A Walk in the Woods

Jessica Rayner
1st Sep 2015

The movie adaptation of Bill Bryson’s 1998 travel memoir, A Walk in the Woods, feels like a bit more of an uneven amble. While there are some fantastic landscape shots of the American countryside and elements of Bryson’s dry humour, the patchy storytelling and lack of real substance let the reasonably promising film down. 

Reluctant to ‘act his age’ and wanting to prove himself one last time, Bryson, played by Robert Redford, decides to tackle the legendary Appalachian Trail – a 2,200-mile hike from Georgia to Maine. Concerned about how her aging husband will fare on the trail, Bill’s wife, Cathy, played by Emma Thompson, insists that he does not tackle it alone. With his list of potential travel companions deteriorating, Bryson gets a call from his old high school buddy, Stephen Katz, played by the husky Nick Nolte. Wisecracking and larger-than-life but very out of shape, Katz accompanies Bryson into the wilderness where they encounter bears, waterfalls and some questionable characters along the way.

Bryson’s travel stories have been loved by those across the globe and it’s no doubt difficult to capture the liveliness and life in his writing in a film. However, director Ken Kwapis’ forever changing tone makes the film feel very disjointed and almost hints that Kwapis wasn’t entirely sure what he was doing.

Stunning shots of mountainous scenery are followed by moments of almost slapstick comedy that you’d find in an Adam Sandler movie. The most prominent films in Kwapis’ resume, He’s Just Not That Into You and The Sisterhood of the Travelling Pants, are romantic comedies, and it feels as if he resorts back to predictable comedic techniques in fear of the film not being entertaining enough.

However, it was the heart-warming moments that are actually the best. I loved the scenes that shed light on the relationship between Bryson and Katz from anecdotes of their past travels together, to discussing their age. Similarly, Redford delivers some fantastic one-liners straight from Bryson’s book and, contrary to what Kwapis must have felt, these moments of subtle wittiness were more than enough comic relief for the film.

Similarly, the natural beauty of the trail was captured in some fantastic wide-lense and drone shots. For a story which involves a lot of walking, it's a relief that the film wasn’t broken down into various montages and that some substantial screen time was given to the actual views and landscapes.

Despite this, another key point that stayed with me was the portrayal of women in the film. Thompson’s character comes across as a bit of a nag, especially when her voice is dubbed over Bryson reading information about how dangerous the Appalachian trail is. It seems her entire role is to worry about Bryson and sit at home awaiting his return, a total waste for the fabulous actress that Thompson is. The other female characters in the movie are over-exaggerated caricatures, for example the overly obnoxious, ‘know-it-all’ hiker played by Kristen Schaal.

While the film has moments of beauty and does sometimes play true to the writings and spirit of Bill Bryson, it is a bit of a botched effort. The restlessly changing tone and uneven storytelling really disrupt the entire film and a great cast isn't put to best use. If you’re a huge Bryson fan, it is worth a watch as I’m sure you’ll enjoy a story that you’re familiar with. Otherwise, it might be worth waiting until it’s on DVD or Netflix and save it for a Sunday afternoon.

A Walk in the Woods opens in Australian cinemas on Thursday September 3.