Thursday, June 8, 2017

Adapting Cormac McCarthy: Tracking Blood from Page to Screen

Stacey Peebles' new book, Cormac McCarthy and Performance, is the first comprehensive overview of the renowned author's writings for film, theater, and the film adaptations of his novels. Uncovering these oft-overlooked works by drawing on primary sources from McCarthy's recently opened archive and interviews with several collaborators, this book examines titles such as the 1977 televised film The Gardener's Son, McCarthy's unpublished screenplays from the 1980s that became the foundation for his Border Trilogy novels and No Country for Old Men; various productions of two of his plays; and seven film adaptations.
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The vice president of the Cormac McCarthy Society, an associate professor of English and the director of film studies at Centre College, Peebles focuses on the emergent theme of tragedy within McCarthy's work, relaying the difficulties of translating his vivid depictions of violence and suffering into the medium of film by giving us a brief look into the unending and often upended saga of adapting 1985's Blood Meridian to the silver screen.

Tracking Blood from Page to Screen

Stacey Peebles

American cinema—and cinema generally—is no stranger to violence. In 1903, one of the first one-reelers, Edwin S. Porter’s The Great Train Robbery, showcased a group of outlaws who didn’t hesitate to shoot innocent bystanders or beat a man’s face in with a rock before tossing the body off the moving train. Later years would pass milestone after violent milestone: Bonnie and Clyde meeting their gruesome and excessively brutal end in Arthur Penn’s 1967 film (a level of graphic realism that audiences were already seeing every night on the evening news about the Vietnam War, Penn implied); Michael Corleone ordering hits on all his rivals to take place simultaneously with his niece’s baptism in Coppola’s The Godfather (1977); Quentin Tarantino blasting his way into the national consciousness with an unsettling mix of violence and comedy in Pulp Fiction (1994); and the development of the 1970s slasher film into the post-9/11 “torture porn” of Saw (2004) and Hostel (2005). Even now, when a glut of superhero films present violence as fantastical or metaphoric, audiences seem ever willing to consider, even test themselves against, spectacular violence in cinema.
From The Great Train Robbery

The Western, the genre which The Great Train Robbery inaugurated into film, may not be as ubiquitous as it was in the 1950s and 1960s, but it remains alive, resurrected from claims of its obsolescence by films like True Grit (2012), The Revenant (2016), and Hell or High Water (2017). Violence is arguably the genre’s fundamental element, and some films take that bloodiness to an extreme, like The Wild Bunch (1969) or The Hateful Eight (2015). And so an acclaimed Western novel from a Pulitzer Prize-winning author like Cormac McCarthy, whose No Country for Old Men was masterfully (and very lucratively) adapted for the screen by the Coen brothers, would seem like a sure bet, brimming with cinematic potential. (And who remembered the fiasco that was All the Pretty Horses, anyway? 2000 was ancient Hollywood history, and blame it all on Harvey “Scissorhands” Weinstein if you need to point the finger somewhere.)

McCarthy’s 1985 novel Blood Meridian is epic in scope, style, and import. It has a narrative focus and sweep that is, as Steven Frye and others have argued, likely influenced by Western films from directors like Peckinpah. The novel’s language is ineffably literary and, at the same time, richly imagistic. After all, this is no Remembrance of Things Past, a deeply internal exploration of memory and the streams of consciousness. Blood Meridian is a story in which action and landscape speak loudest, and though it may be philosophical, political, historical, and theological, it is perhaps most primarily a vivid, disturbing, haunting spectacle. And spectacle is the very language of film. Despite those attractions and advantages, however, the novel has thus far eluded attempts to bring it to the screen—perhaps indicating that, at least as far as violence is concerned, there are still some places that lie off the cinematic map.

Blood Meridian is a historical novel based on a wide array of sources, primarily soldier Samuel Chamberlain’s memoir My Confession: Recollections of a Rogue (Ed. William Goetzmann, Texas State Historical Association, 1996). In the late 1840s, Chamberlain fought in the Mexican-American War and afterwards rode with John Glanton and his gang, who were contracted by the Mexican government to kill and scalp Native Americans. Some of Chamberlain’s experiences are the basis for the life of the kid, the book’s nameless protagonist who from an early age harbors “a taste for mindless violence” (Sepich, Notes on Blood Meridian, 2008). Blood Meridian follows the kid as he leaves home at fourteen, travels to Texas, miraculously survives a disastrous filibustering expedition into Mexico, and then joins the Glanton gang.

McCarthy’s research, however, went far beyond Chamberlain. He recorded precise details about the geography and architecture of places like San Diego, Tucson, and Fort Griffin; he discovered it takes seventy-five parts saltpeter, fifteen parts charcoal, and ten parts sulfur to make a passable gunpowder; and he researched currency, population, individual people, and vocabulary. He made a list of “horse ailments” that includes strangles, sollander, stanquary, sealing, scouring, scurp, and sandcreaks.[1]

This extensive historical and physical detail lends the novel a feeling of authenticity, of course, but also presents what John Sepich has called Blood Meridian’s “problem of information”: that the historically verifiable characters and events of the novel are not identifiable or immediately apparent to most readers. In addition, “McCarthy’s devotion to historical authenticity” set against “the audacity with which he tailors sources to his own ends” creates an interesting friction. The kid is the protagonist of the novel—and the kid is not Chamberlain—yet the historical accounts of the Glanton gang provide the backbone of the book. Without them, Sepich says, Blood Meridian looks like “three hundred pages of grotesque evidence, derived from McCarthy’s imagination, to support [the character] Judge Holden’s claim that war and violence dominate men’s lives.” Understanding the novel, Sepich implies, requires the recognition of its particular history in order to justify the representation of such extreme violence (Notes on Blood Meridian, 2008).

The earliest attempt to adapt the novel for film, however, took a different approach, dialing back the frequency and extremity of the violence and imbuing it instead with theological meaning. After McCarthy became famous in 1992 with All the Pretty Horses, producer Scott Rudin purchased the rights to Blood Meridian, and by 1994 Steve Tesich was working on a screenplay; his finished version is dated January 1995 (Busch, Daily Variety, 1994; Tesich, Southwestern Writers Collection, Wittliff Collections, Texas State University). Tesich had previously won the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay for Breaking Away (1979), and he adapted John Irving’s novel The World According to Garp (1982). Blood Meridian was one of his last projects before he died in 1996.

John Grady Cole (Matt Damon) bustin’ broncs in Billy Bob Thornton’s film adaptation of All the Pretty Horses (Columbia Pictures, 2000).
The screenplay’s opening uses the Leonid meteor shower of November 13, 1833 to frame its approach to the story. While the novel opens with the kid’s father speaking briefly about the night the “stars did fall” with such frequency as to astonish those who watched, Tesich begins in a way that is quite literally cosmic. The camera begins in space, hovering far above the earth, as chunks of rock move past. It’s the meteor shower that marks the kid’s birth. The meteors increase in number to hundreds, then thousands, until the camera hurtles toward the earth, one of the meteors raining fire on the terrified people below.

The screenplay then repeatedly uses overhead shots to emphasize the vastness of the landscape. They suggest, too, that human actions are insignificant at the same time that they have, paradoxically, cosmic import. What that import may be, especially with regard to the kid, is the central question of the screenplay. At different times in the story he is compared to Judas, later to Christ. The judge, as it turns out, is unambiguously Satan.

The screenplay ends cosmically as well, with the judge watching as the kid leaps after a small child the judge has thrown off a ridge. They fall through a misty, empty space, the kid crying and calling out, “GOD! GOD, WHERE ARE YOU?” They continue to fall, and the screenplay ends.

The kid’s last line is clunky and belabors the theological allegory—Why have you forsaken me, God?—but it serves to culminate this interpretation that unapologetically takes creative leaps with the material in order to emphasize the kid’s metaphysical and theological choice, the nature of evil, and the struggle to comprehend the intentions of an absent God. The theological approach also frames the story’s violence as Satan’s temptation of man rather than as historical reality, a dark view of human nature, or an exciting visual spectacle. The result is an effective way of addressing the particularly cinematic problem of what to do with all that vivid brutality and bloodshed.

Shot from Westray's death scene (played by Brad Pitt) in Ridley Scott's adaptation of The Counselor
Westray is executed with a device called "the bolito" which gradually strangles and decapitates the victim.

Tesich’s interpretation, however, was only the first of many that would never reach the screen. Many years later, Ridley Scott decided to take on the project, and he even set a release date of 2009 (Thielman, 2007). Scott soon abandoned the effort, however, saying that in his case he couldn’t figure out a way to handle the extensive violence. In his commentary on the Blu-Ray for The Counselor (2013), he reflects back on that decision:

Blood Meridian was one of my favorite reads. … you think, wow, this is going to make a slam-dunk Western, be fantastic. But it is so bloody and so unforgiving, irredeemably dark, that we had it written, it was written by Bill Monahan, a good screenplay. But the orchestration of death was so endless, continuous, that I had to say, I wonder--should this not remain a book rather than try to make it into a movie?
Scott was working with a screenplay by Bill Monahan, who won an Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay for The Departed (2006). Unlike Tesich’s version, many people have heard of Monahan’s Blood Meridian, and it’s available for download on some online screenwriting forums. Unfortunately, this is an unauthenticated copy—it doesn’t list Monahan’s name on the title page and is attributed to him only by hearsay. Like Tesich’s, this version makes changes to the novel’s plot, though here the effect is more Peckinpah on steroids than Bergman-lite. It begins with the kid shooting his drunken, dying father and ends, after a relentless series of battles, scalpings, murders, and orations from the judge, with a final confrontation between the two characters. This time, though, the kid pulls a bowie knife, and after some sort of fight that is heard but not seen, he emerges injured but alive. In the final scene, the kid takes responsibility for a small boy, the brother of Elrod, whom he killed in a shootout. He promises to take the boy East and raise him, and the two ride off together, leaving the West and its endemic violence behind.

After Scott gave up on the adaptation, director Todd Field took the reins, working on a screenplay of his own (Medina). “[McCarthy’s] work examines our core,” said Field at the time, “the two faces of violence that co-exist in every savage act--brutal strength of purpose holding hands with a desperate and cowering weakness.” As Scott’s originally had been, Field’s Blood Meridian was also set for release in 2009. That version didn’t come to pass either, and the next person to publicly take up the challenge was James Franco. But somewhere along the way, Andrew Dominik, Tommy Lee Jones, and John Hillcoat all considered the project as well. In 2009 it was reported that Jones had written an adaptation of the novel at some point in the past and that Hillcoat had thought about trying to direct an adaptation before working on his Australian Western The Proposition (Fleming, Daily Variety, 2009; Bledsoe). In an article for the website about the various attempts at Blood Meridian, James Franco writes that Andrew Dominik had spoken with him about being part of an adaptation of Cities of the Plain and that during that conversation Dominik mentioned that he had also once thought of pursuing Blood Meridian.

The conversations with Dominik spurred Franco himself to give Blood Meridian a try. He shot a half-hour test reel that shows how the gang met the judge (Franco, “James Franco’s ‘Blood’”). Scott Glenn plays Tobin and Mark Pellegrino, whom Franco notes is his old acting teacher, plays the judge (Franco, “Adapting”).

Mark Pellegrino as the judge in James Franco's half-hour test reel for Blood Meridian
The test was “awesome,” reported Franco, and in 2011 he got a green light for the full adaptation from Scott Rudin, who still owned the rights (Franco, “Adapting”; Brooks, "Franco to Direct"). But this would turn out to be yet another false start. In 2014 Franco told the story of his own failed attempt at Blood Meridian, omitting Rudin’s name from the narrative: “It was a dream come true,” he writes, “but, for various reasons, it fell apart. The unnamed producer got mad at me and took the rights back, so, bam, that’s it. I don’t get to do it” (Franco, “Adapting”). Then in May 2016, news broke that Franco was indeed going to direct Blood Meridian, this time with Russell Crowe in a starring role (presumably as the judge) and also featuring Vincent D’Onofrio and Tye Sheridan. Almost immediately, however, news followed that the adaptation had been scrapped because Franco did not, in fact, have the rights to adapt the novel, and some speculated that the sudden publicity had derailed already tenuous negotiations (Jaafar). This second false start for Franco, then, also seems to have turned on Rudin’s lack of confidence in the project.

Given the parade of failed attempts by quite different writers and directors, Blood Meridian has developed a reputation as an impossible adaptation, a story with so much blood and bleakness that trying to put it to the screen would result in inevitable capitulation. McCarthy himself, however, disagrees, at least when it comes to Blood Meridian. When John Jurgensen asked him if it would be impossible to adapt for film, he said,

That’s all crap. The fact that 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.
As McCarthy suggested to Oprah Winfrey when talking about the plot of The Road (CBS, 2007), assuming you know how the story will end is a mistake—better to take a risk and see where the road takes you. The world is suffused with violence and suffering, and none of McCarthy’s narratives demonstrates that as amply as Blood Meridian. But that darkness isn’t all-encompassing, nor does it preclude resistance and hope. Many of McCarthy’s characters—John Grady in All the Pretty Horses, Black in The Sunset Limited, and even the kid in Blood Meridian—recognize the malevolence and suffering inherent in the world around them and yet they push back, they keep riding on. Hollywood isn’t quite the Wild West, of course, but there may still be hope yet for a successful adaptation of Blood Meridian. And who doesn’t love a good story about a horse with long odds?

[1] Notes on Hobbs, Hamilton, and Thompson appear in photocopied notebook pages in a folder labeled “OV (West),” Cormac McCarthy Papers box 35, folder 5, n.p. The notes on cities, the gunpowder recipe, and the list of horse ailments appear in a folder of typescript notes with holograph corrections, Cormac McCarthy Papers box 35, folder 7, n.p. Southwestern Writers Collection, Wittliff Collections, Texas State University, San Marcos.

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