McCarthy novels sap adrenaline from films

Ours is a violent generation, and Cormac McCarthy knows it. He knows it, and he knows how to exploit us for it.

The final third of Joel and Ethan Coen’s adaptation of McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men was one of the most divisive acts of cinema committed this decade.

After establishing a violent and desperate duel between a protagonist and his relentless antagonist, McCarthy and the Coens pull us out, killing one of the characters offscreen and denying the viewer the satisfaction of watching him die.

Worse yet, as in the novel, the Coen Brothers conclude one of the most thrillingly violent films of its generation with Tommy Lee Jones sitting at a table talking about his dreams.

Needless to say, many filmgoers used to climaxing in the form of a gunshot, a blood mist and the heavy collapse of a body were frothing at the mouth.

That’s just how McCarthy, the great literary critic of America’s culture of violence, wanted us to react.

McCarthy speaks to our desire for gore and slaughter and conquest, but he speaks to it in a way that slowly drains the adrenaline from those desires and leaves our veins hollow.

His books — and the films they have inspired — are structurally and thematically bitter medicine, but certainly a potent cure for the delirium caused by the likes of Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez.

The latest film drawn out of McCarthy’s oeuvre is The Road, based on his 2007 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, which opens over Thanksgiving weekend .

The Road is the natural culmination of its author’s long history of violence: McCarthy painted historical scenes of psychotic death and destruction in the old and modern West with Blood Meridian and No Country, and the post-apocalyptic vision of The Road follows this trend. Like No Country, it is a film that will force viewers back onto their heels.

McCarthy writes inherently cinematic scenes, yet the way he puts these scenes together is anti-classical from a cinematic standpoint. The two faithful adaptations of his works are evidence of this.

The Road will undoubtedly be less divisive, but its starkly steady pace — where no episode on the journey of a father and son through a post-apocalyptic world is given precedence over another and nothing is clearly introduced — almost guarantees that no satisfactory conclusion will be reached. Unlike No Country for Old Men, which skipped its climax altogether, The Road merely makes the climax of the wanderers’ story just one more episode in a series. The matter-of-factness of the storytelling is true to McCarthy’s style, but is still quite distancing from a cinematic standpoint.

If The Road — in all its successes and failures as a film — has convinced me of anything, it is that Blood Meridian is probably unfilmable.

McCarthy’s legendary 1985 anti-Western about an amoral band of murderers who wander the Southwest taking scalps possesses a very similar structure.

Consider the individual scenes of Blood Meridian: the tense duel in a massive boneyard, the pre-Darwin conversation about evolution around a campfire, the senseless massacre of a Mexican village. These are moments that read like treatments for great film scenes. Like No Country and The Road, these scenes are masterpieces on their own yet, when strung together as narrative, they feel unnatural and stilted, especially for those with classical cinematic sensibilities.

Blood Meridian is also denser than The Road, and McCarthy’s sparse, jarring prose allows him to pack the narrative with hundreds of moments all fit for adaptation yet all difficult to leave on the cutting room floor.

The adaptation of Blood Meridian has had numerous directors attached to it over the years, most notably Ridley Scott.

It is currently in the hands of Todd Field (Little Children), a director who has made excellent films of smaller scope and may or may not be able to meet the challenges of such an epic story.

Oddly, after seeing The Proposition, a film with brutal and brilliant anti-Western sensibilities transplanted into the Australian outback, I immediately imagined that the director behind such a stunning expression of violence set against a bleak, sun-scorched hell-scape would be perfect for Blood Meridian. The director of The Proposition, John Hillcoat, has proved extremely capable — if not quite as poetic as in his first effort — at the helm of The Road.

Blood Meridian might have an inherently uncinematic structure, but the novel is part of a long modern tradition of reexamining the way we view our culture’s history in the American southwest. When it originally appeared, McCarthy’s novel was one of the first great literary salvos fired against the myth of the American western.

While John Wayne’s last film — 1976’s The Shootist — was one of the first and best such cinematic attacks on the genre, it was not until Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven that cinema examined the true nature of the violent old West in a way that mirrored McCarthy’s nearly apocalyptic vision of slaughter.

In a way, Eastwood’s film was probably the last worthwhile American expression of the classic genre, but a faithful adaptation of McCarthy’s significantly bloodier version could stand to put a final exclamation point on our deconstruction of our great cinematic myths. It might leave the same bitter taste as No Country for Old Men and The Road, but sometimes we need to be challenged in order for the message of a film to truly take root.