Within a week I've seen A Walk in the Woods and Meru, two films about outdoor adventuring. A Walk in the Woods made it to Fort Bragg's Coast Cinemas. You are not likely to see Meru anywhere closer than the Summerfield Theater in Santa Rosa, which specializes in showing independent, foreign and documentary movies. Here's the basic difference in the two films: you don't have to possess any mountaineering experience to be thrilled by Meru, a documentary about two attempts to scale the “shark's fin” of the peak known as Meru in northern India.
You may need to have done some serious backpacking to appreciate A Walk in the Woods. It is based on Bill Bryson's written account of his preparation for and subsequent backpack trip on the Appalachian Trail (AT). Sadly, the film version skips over nearly all of the preparation period, including the hilarious description of his hiking partner Katz's shopping spree the night before leaving for Georgia and the traditional southern starting point of AT through hikers at Springer Mountain.
The film version also ignores the fact that the day Bryson and an overloaded Katz set out from Springer Mountain was reportedly the coldest day on record for that date and locale. It also omits the hilarity and frustration of Katz tossing crucial items down the mountain to lighten his load on that first day of backpacking. In addition, the movie version of A Walk in the Woods falsifies the major event that more or less bonds Bryson and Katz after several weeks on the trail together. The movie gets them stuck on a mountainous overhang after tripping and/or pulling each other off the trail. The sequence is obviously constructed with computer generated imagery (CGI), flying in the face of many wonderful camera shots of the actual Appalachian Trail.
Bill Bryson's book, A Walk in the Woods, is a masterpiece of outdoor writing, combining tantalizing information about the realities of the natural world along the AT with the day to day drudgery and exaltation accompanying a long range backpacking trip. All of this with a healthy fortification of Bryson's wry wit and occasional hilarity.
The movie version is inevitably shallow by comparison. However, there is enough of the comedy and camaraderie left to recommend it to those who enjoyed the book or those who have ever struggled through anything more than a one night backpack foray. And there is Nick Nolte, who comes as close as is possible to embodying the freewheeling, yet lovable sap of a character, Katz, that Bryson created in his book.
If I had to suggest a prerequisite for Meru, it would be the 2003 documentary Touching the Void, which detailed the disastrous descent of Siula Grande in the Peruvian Andes by mountain climbers Joe Simpson and Simon Yates. Touching the Void may be the most harrowing hour and forty-five minutes in film history. Even though the audience more or less knows the overall outcome early on, the real life events and after-the-fact narration should keep just about any viewer on the edge of their seat, or more accurately, curled in a fetal ball with one hand death-gripping the arm of your chair.
The filmmakers behind Meru may well have studied the editing techniques used in Touching the Void. And then gone beyond. Touching the Void recounts events in the past. In Meru, the audience not only gets some after-the-fact accounts, but we go along on the two attempts to scale Meru. In mountainside long shots and extreme close-up, viewers experience the technical and physical challenge of trying to wall-climb that shark's fin outcropping just below Meru's peak as well as getting to know what it feels like to bivouac at 20,000 feet in a tent hanging from the side of a sheer cliff. No CGI required here.
I walked away from viewing Meru without any inner need to trek to the Himalayas, just a better sense of what it is like, both psychologically and physically, for those who do feel that need. If you want a friendly bunch of chuckles and a hint of what it is like to backpack serious distance, go see A Walk in the Woods. If you want a fuller, more realistic thrill find Meru in a big screen theater, and don't forget to get your hands on a DVD of Touching the Void. The latter two come as close to the peak as film makers can reasonably aspire.