The zombification of Cormac McCarthy.
Here’s an image to make you choke on your popcorn: A bearded man dressed in rags huddles with his young son, clutching a gun that contains only two bullets. He slowly inserts the barrel into his mouth. “Point it up,” the man explains, demonstrating the proper way to commit suicide. The boy looks on in bewilderment before finally nodding his understanding. Better that he should blow his brains out than fall into the clutches of marauding cannibals.
That’s just the beginning of John Hillcoat’s adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s Pulitzer Prize—winning 2006 novel, The Road, a movie so singularly unpleasant, so resolutely ill-conceived that it should bring Hollywood’s unlikely love affair with the iconic Texas author to an immediate end. Focused on an unnamed man (Viggo Mortensen) and his son (Kodi Smit-McPhee) as they journey south through a postapocalyptic America, The Road—which finally hits theaters the day before Thanksgiving, after languishing in postproduction for more than a year—is a two-hour death march, photographed in punishingly monochromatic grays and browns. Screenwriter Joe Penhall sticks to the basics of McCarthy’s story, beefing up the flashbacks so that Charlize Theron can claim a supporting role as the man’s late wife. But The Road quickly proves to be unadaptable. On the page, the author’s incantatory prose and otherworldly descriptions (“eyes collared in cups of grime and deeply sunk”) allowed the reader’s imagination to run wild. When those images are made literal onscreen, they lose their power and their mystery. This is just another end-of-the-world zombie flick, albeit one a lot more tedious than 28 Days Later.
So what drew Hollywood to such idiosyncratic material—an anguished allegory of a father’s fear that he will die and leave his son unequipped to face life’s challenges? A more pressing question: How can we stop the movie studios from ruining any more of McCarthy’s books? Ironically, Hillcoat’s The Road partly owes its existence to No Country for Old Men, Joel and Ethan Coen’s best picture—winning adaptation of McCarthy’s 2005 novel about dishonor among thieves in West Texas, circa 1980. Nothing against No Country; even on repeat viewings it’s every bit as tense, funny, and smashingly acted as all those accolades would suggest. But what tends to be forgotten is how much the Coens brought to the project, tempering the high-toned solemnity of the novel with their own wryly comic wit. They took a gasbaggy potboiler—McCarthy’s least interesting book—and stripped it to its noir essence. (Indeed, the film grinds to a halt during its most McCarthy-esque passages, featuring Tommy Lee Jones’ Sheriff Ed Bell waxing elegiac about the moral geographic decay of modern America.)
In Hollywood, though, one hit begets half a dozen copycats; suddenly producers were chasing after McCarthy’s more accomplished, less multiplex-friendly works. The same month No Country won four Oscars, The Road entered into production, financed in part by Mark Cuban’s 2929 Entertainment. (Hillcoat, who established his reputation with the bleak, severe, postmodern western The Proposition, was rather unimaginatively deemed the best man to tackle McCarthy’s own bleak, severe, postmodern western.) A few months after that, Scott Rudin, who produced No Country with the Coens, announced he would be joining forces with director Ridley Scott (Gladiator) to tackle Blood Meridian, the author’s viscera-soaked 1985 frontier epic. (Scott subsequently dropped out of the project; Little Children director Todd Field is currently attached.) Earlier this year, HBO announced yet another McCarthy project, based on his play The Sunset Limited, starring Jones and Samuel L. Jackson (see “Sunset Commission”).
All of which left some of us to wonder: Did any of these people actually see Billy Bob Thornton’s big-screen adaptation of the novel All the Pretty Horses? Don’t they realize that a writer so attuned to voice and rhythm and the flow of words on a page is better read than seen? The opening sentence of that 1992 novel—“The candleflame and the image of the candleflame caught in the pierglass twisted and righted when he entered the hall and again when he shut the door”—suggests a resplendently cinematic vision that, rather perversely, couldn’t possibly be captured on film. (Where should the camera focus? The candle flame? The pier glass? The door?) To his credit, Thornton brought a visual eloquence to All the Pretty Horses, which follows a trio of young ranchers on a coming-of-age adventure across the Mexico border. But the film’s pacing was abrupt and confusing, and the actors look less like hardscrabble cowboys than kids playing dress-up. What’s most notably missing is the poetry. Like William Faulkner and Toni Morrison (neither of whom has ever been successfully adapted for the big screen), McCarthy works within the movie projector in our brains, where memory and history and realism and fantasy are all jumbled together. Perhaps Jean-Luc Godard in his sixties heyday might have been able to find a visual correlative. For mainstream contemporary filmmakers, though, the cause is hopeless.
Which brings us back to the sore disappointment of The Road. By failing to create a unique filmic language for this story, Hillcoat and Penhall make McCarthy’s vision seem commonplace. The most impressive sequence in the movie finds the man and his son stumbling upon a group of shackled humans, cowering in a cellar, where they’re being stored for slaughter and consumption. It’s a nerve-jangling, crisply directed passage, and it hints at the lean, mean thriller that might have been crafted from the material. But the rest of the movie is lugubrious and repetitive and howlingly portentous (watch out for Robert Duvall, hamming it up as a crazy ol’ coot whose name might as well be Walking and Talking Symbol). Wimpy too: Fans of the book will be surprised to learn that the filmmakers have excised the scene in which father and son happen upon an abandoned campsite and discover, in McCarthy’s inimitable words, “a charred human infant headless and gutted and blackening on the spit.” Part of me was grateful for this choice. But if you’re going to adapt a book and then pussyfoot around its most daring elements, there’s no point in adapting it at all.
A plea to overeager producers, especially those who might be eyeing Suttree or The Crossing and thinking that there’s a rip-roaring yarn to be teased out of the lush descriptions, pitiless existentialism, and philosophical longueurs: You are doing neither the audience nor the author any favors. McCarthy is one wild horse who should never be tamed.
Sunset Commission: Can McCarthy’s one-act play translate to the movies?
Originally staged in 2006 by Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre, Cormac McCarthy’s play The Sunset Limited features two men (referred to in the text only by their respective skin color, Black and White) sitting in a rundown apartment arguing about God, atheism, and suicide. Reviews were favorable but didn’t exactly suggest a nonstop thrill ride (“This play provides very little action,” the New York Times warned when it turned up Off-Broadway). That didn’t stop avowed McCarthy fan Tommy Lee Jones from signing up to direct and co-star in a film version with Samuel L. Jackson. (It went into production in September; it’s expected to air next year.) Can a single-set play that quickly turns abstract and allegorical on the page (and the stage) possibly translate to the movies? If anyone can pull it off, it’s Jones, whose astringent and gripping The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada displayed a distinct McCarthy flavor.