Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Adapting McCarthy

On the heels of No Country for Old Men’s big sweep at the Oscars I thought I would take a moment to note the rising popularity of the McCarthy adaptation. What McCarthy adaptations you ask? There has only been All the Pretty Horses and No Country. But with the success of No Country for Old Men, and McCarthy Pulitzer this past year his novels have become production gold.

I’m slightly opposed to this trend, I’m a fan of McCarthy’s work, let’s skip objectivity, I’m a fan and don’t want to have these novels ruined, or worse yet, bastardized. The track record provides little insight into whether or not these adaptations can work. All the Pretty Horses (until recently) was his most commercially successful work, the Billy Bob Thorton movie adaptation was less than successful. No Country for Old Men was arguably one of his weakest novels; it tended towards a little bit more simplistic structure and never quite comes together the way, say, Blood Meridian or The Road ever do. Which, oddly, lent itself to a much better screen adaptation. The Coen Brothers found the heart of the novel, the impotence of Sheriff Bell, and used that as the focal point of the adaptation (thus the much debated final scene of the film).

But with two more adaptations in production it’s not clear that adapting two of his most successful novels will lend themselves to quality filmmaking. Both Blood Meridian and The Road are currently in the works and may not have the kind of strength and insight behind them that the Coens brought to No Country for Old Men.

McCarthy Pulitzer winning The Road is currently filming with director John Hillcoat at the wheel. Hillcoat’s most recent film, The Proposition, seems to be in a similar vein to the novels of McCarthy. He may be a well suited director for the project, and The Road may be the kind of novel that allows itself to be adapted into another Oscar worthy film. The novel is simple and sheds a typical narrative arch. In fact there isn’t really an arc it’s more like a sun-bleached plain with minor depressions. The film is going to star Viggo Mortensen, Guy Pearce, and Charlize Theron, which is a decent lineup for a dark moody novel that takes place in a post-apocalyptic America.

What may be a much more difficult task is Ridley Scott’s pending adaptation of Blood Meridian. Blood Meridian may be a novel on par with Tristram Shandy, as a nearly unfilmable work of fiction. So much takes place in Blood Meridian, vast internal worlds, horrible massacres, betrayal, unparalleled violence. It is an economical novel; every scene feels important and trimmed of the fat. Much like No Country for Old Men it isn’t always about what is happening in front of your eyes, but what is being left out, about what isn’t yet being said. The major obstacle here may be Ridley Scott. A quality filmmaker, yes, but his filmography does not say much for subtle films. Scott’s films tend towards the overblown epic, the glorious sweeping stories that tell of great heroes and underdogs, in a word, Hollywood. Scott has made some great films in his career, but the subtlety, which this novel needs in adaptation, may not be within his realm. William Monahan will be actually penning the adaptation. He, as well, doesn’t not have a history of subtle screenplays. His screenplays for Kingdom of Heaven and The Departed were both well-written scripts, but an adaptation of a modern American classic may not be as successful (as he works simultaneously on the screenplays for both Blood Meridian and Jurassic Park IV). Even the adaptation of The Departed from Infernal Affairs lacked a sense of subtlety or the notion that he had found the heart of the story. It is a great adaptation, but so much of it is directly lifted from Andrew Lau’s Infernal Affairs that there isn’t a whole lot of adapting going on. Even with the nearly one to one adapting scheme used for The Departed he seems to miss the heart of Infernal Affairs and creates a new thematic trajectory for The Departed that did not exist in Infernal Affairs.

Adapting a film from a novel is a common practice, and a dangerous one. More often than not it leads to arguments over how well it was adapted or which form the story is better suited for. And adapting a great American author like Cormac McCarthy can be even more dangerous, yet it can be done. The Coen Brothers proved that it is possible to truly find the heart of a story and evade such esoteric arguments, allowing the novel and the film to coexist, to even become interdependent or lend a helping hand in analysis. But the Hollywood’s rush to adapt McCarthy’s great novels is reminiscent of the constant fads that take over the studios, be it comic book films and superheroes, apocalyptic epics, or McCarthy novels, a saturation of a certain kind of film can be a negative thing in theaters, especially when you’re toying with a novelist of McCarthy’s stature.


David said...

Obviously the Coen Brothers did a good job with No Country; and, again obviously, no one is arguing this. However, don't you think there was something HUGE missing by placing the sheriff's wife in the periphery of the movie when, in the book, she played such an important role in defining Sheriff Bell? I think they still got to the heart of Sheriff Bell, but they lost a great character and, in my opinion, kind of made her a stereotypical wife character--one could easily tell the relationship between her and Sheriff Bell was a strong one, but she was, only through Bell's words in the book, an amazing character. I'm writing this at work and therefore cannot expound further, maybe a future post on my blog...

Dustin said...

I agree, she is really marginalized in the film, and the relationship is a little thin.