Robert Redford and Nick Nolte in A Walk in the Woods which has just been released in the US.
With the film version of Cheryl Strayed’s Wild starring Reese Witherspoon on general release in the UK, I was interested to see that Robert Redford no less, has taken on Bill Bryson’s comic travelogue, A walk in the Woods about an ill judged attempt at getting back to nature by walking the 2,200 mile Appalachian Trail. Like Strayed’s Wild, I enjoyed Bill Bryson’s book when I read it umpteen years ago and I am interested to find out what sort of fist Redford has made with his film version.
At 78, Redford plays Bryson himself although after seeing him in the excellent All is Lost last year, I’ve no doubts that this remarkable actor has the physical strengths to play a long distance hiker. Despite the popularity of long distance walking books and travelogues where a usually single hiker sets off into the great blue yonder on some personal quest - think of writers like Laurie Lee, Patrick Leigh-Fermor, Hamish Brown, John Hillaby or even the Lakeland poets tramping around the fells- film or TV adaptations are relatively few and far between. Off the top of my head and can think of Martin Sheen’s The Way, Sean Penn’s Into the Wild, the film version of Kerouac’s On the Road, perhaps Nicholas Roeg’s classic 1971 movie Walkabout might be a tenuous inclusion and I have a horrible recollection of seeing Tony Hawke’s Around Ireland with a fridge remade as a feature film. Or was that just a terrible dream!
On TV we’ve had Julia Bradbury doing some Lakeland Hill-walking and yomping across England on Wainwright’s Coast to Coast. In the 1990’s Cameron MacNeish presented Wilderness Walks and poet Simon Armitage has done a bit of wandering around oop north, but its slim pickings to be sure.
It’s not just hiking which is generally ignored by the film and TV companies. Rock climbing is virtually nonexistent on UK TV screens. In the last thirty years I can only think of Lakeland Rock, The Edge and On the Edge (only shown in Wales) on TV. There have been some oddities like Julia Bradbury doing some classic climbs with Tim Emmett and Scottish TV show the odd bit of climbing footage in their Adventure Show, but south of the border in England and Wales rock climbing and to a lesser extent hill walking is just totally ignored by those who create the schedules.
I must admit that I find the lack out outdoor programming hard to understand. There are supposed to be over four million active walkers in the UK and about 300k rock climbers. A not inconsiderable potential viewing constituency. If proof were needed about the Great Outdoors film and TV potential then just take a look at Terry Abrahams The life of a mountain which had an hour long edit shown on BBC4 last week. The programme apparently attracted just shy of a million viewers which is three times the average midweek BBC4 audience for that slot. Imagine if it had been shown on BBC1 what the viewing figures would have been!
As it stands, it’s left to the small independent film companies like Hot Aches or Striding Edge in the UK to create and distribute climbing and walking films through downloads and dvd’s, and one or two names in the movie industry who are willing to take a chance on a book like Wild and turn it into a film. Despite all the evidence to the contrary, TV and film companies treat outdoor material as if it was drawn from a tiny fringe clique instead of being an integral part of a thriving culture which counts tens of millions of activists worldwide. A misreading of market potential which is hard to understand?