When Cormac McCarthy’s second play, The Sunset Limited, debuted in Chicago it came with ambiguous reviews. “Brilliant, but hardly a hardly a play” Chris Jones titled his Chicago Tribune review. The general sentiment seems to be the same for the eighty year-old novelist’s first film, The Counselor. Manohla Dargis of The New York Times: “Mr. McCarthy appears to have never read a screenwriting manual in his life.” She meant it as a compliment. And while McCarthy has yet to release a third play in the seven years since The Sunset Limited—or even a book since 2006’s The Road—the question of whether or not the Pulitzer Prize-winning writer will be remembered for more than his novels remains unanswered.
Although four of his novels have been adapted into successful films and a fifth adapted screenplay—Blood Meridian—has been passed around Hollywood for years, McCarthy’s primary medium is the novel. He quibbled over Billy Bob Thornton’s All the Pretty Horses, claiming the director failed to select a sufficiently small portion of the novel that the medium of film demanded. Following the publication and production of The Road, an approachable story suitable for an introduction to McCarthy’s oeuvre with relatively light-hearted themes (McCarthy is one of few for whom the apocalypse could be a happier time), I wonder if The Counselor might have been in some ways McCarthy’s attempt to show just how his films should look.
He’s hardly the first literary novelist to transition into film. F. Scott Fitzgerald and Nathanael West famously tried their hands at the trade. Even William Faulkner, with whom McCarthy shared an editor, wrote the baffling Bogart film The Big Sleep.
For someone familiar with McCarthy’s work, the plot of The Counselor hardly seems a problem. Some archetypal McCarthy characters inevitably make appearances: the wise, nihilistic Mexican; the innocent damsel, kidnapped by violent thugs; the masculine anti-hero. Of course, these are McCarthy’s Western roots showing, but in The Counselorthey often feel like reference points, particularly between Jefe and the caballeros of All the Pretty Horses.
“What will determine McCarthy’s success as a screenwriter is how much of his vision he’s willing to compromise for the visual audience.”
Likewise, some of Cameron Diaz’s scenes seem like a compromise McCarthy made with an imaginary viewer when writing. Her didactic breaks in otherwise seamless repartee slow down the quick pacing for audiences who might otherwise be struggling to keep up. The problem with The Counselor is not that the film is bad by any means, but rather that what it offers corresponds directly with how familiar with McCarthy and his unique blend of beauty and barbarism the viewer is. The fact that, at least in my own viewing, the lobby was a cacophony of people “wishing they’d gone in this direction instead” shows that McCarthy’s attempt to subvert Hollywood expectations by staying true to his bleak roots failed in its underestimation of their strength.
Whether or not the general audience comes around to this will remain to be seen. But the fact is, dozens of blood-soaked tragedies have done quite well on the silver screen before, and with a fair amount of beauty too. What will determine McCarthy’s success as a screenwriter is how much of his vision he’s willing to compromise for the visual audience. All the Pretty Horses, No Country for Old Men, and The Road, did well commercially because they were primarily visual spectacles. (Granted, the first was a terrible film.) And while the dialogue in The Counselor is something to marvel at if one can afford to take the attention away from keeping track of the plot, it isn’t necessarily the best vehicle for plot in a visual medium.
None of these are problems in themselves. I, personally, happen to love complicated plots, self-referential oeuvres, dialogue-based films, and esoteric themes. But all of them together present a formidable hurdle for an audience that is largely unfamiliar with the writer’s work outside of The Road. (Don’t fret if that’s all you’ve read. Even Harold Bloom admitted Blood Meridian took him several false starts to read.)
David Mamet, the well-regarded playwright, is often held as a shining example of writers crossing mediums. When he released his first film, House of Games, it was a commercial and critical success. Generally speaking, though, playwrights have had more success in film than novelists. Tennessee Williams had great success adapting his own plays. Arguably, this is because the mediums of theater and film are more closely related than literature and film. They’re both visual, collaborative mediums, whereas literature is largely internal and solitary. Indeed, Faulkner, Fitzgerald, and West all were relatively unsuccessful with their transitions to film. Faulkner’s films were as difficult to follow as his novels, and his audience had half the patience. Fitzgerald and West both struggled in working in tandem with the society their novels critiqued. Baz Luhrmann’s recent adaptation of Fitzgerald’s most famous novel, The Great Gatsby, although a vastly different story than the one originally told, was a commercial and critical success, unlike Fitzgerald's own work in Hollywood. In fact, Fitzgerald was never more than a freelance screenwriter; and not a very successful one at that. The scenes he wrote for Gone With The Wind went unfilmed and the degree of his contributions are debated.
The key to a successful transition to film for a serious literary novelist who wants to keep his artistic vision in tact, then, might be success in theater. But with McCarthy’s seeming inability or unwillingness to write a true play (the subtitle of The Sunset Limited was A Novel in Dramatic Form,) perhaps it should be no surprise that his first film is widely considered too literary to succeed. But I suppose your opinion on whether or not McCarthy’s films will ever be successful depends on whether or not you consider that last sentence a compliment.