If you’re a hiker, you’re guaranteed to find something to like in “A Walk in the Woods,” the movie adapted from Bill Bryson’s wonderfully comic book.
The question is: How much is there to like about the Hollywood hike on the Appalachian Trail?
I sure liked the book (published in 1998) a narrative by Bill Bryson (played by Robert Redford) about his AT hike with cantankerous old friend, inveterate womanizer and recovering alcoholic Stephen Katz (a pseudonymous character played by Nick Nolte) when they were both 44. Bryson’s story about the trail are engaging—particularly the asides on flora, trails, the National Park Service and wildlife (especially bears).
While age isn’t everything, a written narrative about two guys going a little bit middle-age crazy on a long hike is very different from the film story of two guys in their seventies hitting the trail—one assumes for a last hiking hurrah before passing gently into the night.
However, if you admire Robert Redford (79 at the film’s release) and Nick Nolte (74) you’ll probably enjoy this slow-motion meander along this trail with these two crusty hikers. Nostalgia. With two master craftsmen at work.
There are some amusing scenes such as when the two awake in the middle of the night and must confront a pair of bears eating their food that they failed to properly store. The face-off between roaring bears and roaring men is one of the film’s funniest moments.
Another fun moment occurs when Bryson and Katz, as they call each other, must ditch Mary Ellen (Kristen Schaal), a non-stop talking know-it-all hiker with all the charm of poison ivy. The other women in the film don’t have a whole lot to do: Mary Steenburgen as a roadside motel proprietress who makes a move on Bryson and Emma Thompson, as Catherine, Bryson’s British wife who thinks he’s bonkers for taking this hike.
I have a weakness for buddy films, even if the narrative wanders and the story doesn’t have a strong beginning, middle or end. And I probably overlooked what a lot of moviegoers won’t: profanity and scatological humor that’s too much even for out-of-shape hikers.
My biggest disappointment in the movie was the cinematic portrayal of the Appalachian Trail. For me the movie lacked enough beauty shots and a sufficient variety of scenery for a trail that extends more than 2,000 miles from Georgia to Maine. The “Isn’t Nature Grand?” showpiece shots were awkwardly integrated into the narrative and then, to our annoyance are repeated like a highlight reel in the closing credits.
I give Robert Redford a tip of the hiker’s cap and three cheers for bringing “A Walk in the Woods” to the screen. But Bill Bryson’s writing does what Ken Kwapis’s filmmaking can’t do, which is to take you on memorable hike and really make you care about hikers and hiking, the natural world and our relationship to it.