Blood Meridian: What Makes a Book “Unfilmable?”
Perhaps the most common stereotype about book adaptations is that “the book is always better than the movie.” The reasons for this have been attributed to the attention and effort involved in reading, the lack of time constraints in books, portraying characters and places that contrast with how a reader might have imagined them (“why aren’t Harry Potter’s eyes green?!”), etc. Understandably, it’s impossible for a film that has been adapted from a book or graphic novel to avoid constant comparison to its source material, several discussions of which can be found on this very website. But the question of whether one can ultimately be “better” than the other seems to imply that books and movies are not only competing to reach the same goal, but that one medium will always fall short of the standard of the other. I doubt that anyone who loves film as much as they love literature would be comfortable saying that any story told as a movie would be always better off as a book. For that matter, there’s really nothing to say that some novels would not be better portrayed as movies.
But are there books that are simply impossible to film? Some, through their complexity of style or plot (e.g. Infinite Jest), reliance on an exploration of the structure of books themselves (e.g. House of Leaves), or dense thematic material (e.g. One Hundred Years of Solitude) would appear to be. Such books, with their massive popularity despite their lack of the seemingly ubiquitous adaptation, raise interesting questions about the constant and sometimes tempestuous relationship between books and movies. These are books which, if adapted, would either be so disastrous that they could potentially taint their source material forever or broaden the possibilities for what movies are capable of.
A common example of an “unfilmable” book is Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian. Set in the mid-1800’s, it is a fictionalization of real events in the American West, when local government offered bounties for Apache scalps. The story follows its nameless protagonist, the kid, as he joins a group of marauders in their slaughter of Native Americans. At first they do it for the bounty, then seemingly for fun, and eventually they kill everyone they come across by compulsion alone, scalping Apaches as well as peaceful Native Americans and the Mexicans they’ve ostensibly been hired to protect. This book is considered one of the most important in the Western genre, and it’s arguably one of the most violent books to gain the acclaim that it has achieved. Cormac McCarthy’s books have previously been adapted into films, and with the general consensus of being his masterpiece, Blood Meridian seems like an obvious choice for adaptation. Others seem to think so, as there have been a few cursory attempts at getting a project started, most notably from James Franco, who went so far as to film a 30-minute test reel for the potential film. However, there are a few things about Blood Meridian that will prove challenging for anyone willing to film it:
The presence of violence in Blood Meridian is such that no single example from the text would serve to illustrate how important and all-encompassing it is in the novel. Apart from scalping, we are presented with clubbing, stabbing, shooting, infection, people being burned to death, crushed to death, dead babies, dead animals– in this book there are so many examples of the worst things human beings can do to those around them that violence starts to seem more like a part of the setting than anything else. Think Game of Thrones times ten.
So, how would a director deal with such constant violence? Truthfully, though film has been more willing to show violence in the past few decades, the violence we’re shown is hardly ever challenging. Usually, violence in film is justified, something to applaud as a necessary action if it’s at the hand of our hero, which it often is. I would guess that most producers would not see much money to be made in a graphic presentation of cats being shot or bystanders having liquor dumped over their heads and set on fire for no reason, and they’re probably right. Were Blood Meridian to be adapted, it would either have to be by an extraordinarily brave group of filmmakers, or the violence would have to be severely watered down for a larger audience. The second option, however, presents all sorts of new problems because of…
The violence in Blood Meridian happens essentially without reason or consequence. This is in defiance of the common tactic in art, especially movies, to make violent acts meaningful or representative of justice, or progress, or anything other than destruction. In this way, Blood Meridian is arguably subverting the standards of all art that features violence, making violence significant in the way its horror is impossible to avoid. This is a book that forces you to pay attention to violence for its own sake, without symbolism or excuse. That alone, as a response to the tropes and clichés that have made audiences so desensitized to violence, is important and impossible to reduce without losing a huge part of what makes the book so powerful. This, in addition to McCarthy’s method of leaving most of his characters devoid of any apparent morality, motive, or much personality, does not make for a very cinematically friendly story. In order to keep the attitude of primitive impulse and lack of civilization that the characters display in the book, the actors would have to underplay the actors’ performances to the point where the characters seem more like machines than people. They would be entirely removed of any relatability, a death sentence for most movies. Perhaps more important, however, is the philosophy presented by the famous judge.
Huge and hairless, judge Holden is terrifying, partly because of the contradictions he embodies. He is at once intellectual and brutal, civilized and savage, ancient and childlike. Alone, he represents a huge casting challenge, but one that could potentially be met. Harder to film, though, would be the judge’s speeches. Large chunks of the book are completely without dialogue, just a series of pointless acts of violence. Every now and then, however, the book pauses so that everyone can sit around a fire and listen to the judge talk. Many critics refer to the judge as a manifestation of war and chaos, and indeed, the judge professes his philosophy of life as embracing the natural inclination toward war and hunger for power present in all humans. He studies the world around him meticulously, but in an attempt to control rather than understand. In his oft-quoted words, “whatever in creation exists without my knowledge exists without my consent.” His speeches, so eloquent and perplexing on paper, have the potential to fall apart in a movie, which has precious little time to devote to people sitting around doing nothing but listening to someone talk, necessary for the story though it may be. Like the violence, this would have to be pared down to the point of unrecognizability.
“Passing through the salt grass he looked back. The horse had not moved. A ship’s light winked in the swells. The colt stood against the horse with its head down and the horse was watching, out there past men’s knowing, where the stars are drowning and whales ferry their vast souls through the black and seamless sea.” (McCarthy 304)
If the violence and horrible people in Blood Meridian are sometimes too much to deal with, McCarthy makes up for it by undeniably beautiful language. The prose style of Blood Meridian has been describes my many critics as “Biblical,” with archaic phrasing and a lot of cosmic imagery. The language of the novel widens the scope, so that the story, which often looks so much like a traditional Western, turns into a study of humanity as a whole. We are asked to examine our place in a world that seems to constantly prove how heartless and bloody it is. McCarthy is constantly diminishing the importance of his characters with his references to the hugeness of the cosmos, making them seem like specks on the desert, which itself is a speck on the world. This is crucial, if the pointlessness of all the violence and the apparent indifference of the universe is going to be clear.
There is no replicating this effect on film. Any attempt to try and copy the grandeur of McCarthy’s style on film would come across as pretentious and heavyhanded, but ignoring that style completely would change the meaning of the story.
So, is it unfilmable?
There are undeniable differences between the mediums of film and literature. Often, it seems that the main frustrations with adaptations of books is that too often, Hollywood capitalizes upon the popularity of a book, only to water it down to appeal to the least common denominator of its audience. This never happens the other way around, which may lead to the inherent distrust of adaptations, especially considering the almost gleefully prolific production of them that Hollywood has come to depend on. From 1993 to 2013, as researched by Stephen Follows, 51% of the 2000 highest-grossing films were adaptations. (stephenfollows.com) This relationship between film and books is not new and has resulted in a great many Hollywood classics (Jurassic Park, The Exorcist, The Godfather, Fight Club, Brokeback Mountain), as well as an undeniable parade of failures both financial and artistic (I’m sure you can think of plenty). It seems clear that there is no definite formula what will make a good adaptation and a bad one.
In a rare interview, Cormac McCarthy was asked about the opinion that Blood Meridian is “unfilmable.” His nuanced and delicate response was “that’s all crap…the issue is it would be very difficult to do and would require someone with a bountiful imagination and a lot of balls. But the payoff could be extraordinary.” (Brevet)
He could be right. But that doesn’t mean it’s filmable by just anybody. Jacob Shamsian, in response to James Franco’s test footage, pointed out that “Every Western literary novel post-Blood Meridian needs to somehow address its status in postmodern terms and justify why the genre is still relevant.” (Entertainment Weekly) The book’s effect on the Western, its upending of myths and story structure we had never questioned before, made it a great work of literature. If the book were ever to be adapted successfully, I would argue that it would have a similar effect not only on the Western genre in film, but on the medium of film as a whole. The “Save the Cat” formula that has worked so well for the past several decades would ring hollow and manufactured in the face of a really good Blood Meridian movie. The strangeness of the book’s plot, its brutality, and its ability to explore the intense savagery of humanity in a way that’s poetic without advocating such violence, would absolutely make a great film, though challenging, both to make and to watch. It will be interesting to see if anyone is ever able to do it justice.
Brevet, Brad. “Cormac McCarthy Thinks ‘Blood Meridian’ Can Be Filmed | Rope of Silicon.” RopeofSilicon RSS. Rope of Silicon, 13 Nov. 2009. Web. 03 Apr. 2015.
Follows, Stephen. “Where Do Highest-grossing Screenplays Come From?” Stephen Follows. Stephenfollows.com, 26 Jan. 2014. Web. 03 Apr. 2015.
McCarthy, Cormac. Blood Meridian. London: Picador, 1985. Print.
Shamsian, Jacob. “‘Blood Meridian’ Deserves a Director Who Understands the Western Genre.” Entertainment Weekly’s EW.com. Entertainment Weekly, 18 Jan. 2015. Web. 03 Apr. 2015.
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