McCarthy in Film, or the Cinematic Letdown of Genius: A Retrospective


“Whatever in creation exists without my knowledge exists without my consent.”

– The Judge, Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy

That is perhaps the most memorable passage from perhaps the twentieth century’s most memorable novel. Blood Meridian, with its epic scope, simultaneously ethereal and exact violence, and vivid, ominously intuitive prose, encapsulates each of McCarthy’s authorial signatures at their heights. There’s a reason the novel’s widely touted as his masterpiece and a major achievement in American literature. In equal measure with those oft-lavished praises, McCarthy’s visions are endlessly cinematic. Strange, then, that his attachment to a film hasn’t necessarily uncowled masterclasses similar to his literature.

“He stood at the window of the empty cafe and watched the activities in the square and he said that it was good that God kept the truths of life from the young as they were starting out or else they’d have no heart to start at all.”

– Cormac McCarthy, All the Pretty Horses


All the Pretty Horses was the first in McCarthy’s repertoire to hit the silver screen. A story of loyalty, passion, innocence it was marred by an inherited feud in the ranks. Director Billy Bob Thornton’s cut came in at nearly four hours. Harvey Weinstein, who’d been similarly displeased with Sling Blade’s length, did what Harvey Weinstein does. He chopped and screwed it. The final product was a bore despite pieces in place. Thornton four years earlier won an Oscar for Sling Blade’s script. Matt Damon led a solid cast that also included Penelope Cruz. The source material won the National Book Award. Still, the film tanked commercially. Damon ridiculed the extent to which the final cut was whittled, and the original composer ended up disassociating from the movie.

The relative failure cooled the industry McCarthy enthusiasm little, though. Only three months after the source novel turned two, the Coen Brothers’ No Country for Old Men released to universal acclaim and a slew of awards. The film opens and closes with two exquisite monologues, the former over painterly shots of West Texas and the latter coming from a disheartened and despondent Sheriff Bell. Everything that occurs between the two scenes is horrifying rarity. Each performance inspired, the pacing immaculate, the Coens crafted a film for the young century. Moss evades Chigurh. Chigurh coerces his chilling order. Bell struggles to reconcile the world around him. McCarthy gifted the Coens with a readymade story. They capitalized.

“The stories gets passed on and the truth gets passed over. As the sayin goes. Which I reckon some would take as meanin that the truth cant compete. But I dont believe that. I think that when the lies are all told and forgot the truth will be there yet. It dont move about from place to place and it dont change from time to time. You cant corrupt it any more than you can salt salt.”

– Sheriff Bell, No Country for Old Men by Cormac McCarthy

As a culture we’re often narcissistic. Image, perception, gratification, satisfaction—we Americans are a self-conscious group. From the structure of our media, entertainment, historical identification we tend to move cyclically. It’s a balancing act. It’s a model that could so closely resemble self-consumption if we were to take one false step. Whenever one cycle reaches its back half, it looks onto the rearing cycle, the next generation, and criticizes. Really, it’s contempt or pride, gowned and madeup. The cycles are simply at different points in the wheel. Those in the rear will reach the back half too, and critique the new arrivals. It’s repetition.

Where is the hope in this? Under what circumstances could it change?

The-RoadIn its destruction. Part of what makes The Road so devastating is its infinite absence of society. Oftentimes, post-apocalyptic fare deconstructs society, but as a means to explore its rebirth. The Walking Dead, Dawn of the Dead, Mad Max, Wall-E, Stalker—on and on. McCarthy’s sparse prose poeticized the eerie beauty of man and son and life. The Road’s a story about the most basic ideal for which to survive: goodness. As the man and the boy journey across the ashen wasteland to the west coast, something revelatory, innate, and enlivening evolves. McCarthy has said the man and the boy are he and his son, John. At times he draws from their  conversations. The Road questions, truly, what guidance can be provided? How much of our nature is not already given?

Much of the evolution develops in the prose—in the way the words lay on the page. Typically, the challenge with adaptions is the abundance of story. But The Road’s chronological narrative is quite spare. Rather, Hillcoat had to emulate in his frames the novel’s language, the crux of McCarthy’s prowess. Structure and content are one thing. Violence, subplots, themes—those can be groomed. When the power of literature lies in the thing unique to it—written language—that’s when a translation can muddle. Hillcoat’s The Road showcased Viggo Mortensen, Robert Duvall and Charlize Theron. It introduced us to Kodi Smit-McPhee’s young skill. Yet the film is flawed, an above-average, movingly thesped trip. The narrative and thematic oomph depend on the near-interminable trudge of decay. How slow, in 111 minutes, can a film possibly be paced?

“He knew only that his child was his warrant. He said: If he is not the word of God God never spoke.”

– Cormac McCarthy, The Road

The central trouble is rather blunt. A filmmaker whose respective stature goes toe to toe with McCarthy’s has yet to encumber himself with adapting a Cormac McCarthy novel. Tedious medium differences aside, authorial skill levels have not been equal. In fairness: Duh. Hillcoat is a fine director. Thornton collected praise and awards for Sling Blade. Scott’s given us two of cinema’s landmark genre pictures. None can ascend McCarthy’s peak. No Country for Old Men added to the Cozens’ filmography two certifiable classics, but McCarthy first wrote the story as a screenplay. It was only later that he reverse-engineered it into a novel. The film beats and conventions were already in the framework.

No-Country-for-old-menCinephiles for years have envisaged the filmmakers befitted to adapt the supposedly unfilmable Blood Meridian. The Coens resurface, as they should. Paul Thomas Anderson would seem an apt suitor. Nicholas Winding Refn might’ve lost traction with Only God Forgives—though I’ve found him a tremendously suspect consideration anyway. Beyond that, who? There are names, sure, but who among them possesses the requisite body of work and voice? McCarthy himself rebuffed the suggestion that Blood Meridian couldn’t be successfully adapted. As with any of his novels, navigating the story from one medium to the other would take “a bountiful imagination and a lot of balls.” He’s right. It’s not the novel itself that poses the largest hurdle. The novel must fall to someone who can do with a camera what McCarthy can with a typewriter. Eventually someone will try. And McCarthy’s optimistic: “the payoff could be extraordinary.”

The Counselor is not McCarthy’s first professionally produced screenplay. McCarthy penned the screenplay The Gardener’s Son, which was part of the BBC series Visions. He also wrote a play titled The Sunset Limited. In it Tommy Lee Jones and Samuel L. Jackson ennoble ideas of death, race, humanity. HBO produced it. Ambiguously, it’s subtitled “A Novel in Dramatic Form.” It provided the two actors some of the most sumptuous dialogue of their careers. Their conversation, at an apartment dinette, is the film’s only setpiece.


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Kyle Burton

Director of Television
So long Mizzou, hello (virtual) Toronto! I saw 2001: A Space Odyssey for the first time when I was fifteen, and after immediately thinking 'What in the holy hell?', I stumbled onto Roger Ebert's review of the film. I haven't looked back since, and I try to maintain that infusion of knowledge of and love for all things film that I discovered in that stumbled upon, clarified moment.

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