Monday, June 06, 2016

Movie Monday: A Walk in the Woods

Last week, with most of our favorite TV shows finished with their winter or spring seasons and summer TV shows not yet started, my husband and I decided to watch a movie one night. We chose from among the free movie options on Amazon Prime and settled on A Walk in the Woods, a movie based on Bill Bryson's hilarious memoir of walking the Appalachian Trail with a friend. We had both loved the book and also used to be avid backpackers ourselves. It turns out that those two things kept us from really loving this movie. It was light and pleasant but not much more.

In the movie, Robert Redford plays Bill Bryson (a real-life famous author whose memoirs and nonfiction books are often hilarious and always informative). The movie departs from the book in quite a few ways, so I will focus on the movie's plot here. Faced with aging and attending a friend's funeral, Bill decides to walk the entire Appalachian Trail. His wife, played by Emma Thompson, is not at all happy with his decision and is concerned about his safety, but he can't be dissuaded. He calls every friend he can think of, old and new, to find someone to accompany him, but most of them think he's crazy and have no desire to join his ill-conceived mission. One friend, though, does respond: Stephen Katz, a childhood friend from Iowa, who has had the opposite life that Bill's had, filled with trouble with alcoholism and the law, and never leaving their hometown. Katz is played by Nick Nolte, who is - by far - the highlight of the movie.

So, the two old friends (and I do mean OLD) fly to Georgia and set off on the AT. They hike along, meeting other hikers, encountering a few minor problems, with plenty of beautiful montages of scenes along the AT and some adventures off the trail as well.

I think this movie would probably be far more enjoyable if you have NOT read Bryson's book and if you have no experience of backpacking yourself. For us, the departures from the book made no sense and the two characters' experiences were so far off from reality as to be distracting. For starters, Bryson was in his 40's when he tried hiking the AT, not his 70's. I read that this was Redford's project, though, so obviously, he couldn't play the lead if it were a guy in his 40's. The part that really didn't make sense to us was that the funniest parts of the book don't appear in the movie - all the trouble and challenges Bryson and Katz encountered in trying to hike 10-12 miles a day with heavy packs with absolutely no experience and no preparation at all. In the book and in the movie, Katz was especially out of shape, so this led to some hilarious passages in the book (all told in Bryson's exaggerating style). In the movie, they just jumped right into hiking 10 miles a day carrying packs (which weren't nearly big enough for long-distance backpacking) with very few problems - two out-of-shape men in their 70's! OK, I'm done with with the rant.

So, why is this movie still enjoyable and not a total disaster? Because of Nick Nolte. He's always been a favorite actor of mine, and he does his thing here - acting like the gruff but lovable guy who's always getting into trouble. All of the laughs in the movie are his, and it's fun, as always, to watch him. Overall, the movie (much like the severely airbrushed photo on its cover!) is light and shallow, with a few thoughtful moments toward the end. It has some funny moments but is lacking in the kind of belly laughs induced by the book it is based on. It was a pleasant hour and 45 minutes with a few laughs, but I'm glad it was free! It actually had decent user ratings on Amazon and Redbox, so perhaps we were biased from our own experiences and enjoying the book so much.

A Walk in the Woods is available for streaming free on Amazon Prime and is available on DVD through both Netflix and Redbox.

If you are interested in reading some of Bryson's books, A Walk in the Woods is very funny and definitely recommended, but my favorite of his is The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid, about his childhood in the 50's in Iowa.


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