A Walk in the Woods: My Movie Review

I attended the opening night screening here on Sept. 11 in mid-coast Maine, where a good-sized audience of seasoned moviegoers were in the vast majority.
Big names are associated with this production: Bryson, Redford, and Nolte. The movie was based on the 1998 best selling book of the same name, written by Bill Bryson. I consider the book to be a gem. It is funny, and chock full of factoids about the AT itself, although those departures from the interchanges between the main characters are the book’s only weak point.

When I thru-hiked the AT in 2007, just about everyone I met who found out that I was hiking asked me, “Did you read a Walk in the Woods?” It was that popular then, and with this movie now, too.

Robert Redford bought the film rights, and stars as Bryson in the movie. In the book, both Bryson and Katz are in their mid forties. Redford just turned 79, and Nolte is 74 this year. That’s a bit of an issue, but not a major one, for me. I’m old, too !

There were rumors in 2007 that the movie was being put together, however with Paul Newman cast as Katz, the overweight, alcoholic, womanizer portrayed in the book. But Newman died in 2008. A reunion of Redford and Newman, who were devastatingly correct together in both “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” and “The Sting,” might have transcended this weak production.

In 2007, a reputable source told me that that he had a trail encounter with Bryson, who revealed that he made up Katz, who was interjected into Bryson’s trail journal in order to bolster the appeal of the book to a broader audience. Daily journals of long distance trail thru-hikes don’t end up as best sellers.

I suspect the same literary license is what made Cheryl Strayed’s “Wild” possible as a best-seller, another book where the author initially plans to thru-hike over 2,200 miles but ends up skipping many long sections and ends up hiking 800 miles instead. That best-selling book was propelled by a huge public relations machine that I wrote about in my 2012 book review.  . In Strayed’s case I believe that she dug out her 1995 Trail journal from her Pacific Crest Trail adventure once she became a famous writer and decided to bolster that dated account with additional “ footage” from her past.  Brilliant.  And then came Oprah.

This movie details a middle-aged man’s quest to rerun to a simpler life, where multitasking is nonexistent. But Bryson’s worried wife insists that he find someone to walk with him, so that he would be safe. He finds a partner, but he’s probably less safe with his choice. Hiking in 2015, Bryson would have gotten away with purchasing a Spot GPS tracker that he would have clipped to his pack , where an e-mail message would reach his wife nightly, complete with a map of his present location.

Back in 1998, enters Bryson’s sidekick Katz, who is the saving grace of the movie. He’s a believable character, a highly imperfect being who stumbles and mumbles his way into your heart, where is drooping moist blue eyes ring true.

Emma Thompson plays Bryson’s wife, and she does a very adequate job at carrying out that role.

The real disappointment in the movie was Redford, who comes across as stiff, bewildered, and distant throughout.

Being from Maine, I was looking forward to the segment where Bryson and Katz hike the Hundred Mile Wilderness in Maine, which in the book, proved too daunting for them to complete. The movie never makes it to Maine.

Being an experienced AT hiker, I was on the lookout for authentic details on and about the Trail. Certainly, the footage of the AT in the movie was mostly all true Trail (with no New England portions), and those scenes were sumptuous. But, apparently numerous details weren’t important enough for the producer to get right. Here are a few missteps:

1) Trekking poles do no good when they are lashed to the sides of one’s pack, especially when the hiker is negotiating rocky stream crossings.
2) Big Agnes sleeping bags were not around in 1998.
3) If a hiker wears one pair of off-white pants for 800 miles those pants are not clean or devoid of rips.
4) Hikers are often balls of grime.  These two are too clean.
5) Real hikers always like to show off their bandaged, bloody, blistered feet. There was none of that here.
6) The walking scenes would have been more believable if the packs had actual weight in them. Packs that big are very heavy and difficult to even lift off the ground. Huge packs don’t get picked up with one hand and then lightly flipped onto one’s shoulder.
7) There are no grizzlies east of the Rockies.

The ending of the movie was weak as well. It just trickled out. I wasn’t even sure that was it, but then the lights came on and people started walking out. And then the credits began rolling out ,and some amazing scenery of the AT began to unfold. Do stay after the movie itself is over and get a feel for the majesty of the AT.

NOTE: Not one to be known as a whiner, I offer the reader a couple of alternative video experiences of the Appalachian Trail. I have two recommendations for those readers who would like a more authentic rendering how a real AT thru-hike works.

If you want to weep:
5 Million Steps is the 1st video by filmmaker Lynne Whelden. It is an older film,  1987, but the AT is still the AT.  The movie profiles 14 hikers on the Appalachian Trail, whose  personal stories will strike a chord with all those who dream about long distance hiking or who have done it and want to relive the adventure.

If you want to laugh:
The three DVD AT series by filmmaker Scott “Squatch” Herriott as he, “ attempts to hike the entire 2,100+ mile-long Appalachian Trail in one hiking season while simultaneously searching for the interesting, inspiring, sometimes whacked-out and always dirt-laden folk who make up the long-distance hiking community.”
Squatch’s initial plan was altered significantly once he experienced just how rough the AT was on his body.  Squatch’s AT completion took him three years, yielding three DVD’s: Flip Flop Flippin’, Flip Flop Flippin’ 2, and Flip Flop Flipped.

[Disclaimer: I was a financial supporter for Squatch’s Flipped series via Kickstarter, but receive no remuneration, or consideration from that donation. ]

5 thoughts on “A Walk in the Woods: My Movie Review

  1. Rickdawg69

    Good review Tom. A lot of opportunity missed by the director and production crew. Many scenes were filmed on other trails in and around Atlanta according to the AT Journal(????) Who really knows. I did see one scene of both Redford and Nolte lounging on a big open granite slab looking out over the mountains. The only place in the southern Appalachians where granite is found on the AT is at Blood Mountain. Could have been a couple of other places around Atlanta that would fit that scene, particularly since the view was more like Piedmont style hills, not mountains.


  2. Slow Gin Lizz

    Ha. I noticed 1 and 7 too. I also thought it strange how many of the backpackers in the movie had non-backpacking gear with them. A lantern? A full-sized car camping inflatable sleeping pad? How silly.

    Also noticed near the beginning when Bryson was googling AT. If this movie was supposed to take place in ’98…um…don’t think there was Google search then. At least, it didn’t look like it does now. But I suspect they wanted the movie to be more current than when the book was actually supposed to have taken place.

    And I can’t believe you left out Kristin Schaal’s excellent performance as the super-annoying hiker who wouldn’t leave them alone. As far as I am concerned, SHE was the saving grace of the whole movie. 🙂


    1. There are types out there that feel their way is truth. In a true thru hike, she would have been part of a working member of a little family of sorts. I really like your trail name, Slow Gin Lizz.


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