Bill Bryson on what happened when Robert Redford demanded to play him in A Walk in the Woods
The travel writer on the "surreal" experience of having the acting legend make and star in a film about Bryson's long trek across wild America...
When they make the film of your life, who can you hope will get the inestimable honour of playing you? For an entire generation of white males, there can be only one answer. Robert Redford. The handsomest man in the history of the western world. It actually happened to Bill Bryson.
You might have thought Rowan Atkinson a more obvious choice. After all, Bryson is a master of self-mockery. In a series of superb travel books he has set himself up as a slightly hapless everyman, forever making dubious decisions in unsuitable places. He can leap from a joke to a profundity in an instant, all with the same light certainty of touch, so that the reader hardly knows they’ve been stretched.
Almost 20 years ago, at the age of 44, Bryson went for a stroll. He set off from Georgia at the bottom of the United States towards Maine in the top right-hand corner. Never mind your Pennine Way or your Cornish coastal path, those are mere strolls in the park.
The Appalachian Trail is made up of 2,200 miles, all of them wild, some of them brutal, and most of them lacking in pubs and B&Bs.
Redford is mad about wild America and is a serious voice in conservation. It was natural then, that he should want to make a film based on A Walk in the Woods, the book Bryson wrote about his long trek. And it was also natural that he should want to take the role of Bryson himself.
“It was surreal,” says the real Bryson, “for about 60 seconds. In terms of vanity, it was terrific. But then I began to feel quite differently. It was now his project.
“I’d met him, we’d talked about it, and I respect the fact that he doesn’t make dumb films. But to make the book into a film they made a number of changes. There was one really trivial thing: my wife’s name is Cynthia, but in the film her name is Catherine. It was clear from that point that this was no longer my life. It was a film about a character named Bill Bryson.”
The book and new film are both – in slightly different ways – about the relationship between modern humans and the wild world. That’s something Bryson has looked at closely in both England and America.
Bryson comes from Des Moines in Iowa. (“Someone had to,” he famously pointed out at the beginning of The Lost Continent: Travels in Small-Town America.) But in the course of his travels he married an Englishwoman, settled in England, raised four children, resettled in America, and then re-resettled in England. It follows that his knowledge and feelings about both places go pretty deep.
He wrote Notes from a Small Island about Britain with that characteristic mixture of humour and acuity. No writer has teased us British to our faces so inoffensively, so charmingly and so astutely. We bought the book in vast quantities to see what he made of us, and if we didn’t entirely like what he told us we loved the way he told it.
He was president of the Campaign to Protect Rural England from 2007 to 2012 and took a vocal role. He was the right man for the job in many ways, valuing much about England that we English take for granted.“Britain should be proud of its lovely landscape and the way it provides sustenance and amenity at the same time,” he says. “It’s a working landscape, and yet we can also savour its beauty. That notion just doesn’t exist in America. We see land as either something for amenity or for industry.”
That lack of integration is a crucial part of the way America sees itself and the world, and one of the many soul-deep differences between them and us. It explains why so much of America is so ugly, and why some bits of it are still spectacularly wonderful.
Bryson has strong feelings about the fragility of much of the great trail he walked. “There’s huge pressure to build along the trail because much of the land is private, and there are no restrictions like there are in Britain. This is a very, very threatened environment.”
Time and again the film pulls back from the main two characters, Redford/Bryson and his Sancho Panza, Stephen Katz (played by Nick Nolte), and sets them as dots in a vast landscape full of dramatic chunks of rock, helter-skelter streams and trees as far as the eye can see.
“The walk didn’t change my feelings about America – it changed my feelings about the world. Just how big it is. Out in the hills, where you can’t see a house. On foot, you move so slowly through the landscape. Your idea of scale changes: you do ten, sometimes as much as 15 miles in a day, and that’s a long, long way.”
It’s a revelation that comes to everyone who visits a threatened environment. You read about how much of it has been destroyed, but when you’re in the middle of it, you realise how much is left, and understand in your guts why it’s worth saving. The difference between a rainforest half-destroyed sort of person and a rainforest half-saved sort of person is that the second one has actually been there.
A walk like the Appalachian Trail is inevitably a more-than-you- bargained-for experience. It began when Bryson took a short walk from his house in New Hampshire and realised he had connected with the trail “beguilingly leading through the woods”.
He realised that he could turn left and walk more than 1,500 miles south, or turn right and walk a few hundred more miles north. For a man with a taste for travel and in need of a book idea, it was irresistible.
“It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done,” he says. “I never want to do it again. It was unlike anything else I’ve ever done and in some ways, the best thing I’ve ever done. It was that feeling of being taken out of the world, literally out of the physical world I normally inhabit. The really big thing was that there is nothing to fill your thoughts. You don’t spend time running through all the things you have to do because there’s nothing you have to do except walk.
“So I spent the early part of the walk feeling sorry for myself and feeling homesick. Then, quite miraculously, you pass through a barrier. You accept this and your whole brain empties, in a Zen-like way. And I was complexly taken by surprise. When I finished, I was extremely fit – by my standards. But also I felt as if my brain had been cleaned out in soapy water.
“Of course, within four days of my return I was back to normal. Though I still do a lot of walking. Day walks, that is. I’m never going to sleep in a tent again.”
He is currently in that uneasy state of just completing a book and wondering if it’s any good. “I... I hope I’m happy with it,” he says. The book is a belated sequel to Notes from a Small Island, called The Road to Little Dribbling, and is published next month.
Bryson is unassuming, yet at the same time offers something rather rare – a richly human combination of humour and perceptiveness. He plays the everyman with a unique talent.
Obviously Robert Redford had to play him. Nobody else would do.