirty? How come their packs looked like they weighed less than 5? How come they never took their trekking poles out of their packs on the rugged terrain? Wait, a southbound hiker in Georgia in March that looked really buff?! So wrong, in so many ways… Thru-hikers don’t look muscular and buff like that, especially not if they’re finishing in Georgia in March… That would mean they’d started in November and winter-hiked the trail! Possible, but unlikely…

(continue spoiler alert) The number of funny bits in the movie steadily dwindled and my focus strayed… “How long is this movie?” I wondered as I realized that the movie hadn’t even come close to covering the material in the first half of the book yet… I tuned back into the movie as a bunch of scenery and cliff that I didn’t recognize from my hike hit the screen… “Wait,” I thought, “I’ve hiked the entire AT and the trail doesn’t have anything that looks even remotely like that!” Sure, the Pacific Crest Trail would run you along the edge of cliffs like that all the time, and it’s possible to find terrain like that on the East Coast in places like the Knife’s Edge on Katahdin, but on the AT? In Virginia? Nope… Never! It was also weird because I just finished reading that section of the book, and I didn’t remember them tumbling from a cliff in Virginia… “Hmmm….”

(continue spoiler alert) “Really?!” I thought, as the scene continued on a poorly matched sound-stage… so much beautiful and epic scenery on the AT, and this is what they ended up with? I don’t know what the movie’s budget was, but it was clearly less than I thought… I watched as they tried to get out of their newest predicament… There was definitely humor in it, but the more serious side clearly focused on the character development of Katz, and didn’t do much with Bryson (also the close-ups of their faces that were now supposed to be dirty and/or tan was confusing)… and then… and then the movie ended!

(continue spoiler alert) The movie ended with them getting rescued and deciding that the trail wasn’t for them, so they just headed home, which is what most novice hikers attempting a thru-hike end up doing, but not exactly what happened in the book… I watched the credits with disbelief and a strange sense of awe… They’d left the road trip out of the road trip movie! In the book Bryson and Katz had decided to take a car and do a highlights tour of the trail, but in the movie they’d self-righteously decided to keep hiking instead of driving… In the book, it was clear that Bryson’s motivation for hiking was to write a book about it, while in the movie he vehemently denied it, and tried to frame it as a noble journey of self-discovery or something…

(continue spoiler alert) One of my criticisms of the book was that it hadn’t felt honest to me, it had felt like Bryson was deluding himself and us with him… The movie felt like it was trying to make Bryson a more honest and approachable character, but ended up mashing everything up and feeling even less honest… When the credits finally rolled, I thought they were the best part of the movie… Finally we were getting to see the epic scenery of the Appalachian Trail, and we were getting to see it without interruptions from the constant prattling of poorly scripted dialog.

(end spoiler alert)

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Coming up next: 7 Movies to Watch Instead of ‘A Walk in the Woods’

Links to other reviews of the movie: ‘A Walk in the Woods’

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10 thoughts on “A Walk in the Woods: A Thru-Hiker’s Movie Review

  1. Grizzlies in Virginia? Yikes. I’ll have to re-evaluate my gear for my late-in-life-crisis thru hike in 2017. I may show up in Georgia next April just to hang out and scoop up all the discarded gear the swarm of movie inspired hikers discard. And that was one of the funniest parts of the book they left out. The great “pack weight throw away” Katz performed on the first day. Oh well. I don’t know how much they paid the screenwriter and the director but the producers should get a refund. Yet, what little of the trail they did show was glorious and reason enough to keep me on track for April, 2017.

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  2. Pingback: 7 Movies to Watch Instead of ‘A Walk in the Woods’ | Patches Thru

  3. Pingback: A Walk in the Woods- Don’t Judge a Book By It’s Cover: A Thru-Hikers Book Review… | Patches Thru

  4. Great review. .. thoughtful and insightful. I’m not a fan of the book either. But was planning on seeing the movie because, well, it’s about hiking, so hell yes! Now I’m thinking, what a waste. Im already bothered by the casting and the age gap as it is. Guess I’ll watch Mile and a Half again.

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  5. Yes, the movie is flawed (and you pointed out how so very well) but I did laugh out loud in several places. If you can try really hard to suspend disbelief, there are some redeeming laughs in the movie. I’m glad I saw it. I did think it was WAY too short and left too much out and it was obvious that they weren’t real hikers…and my hiker friend and I had a good time ripping it apart after we saw it…but I’m still glad I saw it.

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    • There were definitely some laugh out loud moments and some scenes that I really enjoyed… It was obvious that they weren’t real hikers, but after reading the book I didn’t really expect them to be… I think it just stretched my willing suspension of disbelief a little too far in too many places for me to fully appreciate it… I could definitely imagine getting some hiker friends together, watching it, and having a good time ripping it apart afterwards.

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  6. It is a shame that you could not just look at the movie and enjoy the laughs without feeling the need to rip it apart. It was not an authenic “hiking” movie, it was just a funny situational movie. Will not be up for an acadamy award. My group found ourselves enjoying Redford and Nolte and the funny lines. Yes it could have been better but it was good to just laugh without thinking we were lowering our standards. :)

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    • I doubt she’s criticizing you.

      Honestly, I felt the same as she did. I read the book before I ever thought about an AT hike and one I started researching my hike for 2010 I realized the book was a bit stretched. And now post two thru-hikes (AT ’10, FT ’11), the movie was incredibly difficult to watch. I went with a bunch of non-hikers, people who don’t know much about the AT and they all loved it. I think if one knows enough about a subject it becomes difficult to see things taken with too much liberty and not portrayed accurately.

      ‘Wild’ wasn’t about a thru-hike but it spoke more truths on hiking than AWITW did.

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    • I doubt she’s criticizing you.

      Honestly, I felt the same as she did. I read the book before I ever thought about an AT hike and one I started researching my hike for 2010 I realized the book was a bit stretched. And now post two thru-hikes (AT ’10, FT ’11), the movie was incredibly difficult to watch. I went with a bunch of non-hikers, people who don’t know much about the AT and they all loved it. I think if one knows enough about a subject it becomes difficult to see things taken with too much liberty and not portrayed accurately.

      ‘Wild’ wasn’t about a thru-hike but it spoke more truths on hiking than AWITW did.

      Like

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