‘Blood Meridian’ and the Big Screen

In our violent times of Tarantino, where the likes of Scorsese and Coppola play sultans of spectacle, there is one film that, if produced, would stand with even the most grotesque film (Salò, Saw—whatever floats one’s voyeuristic fancy), stare it straight in the eye, and promptly reduce it to a bloody pulp. While Hollywood has proven it hardly needs an excuse for another gory action flick, Cormac McCarthy’s fifth novel, Blood Meridian, has been treated like a vicious tribal rite of passage. James Franco is the most recent would-be director—in the humble company of Sir Ridley Scott and Todd Field—to have held Scott Rudin’s script in his hands and fled from intimidation.

Perhaps it would take a more masterful hand than Franco’s to accomplish a feat comparable to Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, adapted from Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. But Scott, no stranger to directing violence himself, backed out in 2008 because “there’s no answer to the blood bath” of Blood Meridian.

The violence intrinsic to the novel is not the issue, McCarthy himself told the Wall Street Journal. Yes, it would be difficult to portray a single scalping scene—let alone a whole film centered on the scalp trade—but there is surely a historical precedent for unsettling aesthetic (going back as early Salvador Dalí’s Un Chien Andalou). 

Still, many fans of the 1985 novel cast it an “unfilmable” pariah. The violence is just too gruesome, they claimed. The silver screen just can’t handle that much red. In that same WSJ piece McCarthy said, literally, “That’s all crap,” but perhaps there’s another reason why the novel just won’t translate well into film.

“The function of literary form is not that it mimics thought. It is not—as is film—a sequence of ideas for the reader to absorb and interpret. Instead, literary form guides thought. It pulls, rather than pushes, the audience.”

Simply put, despite the novel’s bleak atmosphere of violence and despair, it is truly quite elegant. Consider, for example, one early passage, the initial appearance of the Comanche natives:

A legion of horribles, hundreds in number, half naked or clad in costumes attic or biblical or wardrobed out of a fevered dream… one in the armor of a spanish conquistador, the breastplate and pauldrons deeply dented with old blows of mace or sabre done in another country by men whose very bones were dust… all howling in a barbarous tongue and riding down upon them like a horde from a hell more horrible yet than the brimstone land of christian reckoning, screeching and yammering and clothed in smoke like those vaporous beings in regions beyond right knowing where the eye wanders and the lip jerks and drools.

One might be tempted to say that although McCarthy’s prose inspires vivid images for the viewer, perhaps they might be more fully realized on the big screen. What would be lost, however, is the form of the novel—a word meant to carry all the connotations of a literary element. And while that form could be replaced with separate elements of cinematic theory to the director’s liking, it would yield an entirely different beast. (This same tradeoff, I would argue, is what led Heart of Darkness to become the vastly different Apocalypse Now.)

A different viewer might denounce an adaptation for failing to truly follow its literary counterpart, but the key to success for any director is in divergence to accommodate for the different forms—what in literature consists of things like prose and diction, and in film contains thousands of camera and editing techniques, etc.

It could just be that no director has yet to come up with a vision for an adaptation as self-sustainable as Coppola’s Apocalypse Now. If it were to ever happen with Blood Meridian, this writer, however, will not have high expectations for that film.

The function of literary form is not that it mimics thought. It is not—as is film—a sequence of ideas for the reader to absorb and interpret. Instead, literary form guides thought. It pulls, rather than pushes, the audience.

In the above passage, there is on the first level a description of events—similar in function to a painter’s brush or a director’s lens. This is what is happening, the artist tells us, and we are free to interpret as we will. But this movement of events is not the same as the movement of ideas, and this is where the author excels. Notice the many biblical references: “legion,” for example, which also carries connotations of different crusaders (the Romans) and then the subtle comparison to yet a third (the Conquistadors). In Blood Meridian the collage is infinite.

It is not a characteristic unique to one novel, and can, on occasion, translate well to film. Consider the Joel and Ethan Coen’s No Country for Old Men, where cords hang like nooses in the background of the famous “coin toss” scene. However, while creative dilemmas and low public expectations should never be factors in the creation of art, these are not the tallest hurdles Blood Meridian facesThe violence of Blood Meridian must hold purpose, and a film risks failing to justify this by reducing its form. The story must change in order to function on the silver screen, and it is difficult to imagine a film adequately capturing even a select portion of the myriad of referential language that sustains the macabre events of the novel.

McCarthy, who turned 80 last month, has shown little reluctance to his novels’ transformations to film. In fact, from what little the author has said, he seems to encourage adaptations. He worked closely with Billy Bob Thornton on the production of 2000’s All the Pretty Horses (“closely”, admittedly, being a relative term for the recluse). He applauded No Country for Old Men. He wrote a screenplay, The Counselor, and has otherwise shown little scorn for cinema as a medium.

Adaptations of McCarthy’s works, however, seem to stand alone as separate bodies, as if inspired but not based on his own. He cautioned that the director cannot include the whole book on the screen. That was the problem with Thornton’s All the Pretty Horses, he said. Thornton, he chided, failed to pick a manageable portion of the story to represent on-screen, choosing instead to attempt the whole novel, which then suffered in the editing room as metaphors and allusions were snipped away.

As the forms and functions differ between literature and film, the stories told must be changed to accommodate the structure. Not only do they seem like separate works of art; to be successful they must stand alone as separate entities. They may tell the same story, but they must do so differently, as indeed the differences between literary and visual communication suggest they should.

With Blood Meridian the risks are great. Other McCarthy works such as The Road and No Country for Old Men are bleak in comparison to Outer Dark and Child of God, yet even those are easily digestible next to Blood Meridian’s own horrorsThe referential novel manages to sustain its own complexity in a way none of McCarthy’s other novels have been able to succeed, and so the violence is justified—possibly even meaningful. But like a delicate tower, were a single piece to fail, it would fall unto itself, crashing red with no meaning ready for us to draw from the despair.