The many, many cursed attempts to adapt Cormac McCarthy’s “Blood Meridian” to film

James Franco has been trying to turn his favorite novel into a movie for years.
James Franco has been trying to turn his favorite novel into a movie for years.
Image: Reuters/Jim Urquhart
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You’ve probably heard of Cormac McCarthy’s inscrutable 1985 Western novel Blood Meridian. Many literary critics consider it one of the greatest American novels ever written. But unless you’re a member of the relatively small, fanatical, masochistic club who has actually read the book, you may not know quite how cinematic it is in its sweep.

I read the book in college, and found it a challenge, not just because of its scarce plot (which involves a young protagonist called only “the kid” traveling alongside an anarchic band of scalp-hunting marauders in the 19th century American West), but also because of its abundance of unspeakable violence, which I soon discovered was the plot. The violence is the book.

And yet, McCarthy’s stunning prose is what stands out to me, years later. His words seem to be offered to us from some higher power. It still puzzles me that they were written by a human. For a taste, consider this passage from Blood Meridian, the last three sentences of which are the most sublime I’ve ever read:

For the next two weeks they would ride by night, they would make no fire. They had struck the shoes from their horses and filled the nailholes in with clay and those who still had tobacco used their pouches to spit in and they slept in caves and on bare stone. They rode their horses through the tracks of their dismounting and they buried their stool like cats and they barely spoke at all. Crossing those barren gravel reefs in the night they seemed remote and without substance. Like a patrol condemned to ride out some ancient curse. A thing surmised from the blackness by the creak of leather and the chink of metal.

McCarthy can turn the act of defecating into holes in the ground into poetry, but these words are also cinema. The image of a company of riders traveling swiftly and silently across a desert through the night is why films are made.

So it’s all the more frustrating that the novel refuses to cooperate.

blood meridian cormac mccarthy

Last week, entertainment outlets reported that the McCarthy fanboy James Franco was finally in the midst of turning Blood Meridian into a movie, after years of talks and rumors. His project was shelved less than a day later, after it was revealed that the actor-filmmaker had, crucially, failed to secure the rights to the novel.

Franco was only the latest in a long line of A-list filmmakers trying and failing to adapt McCarthy’s enigmatic novel to the screen. Here’s only a sampling of the directors who have at one point been connected to a Blood Meridian film:

  1. Ridley Scott, who successfully adapted McCarthy’s own screenplay of The Counselor in 2013.
  2. Tommy Lee Jones, who has both acted in and directed various westerns already and starred in the HBO adaptation of McCarthy’s play The Sunset Limited.
  3. Martin Scorsese, who is Martin Scorsese, and should be able to make whatever he wants.
  4. John Hillcoat, who directed the movie adaptation of McCarthy’s The Road in 2009.
  5. James Franco, a self-proclaimed McCarthy scholar, who has for years been working on making a Blood Meridian movie, to no avail. (Franco even got as far as shooting 30 minutes of test footage.)

Those who hated Franco’s widely panned adaptation of McCarthy’s earlier novel, Child of God may have breathed a sigh of relief. But many are still eager to see what’s arguably McCarthy’s best novel brought to screen—ideally as successfully as the Cohen brothers’ No Country for Old Men.

McCarthy himself thinks it’s possible: “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,” the author told the Wall Street Journal in 2009. “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.”

Why have efforts to film this movie been so cursed? As cinematic as McCarthy’s prose is, the book still has a lot of things going against it. Some are quite obvious, others less so:

  • The violence: The novel features perhaps every example of extreme violence one can think of: brutal murders, scalpings, rapes, implied child molestations… the list goes on. The movie would either have to be rated NC-17, or certain parts from the novel would have to be cut in order to earn an R-rating.
  • The villain: The main antagonist is a character named Judge Holden—a bald, gray-skinned giant with seemingly superhuman strength and intelligence. Some scholars see him as the physical manifestation of evil. He’s not so much a person as a concept. At one point, he says, earnestly, “Whatever in creation exists without my knowledge exists without my consent.” Try imagining a movie character living up to that literary creation.
  • The lack of narrative momentum: The novel doesn’t have a traditional plot structure that moves characters from point A to point B with rising and falling action and a climax. “The kid” just drifts along from band to band as they kill innocent people and listen to the Judge ruminate on war and nature. And the ending continues to stun and confuse readers and critics.
Cormac McCarthy, John Hillcoat
McCarthy (left) with John Hillcoat at the premiere of Hillcoat’s adaptation of McCarthy’s novel, “The Road.”
Image: AP Photo/Evan Agostini

These are all reasons why Blood Meridian would be difficult to adapt to film, but they’re not reasons why it can’t be. The book isn’t “unfilmable.” Nothing is. But whether studios are interested in making the effort is another question. Not only is all that violence difficult to film well, but it’s also a potential turnoff for audiences. No wonder studios would rather put their money behind a sure thing, like, I don’t know, another superhero sequel.

On top of all those difficulties, add another logistical nightmare: One man owns the book’s rights. Hollywood mega-producer Scott Rudin decides which project can move forward, and which will be stalled at the gate. As much work as Franco has put into making a Blood Meridian movie, he apparently failed to get Rudin’s approval—or he did, only for the producer to change his mind. Either way, Rudin makes the calls.

Blood Meridian‘s excessive violence and narrative dearth are obstacles that a director can overcome. But it will require three things: a fearless filmmaker, a studio willing to take a risk, and Rudin’s approval. Over 30 years since the book was published, we’ve yet to see all three happen in conjunction. And perhaps we never will.