Has there ever been a film that I liked better than the book? I can’t think of one, and the film Nomadland didn’t change my mind. As friends remind me, books and films shouldn’t really be compared since they are different media. In this particular case, the two also present different stories. The book is a documentary focusing loosely around Linda May, who dreams of building a sustainable house in the Arizona desert. The film introduces a fictional character, Fern (played by the marvelous Frances McDormond), who embraces the nomad lifestyle and rejects two offers to put down roots. As she says in the film, she is houseless, not homeless.
The words matter a lot. Nomadland the film is stunningly beautiful, showing the gorgeous open spaces of the American West. Many of the characters pursue the nomad life in search of that beauty, making this a kind of geezer road trip film. The brief moments of hard work are shown as a small price to pay for the liberating moments in the midst of stunning landscapes.
The book is considerably less romantic. Most of the nomads are on the road because they have to be, not because they want to free themselves from the rat race of late industrial capitalism. The work they do is hard, demeaning, and sometimes outright dangerous. To my eyes, none of that was conveyed by Fern’s work experience in the film.
That’s not to say that Fern’s life is rosy. Her van is cramped and prone to breakdowns. She has to struggle to keep herself and her clothes clean. She needs temporary loans from a generous sister to stay on the road. And yet the films proposes that the beauty and comradery of a nomad life more than compensates for these inconveniences. It wouldn’t work for me. And is this really a solution to the high cost of aging in America?