Review: Bryson’s long ‘Walk,’ this time on screen

A Walk in the Woods
Actors: Robert Redford, Nick Nolte
Director:  Ken Kwapis
Writer: Bill Bryson
Rating: R (mostly for language and some sexual content)
Theaters: Park West 14, Regal Cinemas Crossroads 20 & IMAX, Frank Theatres: Parkside Town Commons Stadium 11 & Xtreme, Regal Cinemas North Hills 14, Six Forks Cinema, AMC Southpoint 17, Regal Cinemas White Oak 14,Carmike Wynnsong 15, Lumina, Carmike Patriot 14 + IMAX.

Bryson (Robert Redford) and Katz (Nick Nolte) upon cresting a ridge and viewing the vast Smokies.
Bryson (Robert Redford) and Katz (Nick Nolte) upon cresting a ridge and viewing the vast Smokies.

When Bill Bryson’s “A Walk in the Woods” came out in 1998, the popular writer’s account of his ill-conceived, ill-fated attempt to thru-hike the Appalachian Trail was met with derision by purists in the hiking community. Bryson and buddy Stephen Katz’s cavalier preparation was deemed disrespectful, their decision in Hot Springs to rent a car and drive for a spell after realizing just how far they had to go was a flat-out slap in the five-days-growth face to those who approached the trail with reverence and respect.
Most of us, though, could identify with the eager, if lacking, duo and found the adventure pretty funny.

For the film version of “Walk,” which opens in local theaters today, both camps are likely to find more common ground.
On screen, Bryson, played by a significantly older Robert Redford (more about that in a sec), is contemplating his mortality after the death of an acquaintance. Then he happens to notice, seemingly for the first time, that the Appalachian Trail runs through his neighborhood in New Hampshire.
Hmmm …

After calling everyone he knows in search of a hiking buddy — wife Catherine (Emma Thompson) won’t let him go alone — he gets a call from an old pal he tromped around Europe with 40 years back. Through the grapevine, Katz has heard Bryson needs a wing man and offers his services. Despite the outcome of their European adventure (“We didn’t end up despising each other,” Bryson corrects his wife, “we started out despising each other. We ended up hating each other”), Bryson is desperate and agrees.
Katz’s gravely, whiskey-soaked voice over the phone is a clue that he might not be thru-hiker material; when he stumbles out of a puddle-jumper from Des Moines, rheumy-eyed, pot-bellied, trick-kneed and with a tendency toward seizures if he doesn’t eat (preferably out of a vending machine) on the hour, the stage is set for disappointment.
And yet … .

From the start, at Springer Mountain, Ga., there are challenges.
Katz: How far do you think we’ve gone?
Bryson: (Surveying the landscape) Oh, about a quarter mile.
They encounter the inevitable know-it-all (a delightfully ditzy Kristen Schaal) who advises them that not only do they not have the right gear and have no idea what they’re doing, they don’t even have their birthdates right (wrong Zodiac sign). There’s the righteous REI sales associate (given the right amount of gear righteousness by Nick Offerman). And there’s the thru-hiker gear geek who condescendingly asks Bryson why he bought that backpack (“Because I thought it would be easier than carrying my stuff”).
And, of course, there are bears, because as everyone (in Hollywood, at least) knows, there’s a bear lurking behind every tree waiting to have you for dinner.

Still, on they plod. They catch up on life since Europe, Katz a bit intimidated by Bryson’s success, Bryson baffled by what makes Katz tick. They accuse each other of not living the life they want. They talk about girls.
In the book, what irritated the hiking elite most was the pair’s flippant decision following their “You-are-here” moment in Hot Springs to hop in the car. How dare they!
On screen, this moment occurs in northern Virginia and the outcome isn’t the same.
Does it matter whether they press on? Like so many thru-hikers, they’re both looking for something. And, like so many thru-hikers, they aren’t sure what. It’s the journey, not the destination, as most of us who hike know.

When the film was announced, there was considerable head scratching over the casting of Redford and Nolte, who are twice the age of the characters they portray. The book dealt with midlife malaise, the film with mortality. Both, though, offer suitable — and common — motivation when it comes to taking a walk in the woods.
In vastly different ways, the intellectual Bryson and the hard-scrabble Katz bring to the trail an introspection most hikers will appreciate.

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