BY EGINA MANACHOVA This week Cinephile pays homage to a living literary legend and the film adaptations his work have inspired. The mighty Cormac McCarthy is an eminent author and playwright in the Southern Gothic and Western tradition who is often compared to William Faulkner — which is a little like being compared to Picasso if you’re a painter or Mozart if you’re a composer. In short, McCarthy is an American master. While much of his work deals with the ethical development — or the lack thereof — between life and death, physical landscape plays as much of a role in his fiction as the characters themselves. The unforgiving landscapes in McCarthy’s fiction — the severe beauty of desert panoramas, the endless, lonely vistas of the prairie — serve as a moral proving ground where good men die every day for no good reason while others get by on their cynical intuition or a cold, pragmatic brutality.
To date, there have only been two adaptations of his work: No Country For Old Men and All The Pretty Horses. While the former was made into an instant-classic by the Cohen Brothers, the latter can be charitably described as ‘not great, but not terrible.’ All the Pretty Horses is a dark coming of age tale about a boy setting out for Mexico to develop his own identity as a man. Removed from parents who are incapable of raising him due to their own demons, he finds himself falling in to trouble and love which are one in the same in his case. Directed by Billy Bob Thorton, and starring Matt Damon and Penelope Cruz, Pretty Horses gets into trouble when it deviates too far from the source material (i.e. the first installment of Cormac McCarthy’s Border Trilogy) The film sticks to the narrative arc of the novel but somehow gets lost in translation along the way. The result is mushy romance, played by leads twenty years the senior of the characters in the book, that glosses over the harsh lessons learned by a boy who is teaching himself how to become a man that was so central to the novel. A novel, it should be pointed out, called “one of the greatest American novels of this or any time” by the Guardian.
The must-see big screen representation of Cormac McCarthy’s work is the Cohen Brothers’ No Country For Old Men, a harrowing meditation on the cruelly arbitrary nature of violence that instills the viewer with an ominous sense of dread that stays with you even long after the film is over. No Country.. follows the brutal exploits of Anton Chiguhr (a Beatles-haired Javier Bardem) a sociopathic angel of death as he wreaks havoc between the border of Texas and Mexico in 1980 in search of a missing suitcase full of drug money. Chiguhr operates on his own esoteric system of ethics that are beyond good and evil, and for that matter any sense of mercy. Nothing is sacred besides imparting his perverse justice on all equally. Bardem portrays Chiguhr as an unknowable cipher seemingly unburdened by emotion. His utter lack of facial expression is what won him the Oscar. As the film opens on the vast, arid plains of west Texas, Sheriff Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones) relates with some bewilderment the story of how he once sent a remorseless boy of fifteen to his death by electric chair. The film ends as it begins with the same sense of bafflement. Sheriff Bell tells of a dream where in his late father builds a fire across a river calling him towards the resting place, letting him know that the only country safe for old men is found in death.
The Coen Brothers’ razorwire irony is the perfect complement to Cormac McCarthy’s macabre humor, and all three build their art upon the centrality of place. Like McCarthy, the Cohens tend to make their sets a central character in the plot (SEE the heat-warped noir hotel of Barton Fink ), which is why they were able to render the vibe of early 80’s border Texas so palpable. McCarthy spent a good portion of his time in the 80’s writing in motel rooms throughout the South, barely getting by on grant money, which made for some great literature rich in local color and a few angry ex-wives. Safe to say that most if not all the colorful characters that people No Country… were based on real people met along the way during that mad period of motel wanderlust. As a recent transplant from The Lone Star State, I can assure you that west Texas is stranger than fiction, or at least as strange as. And much of it still looks like it does in the movie, especially along the border, where change comes slow or not at all and the only thing more certain than death or taxes is that a strip mall will show and take root sooner or later.
John Hillcoat has big shoes to fill when his screen adaption of McCarthy’s The Road is released later this year, starring Viggo Mortensen, Charlize Theron and the always-awesome Robert Duvall. Judging by his CV, he seems like the right man for the job. His direction of The Proposition, the Australian Western written and scored by Nick Cave, was beyond rebuke. The Road is a post-apocalyptic saga set in the near-future about a father and son’s quest to survive after an unexplained (but presumably nuclear) disaster wipes out the majority of the Earth’s population, leaving behind a few survivors to fend for themselves Lord Of The Flies-style. (McCarthy was reportedly inspired to write The Road after having a child late in life.) While the premise and the narrative is a distinct departure from McCarthy’s hyper-realist regionalism, thematically it is of a piece with his back catalog of rugged south western tales: Limited resources in the control of a few people, land difficult if not impossible to cultivate and the confrontation of death all haunt the father and son as they hike the road to doom — which is to say, even though the Earth is destroyed and almost everyone is dead, not that much really changes. The novel was well received and became a bestseller almost instantly. When The Road won the Pulitzer and found its way into Oprah’s book club, the media-shy McCarthy was pressed more-than-a-little unwillingly into a stiff and awkward interview — only the third he has given in 73 years — with the Queen herself.
As his third screen adaptation is about to be released a fourth, Blood Meridian, is in pre-production. Much is unknown about the film except that Todd Field will be directing it. The novel is a dense, violent allegory about a runaway known only as the “kid” and his entanglement with the Glanton Gang, a group of scalp hunters who massacre Indians across the Appalachian trail. A highly symbolic, richly-detailed epic, Blood Meridian is the kind of novel that could easily get away from all but the most skilled and visionary of directors. Some say it’s un-filmable. Here’s hoping Field is up to the task. And here’s where we give the old man the last word. From Blood Meridan: