Some time after an unspecified extinction-level global cataclysm, The Road follows two survivors—a man and his young son—who journey south through the ashes of the former USA in the hope of finding enough food to avoid starving to death over the coming winter in a place warm enough that they won't die of exposure either. They have only the rags on their backs, a cart of scavenged food, a gun with two bullets, and one another. As they travel, they (and the reader) bear witness to a dead world where nothing grows, nothing lives, and the sun hasn't been seen in years. "Nothing lives" but refugees like them, wandering the country in search of food... and ever-hungry gangs of cannibals that stalk the roads.
The Road was published by Cormac McCarthy in 2006. It garnered critical praise in America and went on to win the Pulitzer Prize. The book is notable for a stark, minimalist style interspersed with occasional purple metaphors. The writing is idiomatic to say the least, eschewing most punctuation (including quotes) and occasionally including one-sentence chapters of philosophical musing.
Like most of McCarthy's books, it was optioned for a film, and The Film of the Book (Also called The Road) was released on November 25, 2009. It was directed by John Hillcoat, the director of The Proposition, starring Viggo Mortensen and Charlize Theron (in a minor role). The score was done by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis (no, not that Warren Ellis).
- After the End: One of the few such novels to actually make it look like mankind is on its way out. Not just scraping by, but truly dying.
- Anti-Hero: The Man, doing the best he can considering the world he lives in.
- Apocalypse Anarchy: The world has descended into chaos. It's the law of the jungle.
- Apocalypse How: Debatable. We don't know how much of the world is dying, but the parts that are may potentially be Class 4—biosphere extinction has already occurred and the affected areas are in the final stages of dying. Some scientists McCarthy knows have stated that the world the novel is set in is consistent with Earth after a meteor strike or the eruption of Yellowstone Caldera, both of which the world has dealt with and recovered from, or perhaps the aftermath of a nuclear war. But just because the world (and life in some form) would be able to recover from such a disaster doesn't mean that humanity, or even most other life would.
- Arc Words: The phrase "carrying the fire" is constantly repeated by the boy, doubling as a Survival Mantra. The phrase also appeared in No Country for Old Men.
- Also between the Boy and the Man, "We're (still) the good guys."
- Artistic License Biology: In a world with dwindling food resources, the cannibals stay alive by maintaining human livestock. However, it'd be more energy-efficient to slaughter them all and preserve the meat than it would to slaughter them one at a time and use the meat to feed both themselves and the remaining livestock. Possibly justified in that there might not be enough salt or vinegar available, or they simply mightn't know that they can smoke it.
- In the same vein, a pack of cannibals is shown to have several pregnant slaves, and it's implied by a later scene that they might be deliberately impregnating the slaves to breed babies for food. The problem is 1) conditions are so awful it's highly unlikely anyone is healthy enough to even menstruate, much less sustain a pregnancy, especially with owners like that, and 2) if the pregnancies were on purpose (rather than an side-effect the cannibals take advantage of), from a resource standpoint it's kind of counter-intuitive.
- Beard of Barbarism: Averted and played straight. Averted by the father, whose unkempt beard is mentioned a few times (typically right before he has the chance to shave it off). Played straight when the two main characters stumbled upon the ghoulish larder of a small band of cannibals at one point. As they flee, they briefly glimpse the larder's owners, and the only adjective used to describe the men is "bearded."
- Beige Prose: Sprinkled with Purple Prose patches.
- Bilingual Bonus: The ship the protagonists find is called the Bird of Hope.
- Bittersweet Ending: The man has died, but the boy finds a new, slightly more prosperous family to take care of him. Of course, they're still in a dying world.
- Boom, Headshot!: When a bandit tries to take the boy hostage with a knife, the man shoots him right in the forehead.
- Born Lucky: The man suspects this of his son as much as anyone can be Born Lucky After the End, anyway. By all the available evidence, he's right.
- Break the Cutie: The boy is repeatedly subjected to this, most severely when they discover the cannibal larder.
- Calling the Old Man Out: The Boy to the Man, for leaving the thief to die.Do you want me to tell you a story?
The boy looked at him and looked away.
Those stories are not true.
They dont have to be true. They're stories.
Yes. But in the stories we're always helping people and we dont help people.
- Cannibal Clan: Most of humanity have starved to the point where they eat other humans, and it's implied that they will eventually die from sickness or starvation, or cannibalize each other until no one is left.
- Chekhov's Gun: Subverted. There are constant references to there only being one bullet left in the gun. The ending implies that the father intended to use it to kill the Boy, but ultimately he can't and it's never used.
- Children Are Innocent: The Man tries as hard as he can to preserve The Boy's idealism in this world, telling him stories and urging him to "carry the fire". The questionable actions he takes out of pragmatism work against this.
- Crapsack World: Less a World Half Empty than a world almost completely drained. The Road arguably features the most thoroughly Crapsack World in all of highbrow literature. The entire biosphere is deada frozen terrestrial corpse covered in lung-choking ash. Nightmarish cannibal degenerates, their starving prey, and occasional patches of fungus are the remains of life on earth for most of the novel. In a flashback at the outset, two of the main characters debate whether killing themselves is the only moral decision under the circumstances. The conclusion gives a glimmer of hope by revealing small pockets of life and humanity that may allow the biosphere to recover to a degree, but it also implies that the earth as we knew it is irrevocably lost. Interestingly, McCarthy's vision of "life" amid total ecological ruin has been credited as so harrowing that it makes The Road a uniquely powerful demonstration of how everything we value depends on the environment, and thus one of the most important environmental works ever written.
- Creepy Basement: One filled with people that the cannibals have been eating alive, piece by piece, over a long period of time.
- Death World: Almost all life on earth has been exterminated by a mysterious cataclysm that has covered the entire planet in a thick layer of ash. There's almost no plant life left whatsoever, and the few remaining humans have largely turned to cannibalism.
- Desolation Shot: Every description of scenery.
- Despair Event Horizon: It's arguable whether our heroes are teetering on the edge, or jumped off a long time ago. Either way, the discovery of the cannibal larder hits them both hard.
- Dramatic Gun Cock: The man does this in particular for the audible effect, even though he knows the pistol is a double action.
- Driven to Suicide: The mother, and the father still carries a gun with two bullets in case the urge becomes overwhelming for him too. Justified, given the situation.
- Eats Babies: The cannibals. At one point, the man and the boy see three men and a very pregnant woman. Three days after, they pass through a camp that has the remains of a beheaded, roasted infant on a spit.
- Flare Gun: Used by the father to take out a person who was attacking him and his son with arrows.
- Happy Flashback: The man actively tries to discourage these. They just make him want to end it.
- Heroes Love Dogs: The Boy, who is easily the kindest character, hears the barking of a dog on and off throughout the journey.
- Hope Spot: The father finds a still-stocked and untouched bomb shelter, giving them a short time with comfortable beds, food, and even hot baths. Since he knows others will find it as well, and that the supplies would be better used to sustain them on their ongoing journey, they don't stay more than a few precious days.
- Humans Are Bastards: Most of the other humans we see are degenerate cannibals. Even the man himself is capable of vengeful cruelty as displayed by the incident with the thief.
- I'm a Humanitarian: The only way for most people to eat, now that the biosphere's dying out. The man and the boy are amongst the few survivors who don't indulge in this. As well as the group that finds the Boy at the end.
- Incurable Cough of Death: We see early on that the man has one, adding an extra layer of urgency to their journey.
- In the Doldrums: The Crapsack World might qualify.
- Jerk with a Heart of Gold: The man coldly disregards the well-being of other survivors he passes without any trace of remorse out of necessity for the survival of him and his son. However, it's clear that he cares for his son and values his life over his own.
- Kick the Dog: When the father and son catch up to the man who stole from them, the father engages in some Disproportionate Retribution, ordering him to strip naked and throw his belongings in their cart. This, in short, gave him a death sentence by hypothermia.
- Meaningful Echo: The Man and the Boy tell each other throughout that they're "still the good guys". As he dies he tells the Boy, "You're the best guy. You always were."
- Missing Mom: The mother gave up hope and left the family to kill herself when the boy was still an infant.
- Morality Pet: Were it not for the boy, the man would be an utterly callous and selfish hypocrite who doesn't follow his own claims of "carrying the fire".
- Nameless Narrative: No characters or even locations are named throughout the novel. Double subverted with an old tramp the man and his son meet at one point, who claims his name is Ely, before revealing it isn't, and that he doesn't want to tell them his real name.
- Next Sunday A.D.: Dates are never given, but there's no mention of technology that doesn't exist in the real world.
- Papa Wolf: The father.You wanted to know what the bad guys looked like. Now you know. It may happen again. My job is to take care of you. I was appointed to do that by God. I will kill anyone who touches you. Do you understand?
- Pet the Dog: A couple from the scavengers who pick up the boy at the end of the book, showing that they're safe and trustworthy people to be around. They cover the father with a blanket like they'd promised, and insist the boy keeps his gun when he tries to give it to them.
- Plot Device All Along: Although not a technological example, the barking dog only the Boy can hear. The Man believes it's an Imagine Spot as the Boy loves dogs. At the end of the book, it turns out that the dog belonged to the group who were following the Man and Boy to see if they were trustworthy.
- Post-Apocalyptic Traffic Jam: While the cause of the disaster which led to the post-apocalyptic world is never explained, there was apparently some fore-warning, as the highways out of the cities are described as containing "a long line of charred and rusting cars."
- Protagonist Centred Morality: Justified. It's a dog eat dog world and everyone is doing what they can to survive - but we follow The Man and The Boy.
- Purple Prose: In some sections, usually during dream sequences or between settings, the narrator tends to wander off and wax philosophically for a page or two before snapping back to the plot at hand.
- Rape as Drama: Alluded to as one of the many perils on the road (one of the nomadic groups keeps a pack of teenaged sex-slaves on dog collars)—not least because it's often the precursor to something worse.
- Real Is Gray: Justified in that ash has blotted out the sun for years and most of Earth's flora and fauna are dead.
- Red Herring: The final bullet is ultimately never used.
- Road Trip Plot: A decidedly grim one, traveling through the ashes After the End.
- Scavenger World: A kingdom for proper boots.
- Scenery Gorn: So very much. In this world, ashes fall like snow.
- Schmuck Bait: Averted. The man finds a jar of preserved fruit in an abandoned house. It looks very nice, but "other people hadn't trusted it, and in the end, neither did he."
- Shoot the Hostage Taker: The father does this to a baddie who holds his son hostage in the woods.
- Sliding Scale of Idealism vs. Cynicism: There's a whole cottage industry that's sprung up around debating this question. As noted in the description, there's a group that believes the book is mind-shatteringly depressing. There's another group that believes The Road is, through all the death and misery, a chronicle of the strength and beauty of the human spirit.
- Sorry That I'm Dying: The man to the boy at the end.
- Survivalist Stash: Our heroes benefit from several of these. The most spectacular example is detailed in Hope Spot, above.
- Throw the Dog a Bone: The boy loses his father, his only source of joy, comfort, peace of mind, and protection. Just as the story sets him up to travel the world as The Aloner, some scavengers who have been following them and claim to "carry the fire" appear... and by all the available evidence, they're trustworthy. The two kids in their group look healthy, and best of all, not gnawed-upon..
- Unspecified Apocalypse: What happened to the world and how it happened is only mentioned in bits and pieces, not enough to come to a conclusion. The novel is more about the eventual fate of its two characters more so than the mystery of the past.
- What the Hell, Hero?: The father forces the thief who stole their gear to strip at gunpoint, then leaves him helpless beside the road. He will almost assuredly die painfully as a result. The boy calls him on this.
- Yank the Dog's Chain: See Hope Spot, above. Also, they eventually reach the coast. There's nothing for them there.
- Actor Allusion: The Lonely Planet New Zealand guidebook on Viggo Mortensen's bookshelf may be reference to The Film of the Book The Lord of the Rings.
- Arc Words: "Why are you following us?" or some variant thereof by various characters.
- Better to Die than Be Killed: When the man and his son are surprised by the return of the cannibals and hide in the bathroom upstairs, the father, upon hearing one of them climbing the stairs, puts his gun against his son's forehead and prepares to use his last bullet to spare him the horror of being captured. Ultimately averted thanks to the prisoners breaking out who distract the cannibals long enough to allow them to make their escape.
- Blood from the Mouth: One of the first signs that the Man is dying.
- Dream Intro: The film opens with the protagonist's dream of tender moments with his wife before the apocalypse.
- Establishing Character Moment: The first few scenes show very clearly that the man is dedicated to protecting the boy. In the first flashback, immediately after the first sign of trouble, the man begins filling the sinks and bathtubs with water, a very real tactic for handling emergencies, showing how he's the kind of man with the right stuff to survive in this setting.
- Fan Disservice: Both the father and a random thief appear naked at certain points. Neither of which are particularly attractive as well as the fact that the thief is being forced to strip at gunpoint.
- Flashback: How Charlize Theron is able to be in this movie.
- It's All About Me: The mother.
- Never Trust a Trailer: Charlize Theron is only in flashbacks.
- Only Sane Man: Some see the mother as this, since she preferred to die rather than struggle in this ruined world.
- Pet the Dog: Just like in the book, the father forces the thief to strip naked and plans to leave him behind like that, essentially dooming him. However, due to the son's pleas they go back to where they left him to give him back his clothes. Although he isn't there when they get there, they leave behind his clothes and a can of food.
- Ragnarök Proofing:
- The only intact bunker the pair find also happens to have the only functioning lights they come across... for a few seconds.
- Since it's about 10 years (more or less) After the End, a lot of stuff has long since broken down.
- The house in the flashbacks, if you notice closely, gradually decays as time passes, from more-or-less pristine to a dilapidated shell of its former self. It also helps that some form of EMP shut down just about everything electronic from day one.
- Real Is Brown: Combined with relentless Scenery Gorn like woah. Much of the movie was filmed in an abandoned strip-mine, which is about as close as you can get to a Real Life post-apocalyptic wasteland.
- Scary Black Man: Very much averted with the thief. Yeah, he holds a knife to the Boy, but he's just in such a miserable state that he's more pitiful than scary.
- Scenery Dissonance: Type 1. The film contains some horrific things. Whether or not the washed-out, decaying landscape is beautiful or not can be debated.
- Screaming Birth: When the mother goes into labor.
- Screams Like a Little Girl: The boy.
- Shout-Out: The Lonely Planet New Zealand guidebook. Australia and New Zealand are set up as possible safe havens in numerous post-apocalyptic works, including On The Beach and The Chrysalids. In addition, The Film of the Book The Lord of the Rings was filmed there.
- Spiteful Spit: A thief spits on the cart of belongings to the man and boy at first when he refuses to give them up. He later ends up naked to die in the cold after giving up The Man's stuff and having his clothes taken from him.
- Thousand-Yard Stare: Ye Gods.
- Throw the Dog a Bone: On top of the boy finding a new family in the end like in the book, it's implied that life will go on. The boy finds a beetle in one late scene, and the credits feature sounds of birds and animals.
- Vomit Indiscretion Shot: When the boy gets sick.
- Would Hurt a Child: As to be expected for the setting there are several people who would have no problem with hurting the boy if given the chance.