Hollywood Is Hot for Cormac McCarthy

Hollywood is in love with 72-year-old author Cormac McCarthy. He’s won every conceivable literary award known to man and his name is often used in the same sentence as giants like Melville or Faulkner. To top it off, his latest novel, The Road, was an Oprah Book Club selection. What does that mean? Billions and billions sold – that’s what that means.

Of course, Hollywood would take notice, and thankfully, he didn’t have to die like Phillip K. Dick in order for it to happen. Like all novelists in Hollywood, the question is always how to translate from page to screen. And, as with PKD, it’s easier said than done.

Cormac McCarthy writes prose poem novels littered with phrases and words that any honest reader would admit requires a lap dictionary to be out and open at all times. His stories are set in 19th and/or 20th century southern United States and peopled with characters as varied as a child bearing brother-sister act, scalp-hunting cowboys, and a dress-wearing serial killer. His legion of fans will say this by no means characterizes (and more than likely mis-characterizes) his work or his genius. But, recognizing that, I’m pretty sure it was Hollywood that coined the concept of the elevator pitch. On a positive note, similar to script-in-a-book author Michael Crichton, most of McCarthy’s novels have little to no internal dialogue. But that’s where the Crichton/McCarthy comparison ends.

McCarthy’s first work brought to screen was the near stillborn All The Pretty Horses. Though it was kept a period piece, the set-design and overall look of the film didn’t come close to capturing the beauty of McCarthy’s work.

The Coen Brothers are next up with No Country For Old Men. By all accounts they have a critical winner on their hands that will probably steamroll into big box office success and award nominations.

No Country For Old Men tells the tale of a man running from his deterministic fate. Having made off with a satchel of cash, no less than the evil incarnate is dispatched to retrieve the loot and punish the man. All the while, an old, wizened, sheriff is forced to act as country philosopher and a witness to the calamity.

At least two other books of McCarthy’s are currently in early stages of pre-production. The Road is a post-apocalyptic story of a father and son searching for food and other survivors. The duo, near death from starvation for much of the tale, walks the path under an impenetrable, sunless, sky of a dead earth. The current actor favored to play the father: Viggo Mortensen. A search is underway around various cities for his half starved child. John Hillcoat, who rose to fame after directing The Proposition, is set to direct and is a good choice for the tone of the story. Joe Penhall, with at least one highly acclaimed adaptation under his belt for Enduring Love, is scheduled to adapt. As with No Country For Old Men, this could be a straighter scene-for-scene translation.

The other film adapted from a McCarthy novel currently in pre-production, Blood Meridian, is the real challenge. It has an Apocalypse Now scope and tells the tale of The Glanton gang, a group of scalp hunters and murderers one and all who live out on the Plains. This is not a John Wayne type Western tale. The land is godless and the characters are merciless and prone to violence. With no actors on board, this will be the most difficult of his books to cast, including the bald, 7-foot tall character, Judge Holden.

The writer-director team of William Monahan and Ridley Scott are re-teaming for this one. At first glance the pair is questionable in terms of tackling such a monstrous project, but their criminally underrated Kingdom of Heaven gives me faith that the book is in good hands.

Monahan has proven his mettle in telling multi-threaded stories; Scott is one of the few unflinching directors whose movies are primarily R-rated. His films are tonal, and the surroundings are as important as the characters. The issue will be how to find access into the story itself. The character titled "The Kid" is the primary but he’s merely a window through which to view the unfolding chaos. I doubt a two or even three-hour film could be a straight scene-for-scene translation. In some sense or another, the book will have to be edited to make it into script format. Monahan certainly has his work cut out for him.

How long will the love affair between Hollywood and McCarthy last? As always, the box office is the one and only determinate. McCarthy has published ten novels and signed a contract for two more; that’s plenty of material. I’d give it at least 10 years, as long as the audiences are prepared for his dark rides. Outside of Hollywood, however, he’s made his mark. Historically and critically, Cormac McCarthy will be around long after we’re gone.