Having written the book on Bill Bryson (literally—for Marshall Cavendish’s Today’s Writers & Their Works series, 2010), I have been looking forward to the film version of A Walk in the Woods (1998) since I first read Bryson’s semifictionalized account of hiking the Appalachian Trail. Robert Redford, who produced the movie and stars as a much-older Bill Bryson (he is 35 years older than the author was at the time Bryson hiked the trail), optioned the rights back in 2005, with the idea of casting Paul Newman in the role of Bryson’s childhood friend, Stephen Katz, who accompanied him on most of the hike. Newman’s death in 2008 prevented the reunion, which is just as well, because the movie would have been very different, and not for the better.
A Walk in the Woods was the expatriate Bryson’s first book to garner a significant American audience. His earlier book on the United States, The Lost Continent: Travels in Small-Town America (1989), was written for a British audience, and Bryson’s jabs at his native land were not so much biting as bitter. (The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid, published in 2006, covers much of the same material, but through the eyes of a more mature writer who has made peace with his roots.) Both the book and the film versions of A Walk in the Woods have increased interest in the Appalachian Trail—a good thing in a nation that values its natural and cultural resources far less than it should.
It hardly matters whether one reads the book first or watches the movie; they are two very different works, and not simply because the plot had to be changed to account for Redford’s age. Anyone who says that Redford does not look his age is simply star-struck—at 79, he could easily pass for 80 or older. There’s a scene where Redford and Nick Nolte (playing Katz), having departed the trail for a few nights in a town, walk across a road. As my father-in-law noted, it requires a suspension of disbelief just to convince oneself that Redford would make it to the other side, much less hike any distance on the Appalachian Trail. Indeed, while Katz is supposed to be the unfit one, I suspect that the rotund and red-faced Nolte would survive longer on the trail than Redford. (While the credits were rolling at our local multiplex, an elderly lady behind me said to her companions, “I wonder how many miles of the trail they actually walked?” My guess is that the distance could be numbered on two hands, or possibly even one; the trail portions were filmed entirely at Amicola Falls State Park in Dawsonville, Georgia, at the southern terminus of the trail.)
Bryson can, on occasion, be ribald, and there are passages in A Walk in the Woods that one might skip while reading it to children (as I did several years ago). But the fact that the film, with some mild sexual humor, no nudity, and no violence, is rated R for a few “F-bombs” speaks volumes about the uselessness of the ratings system.
In the end, my wife and I both enjoyed the movie, though the Emilio Estevez/Martin Sheen production The Way (2010) is a much better film about a man coming to grips with mortality while hiking a trail (in that case, the Camino de Santiago). But whether you like the film or not, read the book, and pick up some of Bryson’s other works as well (especially The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid and A Short History of Nearly Everything).
First published in the November 2015 issue of Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture.