Thursday, December 1, 2016

"Into the Forest"

2016; directed by Patricia Rozema; written by Patricia Rozema and Jean Hegland

In any kind of survival situation, life gets stripped down to its essentials: food, water, shelter, safety from the people, animals and/or things that are determined to rob, rape, kill and/or eat you.

You could say the same for some film adaptions of novels.

Jean Hegland's Into the Forest blew my mind so much when I read it in 1998 that I recommended it to Oprah Winfrey for her wildly popular book club. I was working for Harpo Productions at the time, so I personally handed it to the producer responsible for her monthly book club series, as opposed to just driving by and tossing a dog-eared copy at the Carpenter Street entrance while shouting, "This would make a kick-ass Oprah's Book Club selection!"

I didn't see how it could lose. Into the Forest had everything Oprah was preaching at the time. Two sisters (female protagonists!) face a post-apocalyptic world in which life's little luxuries disappear one by one, followed by its necessities. As they navigate challenges of death, rape, pregnancy and birth, the two sisters grow increasingly grateful (gratitude!) for the things they still have, while gaining newfound confidence in their ability to survive with what nature provides.

Maybe it was too on-the-nose. I don't know. No one ever got back to me.

It's taken almost twenty years for Into the Forest to become what paperback books used to trumpet as "a major motion picture." Who's to say why, except that the wheels of Hollywood grind exceedingly slow and sometimes things get into turnaround and don't come out for quite a while.

Here's what I can tell you: the film version of Into the Forest gets the essentials right. Ellen Paige and a pre-Westworld Evan Rachel Wood play sisters facing the apocalyptic scenario. What starts out as a power outage eventually leads to the end of civilization. Wood is the older sister, a dancer so intent on an important audition that never comes she practices to the tick-tocking of a metronome, and throws a fit when her younger sister, played by Paige, won't let her use some of their remaining gasoline to power a generator so she can once again dance to music.

Maybe Jean Hegland held out for the opportunity to adapt her own novel. If so, good for her, because she and co-writer Patricia Rozema managed to capture all the book's major movements. And Rozema does a fine job of envisioning its sense of gradual loss as the sisters first adapt to living in a world of ever-decreasing expectations, then choose to leave it behind entirely.

And yet. The parts of the book that stuck with me then (and stick with me still) are the parts I wish the movie had more of, like the sisters carefully rationing the contents of their last remaining tea bag. Some Hegland's language around the idea of lack and want was beautiful, and I almost wish there had been some voice-over narration in the film.

Still, these elements aren't totally missing. Toward the film's mid-point, after Wood's character has been brutally assaulted, she refuses the last aspirin in the house, insisting that it be saved for something more worthwhile. Which only made me wonder how much worse things would have to be for that aspirin finally to be worth taking, and at that point what possible good it could do?

However, while the power's still on, the Internet's up and you're able to stream Into the Forest from Amazon Prime (among other online services) the question remains: is it worth your time, one of your precious remaining evenings? Yes. There's plenty of suspense, sadness and unexpected joy here to reward all but the hungriest of viewers, which just happened to include me.


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