BACK ROADS: BOOK VS. MOVIE

Back Roads, originally a novel written by Tawni O’Dell and released back in 1999, was recently adapted into a film directed by Alex Pettyfer, starring Jennifer Morrison, Juliette Lewis, Nicola Peltz, Chiara Aurelia, June Carryl, Robert Patrick, and Hala Finley. The film went into production in early/mid 2017 and ended up having its world premiere as a spotlight narrative at the Tribeca Film Festival in April of this year.

I was lucky enough to attend the Back Roads premiere at Tribeca and the entire experience ended up becoming one of my ultimate favorites. Having run the Back Roads movie fan account on Instagram for over a year now, I had been anticipating the film for so long and actually getting to see the final product come to life at such a special event felt like an incredible honor.

That being said, I’ve been a fan of the novel far longer than I’ve even known about the making of the film and being a book lover in general, you can probably imagine my natural weariness when it came to the adaptation. I was so anxious about how it would turn out and I can’t even begin to explain just how relieved and thrilled I was when it came out better than I ever imagined.

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I already reviewed the film on my YouTube channel (Also called ‘Nerdy Babble’ – check it out, *wink wink*), so I felt like writing a similar review on here would be utterly redundant. Instead, I thought it’d be a fun idea to note some of the key similarities and differences between the film and novel, all while keeping it as spoiler-free as I possibly can…here’s to hoping for the best.

* Warning: This post might (probably not, but perhaps) contain novel spoilers, but I will keep any specific details about what they did or didn’t include in the film out. If you’ve read the novel, then you should be safe. If you haven’t, then well, you’ve be warned. Proceed with caution.

First, for those who decided to proceed with caution, if you don’t know what Back Roads is even about, here’s a quick synopsis taken directly from the novel’s Goodreads page:

Harley Altmyer should be in college drinking Rolling Rock and chasing girls. He should be freed from his closed-minded, stricken coal town, with its lack of jobs and no sense of humor. Instead, he’s constantly reminded of just how messed up his life is.

With his mother in jail for killing his abusive father, Harley is an orphan with the responsibilities of an adult and the fiery, aggressive libido of a teenager. Just nineteen years old, he’s marooned in the Pennsylvania backwoods caring for his three younger sisters, whose feelings about him range from stifling dependence to loathing. And once he develops an obsession with the sexy, melancholic mother of two living down the road, those Victoria’s Secret catalogs just won’t do the trick anymore. He wants Callie Mercer so badly he fears he will explode. But it’s the family secrets, the lies, and the unspoken truths that light the fuse and erupt into a series of staggering surprises, leaving what’s left of his family in tatters. Through every ordeal, the unforgettable Harley could never know that his endearing humor, his love for his sisters, and his bumbling heroics would redeem them all.

As far as similarities go, the most important ones – the ones I always felt like they had to include in order to appropriately honor the novel – are the novel’s narrative sequence, plot highlights, and core conflicts and themes. But what does this mean, exactly? Themes that run throughout the length of the Back Roads narrative include: the process of maturity, own worst enemy, coming-of-age, humanity vs. human nature, family, loss of innocence, and motherhood (Or, in this case, the lack of). All of these themes, which are ever so prominent in the novel are just as prominent in the film, consequently giving the film a very similar tone to the one the novel portrays. While watching the film, I found myself experiencing the same thought process I did while reading the source material, and being as big of a fan of these specific themes and core conflicts as I am, I was so glad to see them included in the screen adaptation.

The original story follows a very unique plot timeline by revealing the sequence of events in a form of a flashback. If you’ve read the novel, then you’d know exactly what I’m referring to. The first scene we are introduced to in the novel is the interrogation scene between our protagonist, Harley, and Chief Mansour that takes place in the police station. Very similarly, it’s also the first scene you see in the film. Then, just like in the novel, the story unfolds chronologically in one long flashback sequence circling back to the very beginning of the film again at the end.

Another major similarity is the characterization. Although in the novel, some of the characters, such as Callie and Amber, are physically described a bit differently than how the actors portraying them look (In the novel, Callie has brown hair vs. her blonde hair in the film; in the novel, Amber has reddish-blonde hair vs. her bleached blonde hair in the film; etc), every single cast member brought their corresponding character to life in such an authentic way. During the Q&A session after the screening at Tribeca, Tawni O’Dell herself thanked the cast for how well they treated these characters and for their genuine and spot-on portrayal. I mean, if that doesn’t tell you something, then I don’t know what will.

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Alex brought out Harley’s naive and sympathetic personality so extremely well, it gave me chills quite a few times. Harley’s violence-filled and psychologically disruptive upbringing were direct implications for his troubled and misplaced character, and even though I had my own personal doubts about how Alex would manage to portray such a complex and troubled individual, he exceeded my expectations. To be wholeheartedly honest, he broke my heart with his tangible performance time and time again, and I can’t do much except applaud him for a job well done. Also, can I just quickly mention – on top of being in every single scene, the man still managed to direct a cinematically stunning film with numerous elaborate and exacting shots, and I still can’t wrap my mind around how he accomplished it so effortlessly.

Alright, enough gushing about Alex’s talent, even though I could seriously go on all day. Let’s move on to the other, equally as well depicted, characters. Jennifer Morrison as Callie Mercer…wow. She’s just so good. I’m not exaggerating when I say that after seeing Jennifer as Callie, I can’t possibly imagine anyone else doing a better job. Knowing how big of a book lover she is, I wasn’t a bit surprised with the amount of details Jennifer managed to incorporate from the novel version of Callie into the on screen version. Every bit of energy and time she spent trying to make sure she got this character just right reflected so well in the final product. Callie’s such an elaborate character and so different from anything Jennifer’s ever done before, yet it feels like she’s been playing her for the entirety of her career. In the novel, the only insight we get into Callie’s character and life is what Harley chooses to reveal to the reader from his perspective, which I can see being an entirely difficult and limiting situation when it came to bringing the character to life on screen, yet it doesn’t seem like Jennifer had any issues. She managed to not only portray all of Callie’s written quirks, mannerisms, desires, and emotional complexity, but she also brought so much more than I expected to the character, making her a million times more layered than in the novel. Also, since we’re already on the topic and because I know a lot of you will be curious – no, the film didn’t change the ending of the book (Thankfully! I mean…could you imagine? I would have been downright pissed), and yes, it’s just as heartbreaking and infuriating.

The girls, Amber, Misty, and Jody, were all beautifully portrayed. Mostly, I was very nervous to see how Nicola would go about bringing Amber to life as she’s my favorite character in the novel, and she did it seamlessly. Amber is just as strong-willed and troubled as she is in the book, and Nicola plays her with such passion and veracity that every scene leaves you torn between feeling empathetic and furious towards her character. Misty was just as unsettling on paper as she was on screen and I was blown away by Chiara’s ability to depict this character’s intricacy at such a young age. Last but certainly not least, Hala Finley as Jody. My goodness, what a little talent. Hala was the most surprising part of this entire experience. Not that I didn’t think she’d do a fantastic job but she blew my expectations out of the water. Jody was exactly the same as in the book but even more adorable and endlessly endearing, if that’s even possible. She provided some of the most heart-warming pieces of dialogue and some much needed lightheartedness to the entire narrative, balancing out the heaviness of the central plot in  such a necessary and flawless way. Amber might have been my favorite character in the novel, but Jody stole the show as well as the audience’s heart, including mine.

The biggest difference I found between the two pieces is the intensity of Harley’s character. Allow me to explain. In the book, Harley’s character is intense. Due to the fact that a novel allows for a much deeper character analysis and insight, while reading the story you really get an idea of just how fiercely disturbing some of Harley’s thoughts truly are. Yes, in the film you get to see his damage, but in my opinion, it’s nowhere near as heavy and grim as the novel portrays it. In all fairness, I really do think this is a natural shift as, like I mentioned before, the length of the novel allows for a deeper dive into his character’s thought process. It’s almost impossible to translate every little inflection the novel carries into a screen adaptation, given that films are more restricting, and so this slight difference in tone didn’t end up bothering me in the slightest. Also, there are several moments in the film, just like in the book, where you still get those intense insights into the odd workings of Harley’s mind, which are equally as disturbing, so it ends up balancing out the intensity of the novel in what I think is a phenomenal way.

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Overall, I’m beyond satisfied with the way Back Roads turned out. Now I know that I should have probably never been as nervous as I was to begin with, because having followed the entire production through my Instagram account, I knew just how much love, respect, energy, and effort was being poured into this project and so I should have known it was going to be great. In all honesty though, it easily exceeded every expectation I had and my hat goes off to every single person who worked so incredibly hard to make this fascinating and special story come to life in the way it did. I’m just hoping the rest of you get to see it very, very soon because I’m sure it will not disappoint!

My rating?

4+1-2+Stars

 

2 thoughts on “BACK ROADS: BOOK VS. MOVIE”

  1. You’ve provided me with such relief by explaining just how well the film does justice to the novel and all it’s themes. I honestly get so much anxiety from adaptions that I almost dread going to see the films as I’m so worried about a novel being so disrespected. It’s such a weird feeling, I can’t even explain it. I think I’ve always been this way but after one of my all time favourite novels was treated so poorly by filmmakers (I’m so sorry ‘The Time Travellers Wife’) I get SO anxious beforehand. Back Roads was probably the best book I read last year and the characters all gained a place in my heart. To know they were all treated with such care and respect it warms my heart and truly allows me to be excited for the film in a way I normally wouldn’t be for an adaption.

    It really seems that everyone involved in the project poured their heart into it and to doing the book justice. I know some people are often annoyed that an actors physical attributes don’t match the characters but unless it’s vital to the plot I don’t really care about small physical differences. I’d rather accept these as long as it means getting actors who truly care about and understand their characters…. Such high praise from Tawni is an incredible thing. I imagine as an authour it must be so nerve wracking to hand your baby to a complete stranger and hope they take good care of it. I know in so many cases authours are unhappy with the final result and that’s heartbreaking. I’m still haughted by 8 year old me watching an interview with Roald Dahl where he said he’d never read Charlie and the Chocolate Factory again as the movie adaption had ruined it.

    I’m so glad you enjoyed Alex’s peformance as Harley. It was so vital that his peformance was spot on for the film to work. I’ve never really seen any of his other work so I don’t really have any preconceived notions of what his peformances are like, which I guess is a good thing. I have to say I am already in awe of him. I’m in awe of anyone who directs a movie and has a big role in it too( seriously these people are magicians). But, Harley isn’t exactly an easy role to get into and playing him would require being in a pretty dark head space. To constantly switch between that and directing can’t have been easy but, he obviously managed it seemlessly. Major props.

      I’m also kinda of glad that Harley’s character isn’t as intense in the film. Don’t get me wrong I absolutely adored the novel and could hardly put it down but, there were times where I had to put it down as it was getting too disturbing and too dark. That’s not a criticism at all and it’s all part of what makes Harley’s character but, it was, at times difficult to read and I can totally understand people that had to step away from the novel for a breather. Obviously you don’t get the option in a movie theather so it’s probably a good thing for the audience that he isn’t so intense.

    Okay, I’m glad they didn’t change the ending as this is my 2nd biggest pet peeve with adaptions as it often means the story loses so much weight. However, knowing about the ending in advanced, doesn’t in anyway prepare me for seeing it on screen one day… I loved everything you said about Callie and after reading this I’m most intriguied to ‘meet’ her character. One of the most ‘frustrating’ aspects of the novel was the fact we only ever saw her through Harley’s eyes;so it felt like we never really knew her. And I get it, that’s the whole point. The narrative technique of using an unreliable narrator, it’s whole purpose is to almost cloud our perception of a certain character as we are only seeing them the way the narrator wants us too. The technique really is effective,as after I finished the novel Callie was the character I thought about most. I constantly questioned and pondered her reason for doing things, who she really was and what her life was really like, as it’s obvious Harley’s perception of her is going to be warped (for several reasons). Really we don’t know her at all. Whilst only seeing her through Harley’s eyes is great for the novel and a great way to get the reader thinking I imagine it’s very frustrating when trying to bring the character to life. I’m so glad to hear Jennifer did such a great job ‘fleshing out’ the character. Not that I had any doubts about her doing a fantastic job. I’m so excited to see her in a completely different role.

    I’m so glad that you thought the peformances of the younger casts members were so fantastic. I mean, in once sense I am always in awe of younger peformances as they’re doing something most of us would never have the guts to do at their age. However on the other hand I feel some young peformances may struggle when dealing with more serious or complex subject matter as they just haven’t had the life expirence or gained the emotional maturity to be able to truly showcase an authentic peformance… I feel like this makes me sound like a terrible person who is critcising younger actors, I’m truly not. It’s just the acting is a job that requires people to truly dig deep and truly understand the complexity and intricacy of their characters lives and actions This is a difficult enough task for adults, a million times more so for young people. Simply because they are young and are yet to expirence so much or to truly understand how complex life can be. The novel and the film deal with some very dark, serious and adult things that would be difficult for many adults to get into. For younger people to get it and to be able to embody the characters and portray their actions so well, that takes a special talent at a young age. Their work and understanding of character should definetly be appaluded, being as it seems they’ve really done the novel justice…
    Speaking of younger cast members. Did it bother you that Alex is much older than Harley is supposed to be or did you just forget about it?

    I’m so, so glad you enjoyed the film. You’ve made me even more excited for it. I know it may take a long long while till we can all see it but I really hope it’s not too long.

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  2. I saw Back Roads at the risk premiere too. I love Jennifer Morrison as Callie Mercer she was amazing in her role!!! The movie was like the book. Alex played Harley was amazing and yet somehow he was able to direct the movie at the same time. Back Roads I love the book and LOVE the movie!!

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