The Cult of Cormac McCarthy, Hollywood’s Most Beloved Cowboy

My first exposure to American novelist Cormac McCarthy came from an unexpectedly pleasant conversation in high school with a perfect stranger. If my memory serves me correctly, at the time my face was deeply submerged in the cool pages of William Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom! while on lunch break. The other party, sitting across from me, took notice and that’s when the McCarthy recommendation was made. Typically genuine human interactions like this don’t occur with such frank detail in high school, even though one might wish they did more often if you’re receiving something valuable like this. But as I’m quite passionate about the subject matter, I just couldn’t help myself but ramble on about it endlessly like a dork. And luckily, the other party felt equally enthusiastic about such things. So it actually worked out perfectly for two people looking to discuss all things literature. It’s safe to say that McCarthy is now one of my favorite novelists. I only wish to remember their name as this would be a suitable moment to give many thanks for the wonderful recommendation and exposing me to a whole new world.

I’ll admit, though, at first I was a little taken back by the author recommendation despite our in-depth conversation over some school lunch food (the pizza was good) because unlike a film or music recommendation, you’re devoting a considerable amount of time and attention to the novel. Time and attention I was unable to just throw away due to assigned school reading and work. But immediately diving into Blood Meridian, my first Cormac McCarthy experience, I can instantly see why he came highly recommended to me. I felt fully absorbed and enclosed in the nightmare. I was terrified. I was cast into a world I was unaware existed, or refused to acknowledge. Blood Meridian is a poetic, metaphor and symbolism rich wonder of a novel, and every bit as violent as its reputation states.

Being unfamiliar with the novelist and reading Blood Meridian it became suddenly evident to me that McCarthy has such a seemingly effortless ability to render forth horrific and beautiful descriptions of everything in the story; from sunrises to bloody Indian attacks that it’s enough to make one weep enviously. It’s perplexing, really. “How does he do it?” is a question I am often left asking myself many times before finishing a single page. In the end I actually didn’t have to devote much time to Blood Meridian, for I had chewed through it in a flash. Similar to the writer of the novel I was reading when receiving the Cormac McCarthy exhortation, William Faulkner, McCarthy is nothing short of a master at describing stark wildernesses, the amoral majesty of nature, the quick bite of violence, and at depicting conversation between hard-bitten men; and he delivers it all in abundance in Blood Meridian.

It comes as no surprise that McCarthy’s brilliant literary work would eventually find its way into the hands of some of Hollywod’s most prestigious filmmakers. The Coen brothers, who, in the past have had experience in adapting literary works before (Miller’s Crossing from Dashiell Hammett’s tales, Red Harvest and The Glass Key, O Brother Where Art Thou? from Homer’s Odyssey) went for a pretty straightforward approach on No Country for Old Men. The film’s screenplay, written by the Coen brothers, was unusually faithful to the novel, with Ethan Coen saying, “One of us types into the computer while the other holds the spine of the book open flat.” The Coen brothers went as far to send their final draft of the screenplay to McCarthy himself, who confessed to being a fan of the Coen brothers films, enthusiastically approved of it. McCarthy would also spend some time on the set of the film, providing a helping hand. I’m not entirely sure if having McCarthy around helped the Coen brothers or put pressure but whatever it was worked and more directors adapting work from a novel should try.

What’s ironic is that No Country for Old Men was at first penned as a screenplay, although McCarthy was subsequently unsuccessful in marketing the screenplay to Hollywood. But it wasn’t his first venture into screenwriting, McCarthy wrote The Gardener’s Son is 1976, which was adapted into an episode of the short lived television show Visions. McCarthy is set to return to screenwriting, as he is currently working on The Counselor. After the universal acclaim of Coen brothers No Country for Old Men, McCarthy’s Pulitzer Prize winning post-apocalyptic novel, The Road was also adapted into a feature film. Unfortunately for screenwriter Joe Penhall and director John Hillcoat, they were incapable of capturing The Road’s terror, misery, desperation and all the precious little things that bring the characters joy and relief. Instead the film is quite superficial, dull and ultimately monotonous, missing all the book’s silvering lining and power. To be frank, the film plays like a zombie survivor story with literary pretensions akin to AMC’s The Walking Dead.

But the things Hollywood is incapable of capturing in Cormac McCarthy’s work is certainly what makes the man a rare literary magician who, like Faulker and Herman Melville before him, is capable of sustained and continuous flows of sheer poetry, often jaw-dropping in their scale and scope of it all. McCarthy’s prose in Blood Meridian might be challenging at times, but it’s ultimately very rewarding as the novel is unique in the sense that it tends to oscillate from the narrative action to the descriptive passage. The narrative scenes tend towards a blunt delivery, with the utterly brutal violence that makes up most of the book. The between passages, however, which are almost always describing the unearthly beauty of the desert landscape they travel in, spiral out into incredible poetical and lyrical digressions that often defy any kind of conscious comprehension. And McCarthy delivers them effortlessly, in long rambling sentences that truly evoke a kind of intangible desert mystic contemplating the universe.

I must remark that the broadness of Cormac McCarthy’s general knowledge and research for Blood Meridian is astounding. I cannot fathom how he wrote Blood Meridian without having lived in the 1850’s southwest. It’s simply baffling to me. But McCarthy doesn’t just settle for the basic, mediocre, in-and-out approach to writing. Going back to his first screenplay, The Gardener’s Son, McCarthy had little resource for the subject; he was armed with only a few photographs in the footnotes to a 1928 biography of the famous pre-Civil War industrialist William Gregg as inspiration. In response McCarthy spent a year traveling the south in order to research the subject matter. On top of his great knowledge and research, McCarthy’s arsenal also consists of his unblinking, wildly imaginative mind. This is none more evident than in the aforementioned The Road, which drew inspiration from a humble visit to El Paso, Texas with his young son. Imagining what the city might look like fifty to a hundred years into the future, he pictured “fires on the hill” and thought about his son.

Perhaps that’s why this time around Hollywood woke up bright and early to pay especially close attention to McCarthy when he revealed details about a new screenplay. Reportedly big Hollywood executives with deep pockets were in a lengthy, aggressive bidding war over the rights to The Counselor. It is said to have been purchased and the winning bidder must be thrilled when hearing that The Counselor is reminiscent of the rough and tumble world depicted in No Country for Old Men with a plot involving “a respected lawyer who thinks he can dip a toe in to the drug business without getting sucked down” and takes place in in the contemporary southwest. Some sources say that The Counselor is possibly “McCarthy’s most disturbing and powerful works.” All the necessary ingredients in concocting a successful McCarthy related project.

It all started in high school with a simple, harmless recommendation. That recommendation soon manifested with an unbridled obsession. From an innocuous conversation with a student I’ve never met before, I managed to walk away from that recommendation with a trenchant sense of gratitude at the forefront of my mind. I certainly won’t mislead and paint this story as one that directly radiates things to be happy about, but I do think it does so indirectly. I say this because I personally find Cormac McCarthy’s work isn’t “happy” or work that leaves you with a sense of purpose or fulfillment. Of all the novels I read by great authors, I don’t think one contains even a morsel of general ‘positivity’. Sure, there are hints of appreciation for specific things and brief glimpses of enlightenment but it never overstays its (un)welcome and it definitely isn’t sugarcoated and sweet.

In full disclosure, I can’t say that anyone has ever accused me of being an optimist. I’ve held my fair share of cynicism, despair, and all the other synonyms for negative emotional states and psychological dispositions. Books like those written by McCarthy contain such magnificently terrible visions of a doomed planet, as well as the impulse to appreciate things once taken for granted and to cherish and protect these things with every fiber of one’s being. McCarthy novels hold a pulse of something that is purely beautiful such as the relationship between the Father and the Boy in The Road or John Grady’s connection with his horse in All the Pretty Horses. Clearly, they represent some sort of triumph of perseverance, but not at all in the glib, mindless language of motivational posters, but in a hard-nosed, realistic manner that taps into deep and serious feelings and verifiable realities, rather than delusional slogans recited to keep general unpleasantness at bay.

I am, however, delighted to hear that Cormac McCarthy is in the process of releasing three new novels (!) and his screenplay for The Counselor has been picked up by Hollywood. Despite my negative views on the adaption of The Road, it’s nice to know that Hollywood has been looking out for a true literary talent over the last couple of years. Hopefully this focus on genuine talent puts a permanent halt on recycling the same ol’ tired nonsense from the Twilight and Harry Potter series. Personally, I’d rather have fifteen year olds walking around reading novels by McCarthy than repeatedly fall into the trappings of reading safe, prepackaged literature strictly on the basis that it’s a hugely successful film series. But, only in a perfect world would that wish be granted. There has been much talk about a Blood Meridian film as well, with big, attention grabbing names like Todd Field, James Franco, and Scott Rudin attached to it. So far nothing has surfaced and it’ll most likely take some time until someone suitable for such a work can step up to the challenge. And a challenge it will be. Hollywood has a long and illustrious history of shitting on our great writers and with the recent love affair with their beloved cowboy McCarthy, let’s hope it doesn’t happen again otherwise there won’t be a honeymoon.

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