I did the mistake, grave as always, to read the book (in Swedish translation) after I had watched the film. Not only does some of the tension get lost when you are familiar with the plot - when I read the book I could not see anything else than the actors' faces in front of me. Nonetheless, this is a story that is worthy of all the attention it has received, both as a book and as a film.
The story is simple. In a near past a catastrophe has happened, and human civilization has crumbled. A man and his son leave their home in northern USA in search of more agreeable conditions further south. What has happened, where they are and whether there is some piece of land untouched by the catastrophe is not very relevant. This is a story about how humans deal with catastrophes, how we invent religious rituals when we need them , and that without morals and values we are not human any more.
This is a real page turner, and there is a constant nerve in the book, not so much because what is actually happening to the two, but because of fear of what will happen. This is probably one of the bigger differences between the book and the film - the film dwells much more on horrible details of cannibalism, and lustful memories of love. Just like a film must do.
So why has it become such a success? One obvious explanation is the fear of a catastrophe in the near future. Both climate change and peak oil can make you wonder what will actually remain of life as we know it a hundred years from now. The road can be read as one suggestion about this.
But what is so scary with the story, and what gave me the creeps, is not the horrible circumstances the two live in. It is much more the sense of living after "peak civilization" so t say. And I think this is something that resounds with today's generations. Our culture is retro, our politics are old fashioned. We are told, and it is easy to accept, that we have come to the end of history, where all countries are ordered along 20th century lines. Even the internet, our generations biggest upheaval, has become more of a distribution channel for the entertainment industry than a new way of perceiving democracy.
So even if we don't share the physical circumstances of the protagonists in the Road, it is very easy to recognize the feeling of living after the party has ended. Too easy to not be touched by the book.