Camera Shy McCarthy

Due to the success of “No Country for Old Men” and “The Road,” Cormac McCarthy has become a hot commodity in Hollywood as of late. It’s a success that’s been building up for quite some time. From the 1960s to the early 1990s, his books were oft read and discussed by academics and hardcore lit fic readers, but that was really it. Then he published “All The Pretty Horses” and he became a famous commercial author. Then Hollywood made three of his books into movies, all with varying degrees of success. Now, McCarthy has recently sold a script that is now being produced by Ridley Scott. This is the first time a script of his has been used since 1976’s “The Gardener’s Son,” which was shot for PBS.

Popular success has brought renewed interest in his older, denser books. “Blood Meridian” has been a victim of development hell for at least a decade, with no current plans to go through with the movie version.  “Outer Dark” was made by a small indie production company, but it isn’t currently available for public consumption.

Part (or perhaps most) of the reason that “Blood Meridian” isn’t sweeping the Oscars right now is because it isn’t necessarily Oscar material, and it could be argued that it’d be hard to get it in theaters – even for audiences who have gone through the ultraviolent ringer with Quentin Tarantino and, earlier yet, Sam Peckinpah.

The debate about a “Blood Meridian” movie is epic. There are countless arguments for and against making the movie and, at this point, it’s almost like beating a dead mule. For the time being, I’m going to leave that alone and explore his other stories, except to say that I think “Blood Meridian” would be an impossible feat for a two hour movie, though I’d be more willing to root for a mini-series on HBO or Showtime. There: that’s my contribution to the dead-mule-kicking.

James Franco has recently jumped on the CM bandwagon. First, he tried for “Blood Meridian” and got further than those before him, when he actually shot some test footage. That fell through, reportedly due to friction between him and Ridley Scott. At the same time, he announced that he was going to try and adapt Faulkner’s “As I Lay Dying.” There’s still no word on that one.

Finally, though, Franco’s dreams seem to have come true in a small way. He’s in West Virginia right now shooting an adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s “Child of God” – which was CM’s third book, and one of two McCarthy books I haven’t read yet. It’s also arguably his second most demented book, next to “Blood Meridian.”

I’ll save the long synopsis and say that it’s about a backwoods murderer and necrophiliac. Since I haven’t read it, I don’t know how well it fares in the plot department, though if it’s anything like the other books, then it’s fair to say that it probably doesn’t have much of one. I’m anticipating what Franco has in store, and how well he’ll treat the material. My thoughts on the adaptation of early McCarthy novels are varied and it’d be fair to say that favorability depends on how I feel that day. Today, I suppose I’m not feeling so favorable.

When I first started reading McCarthy’s books, I saw that the gift of reading his stories was the prose and trying to unpack all of the elements of his stories. His earlier books are treats when it comes to this and it’s easy to get lost in the heavy, considered descriptions of everything. It’s why I’m sort of glad that I haven’t seen the “Outer Dark” movie, because I’d probably end up frustrated.

At the surface, “Outer Dark” would be nothing more than a tale of an incestuous couple who lose their child, split up and then wander the Appalachian woods to look for each other – which, it is. That’s the story, but there is subtlety to McCarthy when he describes the dark force that chases the two characters or when Culla Holme, the brother in the story, finds the gang who had possession of his child. There are scenes that I can’t imagine being recreated on film, nor would I want to.

It would be hard not to touch the symbolism contained in McCarthy’s writings when talking about this, and it would be fair to say that it wouldn’t translate very well on the screen. “All The Pretty Horses,” “The Road” and “No Country for Old Men” are pretty straight forward in their storytelling and scope. “No Country for Old Men” could even be accused of being pretty pulpy.

For books like “Outer Dark,” “Blood Meridian,” and even ones as recent as “The Crossing,” these require a bit more unpacking and that’s part of the fun. It’s like reading David Foster Wallace’s “Infinite Jest.” I’ll probably get into the “unpacking” in later posts, but I’ll say that it’d be hard to convey meaningfulness on film with passages like this, from “Blood Meridian:

Far out on the desert to the north dustspouts rose wobbling and augered the earth and some said they’d heard of pilgrims borne aloft like dervishes in those mindless coils to be dropped broken and bleeding upon the desert again and there perhaps to watch the thing that had destroyed them come lurch onward like some drunken djinn and resolve itself once more into the elements from which it sprang. Out of that whirlwind no voice spoke and the pilgrim lying in his broken bones may cry out and in his anguish he may rage, but rage at what? And if the dried and blackened shell of him is found among the sands by travelers to come yet who can discover the engine of his ruin?

Nonetheless, for “Child of God” I have no reason to doubt that Franco would handle the source material carelessly. What are your thoughts, if any, on the “filmability” of McCarthy’s earlier works? On a film version of “Blood Meridian,” Cormac had this to say:

The fact that’s it’s a bleak and bloody story has nothing to do with whether or not you can put it   on the screen. That’s not the issue. The issue is it would be very difficult to do and would require someone with a bountiful imagination and a lot of balls. But the payoff could be extraordinary.

One other note: McCarthy has never had prominent female characters, except for “Outer Dark,” and I think his treatment of Rinthy Holme in the story could be called into question once or twice. There isn’t anything explicitly misogynistic about McCarthy’s writings, but he’s always been considered a man’s writer in addition to being called one of the greatest living novelists in American literature. When Oprah questioned him on this point, he said he simply doesn’t “understand women” – but that’s a bit of a cop out, and a separate post. I point this out to say this: in McCarthy’s new script, The Counselor, there is a prominent lead woman and I’m excited – and a touch nervous – to see how well that role fares.

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