Twelve Monkeys on The Road

Topics: FilmThe Road

The film Twelve Monkeys and the novel The Road are completely different pieces of work, however their themes and motifs share very similar meanings. While the delivery of these subjects certainly is divergent from each other, the connotations behind them are comparable. Audiences may interpret themes of Twelve Monkeys and The Road differently, however a more in depth look of the two pieces of work displays similarities in the purposes of their themes. Terry Gilliam’s 12 Monkeys is a post-apocalyptic science fiction film.

After the world is wiped out by plague, the main character, James Cole, travels back in time to discover the source. He believes the origin to be a shady group called the Army of the Twelve Monkeys.

Throughout the film, Cole deals with psychological issues. In his cycle of insanity, Cole doesn’t know if his reality is pre-determined, as he is stuck living in a time loop. At the beginning of this time loop, he as a boy sees himself dying as a man.

There are themes of death, religion, good versus evil, and memory present all throughout the film. Symbols such as the twelve monkeys themselves, the Dutch angles of Cole, and the numerous parallel images within the movie support these themes. Much like 12 Monkeys, Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road” is post-apocalyptic. The novel begins with a man waking up next to a child. Throughout the book, the reader follows the man and the boy on their journey through the deleterious wasteland that is now their world.

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McCarthy uses themes and motifs for purposes similar to those in Gilliam’s 12 Monkeys.

Death is the most prominent theme of The Road, and the concepts of religion, good versus evil, and memory are present as well. While these exact same themes are present in 12 Monkeys, they are portrayed differently while still having similar messages behind them. Motifs such as “the fire”, ash, and the nature of the setting in the story all aid in portraying the most significant themes of the novel. The theme of death is very prominent in both 12 Monkeys and The Road. In 12 Monkeys, Cole’s fate is to continually live in the loop of seeing himself die for the rest of his life, over and over again. Also, the overarching idea of a post-apocalyptic setting sets up the death of others to be the reason that Cole is in his predicament in the first place. “Five billion people died in 1996 and 1997. Almost the entire population of the world. Only about one percent of us survived.”

Cole realizes the fate of others and himself is an imminent death because he has seen the future and continues to live in it. He continues to work to find the cure because he has no other choice. In The Road, the man eventually accepts his death as well. “The snow whispered down in the stillness and the sparks rose and dimmed and died in the eternal blackness.”  writes McCarthy. This is in reference to the man giving up and accepting death. Although he accepts it like Cole does, he much like Cole also continues on. The man feels as though the boy is his responsibility, and one of the only lights in the world of darkness that they reside in. The man says, “I’ve not seen a fire in a long time, that’s all.”, referencing “the fire” in the boy that gives the man hope. The fire represents good and the aspiration to continue living, much like the Key West commercials in 12 Monkeys. “Are you at the end of your rope? Are you dying to get away?

The Florida Keys are waiting for you.”, the commercial echoes in the film. Both of these motifs are symbols of hope and represent alternatives to the imminent death that characters face in both pieces of work. Religion is another theme that both 12 Monkeys and The Road share, mainly due to the main characters. Both the boy and James Cole represent Jesus Christ in their respective scripts. In 12 Monkeys, Cole is Gilliam’s twisted take on Christ. Sent as somewhat of a savior to find a cure for the virus, Cole doesn’t succeed in saving the world. He ends up paying the price and suffering for being the savior, however he doesn’t succeed in doing so as Jesus does in the bible. This is parallel to the boy in The Road. While religion is much more prominent of a them in The Road than it is in 12 Monkeys, the most similar to Cole is the boy, who is somewhat of a Christ figure in the novel.

A conversation occurs between the boy and the man, once again talking about the fire “Yes. That would be okay. And they could be carrying the fire too? They could be. Yes. But we don’t know. We don’t know”. This portrays how the boy sees the good in everything. The only hope the man has for the world is in the boy; he is truly the man’s savior. The character profile of Jesus is the religious counterpart between 12 Monkeys and The Road. There is an overarching theme of good versus evil in both pieces of work. This theme ties into the previously mentioned religious tone, as well as touching on the theme of insanity. In 12 Monkeys, Cole deals with this dilemma of good versus evil. Cole is sent to save the world from the apocalypse, however he is unable to. Instead he is stuck in the time loop of watching himself die over and over again. There is good in his actions, but not necessarily his intentions. Cole doesn’t want to save anyone. He instead wants to live in the past instead of dwelling on the future that he is living in.  The man in The Road deals with similar problems.

His intentions are to protect the boy at all costs, however he tries doing so without exhibiting violence. He sees the good in the boy, but the evil that surrounds him eventually influences him. “Because we’re the good guys… and we’re carrying the fire” says the boy when talking to the man about eating someone. The boy fears the evil of the world and wants the man to ensure to him that they will never eat anyone. However, carrying the fire shows that the man and the boy not only believe in good, but they will do anything to survive. The man would do anything to keep the boy alive, as he sees good in him, and can find that good nowhere else. While losing his faith in God, he is simultaneously gaining faith in the boy. The man doesn’t understand if there was a God why such a thing would happen. This causes him to turn away from the evil and look to the good. Much like Cole in 12 Monkeys, these characters are left to define what they think is evil, and what they think is good.

Memory is a central theme of both 12 Monkeys and The Road as well. In 12 Monkeys, Cole continually live in the same time loop for all of eternity and can’t remember seeing himself die. He also can’t remember whether what he is experiencing is reality, as he deals with psychological issues and insanity. Sometimes he knows that he is a time-traveler from the future, and other times he thinks he is insane to even propose such an idea. In The Road, the man deals with the same distrust. McCarthy writes “They slipped out of their backpacks and left them on the terrace and kicked their way through the trash on the porch and pushed into the kitchen. The boy held on to his hand. All much as he’d remembered it. The rooms empty. In the small room off the dining room there was a bare iron cot, a metal folding table. The same cast-iron coal grate in the small fireplace.

The pine paneling was gone from the walls leaving just the furring strips. He stood there. He felt with his thumb in the painted wood of the mantle the pinholes from tacks that had held stockings forty years ago. This is where we used to have Christmas when I was a boy. He turned and looked out at the waste of the yard. A tangle of dead lilac. The shape of a hedge. On cold winter nights when the electricity was out in a storm we would sit at the fire here, me and my sisters, doing our homework. The boy watched him. Watched shapes claiming him he could not see. We should go, Papa, he said. Yes, the man said. But he didn’t.” This quote perfectly exemplifies the mistrust the man has for his memories, which is parallel to Cole’s lack of trust and wariness towards his memories. The Road and 12 Monkeys share themes and motifs that are used for similar purposes. The ideas of death, religion, good versus evil, and memory are all prominent themes in both pieces of work. They are ideas that are structured similarly and serve the same motive. The purposes of the themes from The Road and 12 Monkeys are comparably indistinguishable.

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Twelve Monkeys on The Road. (2021, Dec 26). Retrieved from

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