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.