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.
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.
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.
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!