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.

Blood Meridian (1985).
Blood Meridian (1985).

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:

Violence

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…

Themes

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.

Mark Pelligrino as the judge in James Franco's test footage.
Mark Pellegrino as the judge in James Franco’s test footage.

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.

Language

“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.

Author Cormac McCarthy.
Author Cormac McCarthy.

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.

Works Cited

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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63 Comments

  1. Morgan R. Muller

    Very interesting analysis!

  2. Interesting article. I mostly agree with what you’ve said, despite not having read the book. I believe that writing books and shooting film are similar, yet different mediums through which art can be expressed. It’s not so much a question of whether something is filmable or not, but more of a question as to which medium fits the artist’s wished intention more, in my opinion, and I feel this article does touch on that subject. Great read!

    • Yeah, my litmus test for the worth of adaptations has always been whether the movie can improve upon something the book left open-ended (plotwise, in the message, in the theme, etc.) They should complement each other, not fight for attention. I just don’t think there’s anything a movie could do for Blood Meridian that it hasn’t already done for itself. Thanks for the comment!

      You should read the book! 😀

  3. Natalie Sheppard

    Loved the article, and though I haven’t read the book I can’t help but think someone like Tarantino might do great things with it.

    • Thanks! I’m sure his name will be on the list of potential directors if it ever happens. Personally, I think he’s in the business of making violence “fun.” Blood Meridian is definitely not fun, haha.

  4. I have not read the book, but I did enjoy reading this article. great wording.

  5. The McCarthy I’d most like to see filmed is the borgesian The Crossing, somehow I could imagine Herzog doing this well.

  6. Word was that Ridley Scott was moving on adapting it with Russell Crowe as the Judge. Personally, I would would prefer P. T. Anderson with Daniel Day-Lewis.

    • Russell Crowe? Really? Good grief, I hope it falls through. In 3:10 to Yuma I felt like Russell Crowe was so busy being Russell Crowe that he forgot to act.

      I might trust P.T. Anderson!

  7. I’ve come to think that the novel would be best served as “miniseries” or seasonal production on HBO or some other cable TV outlet. “Lonesome Dove” meets “The Wild Bunch” meets Eli Roth.

  8. If you’re a fan of Blood Meridian, you should check out Ben Nichols (Lucero) solo album “The Last Pale Light in the West”, most of which is based on his love of the novel. 🙂

  9. Nakisha
    0

    The Judge is a make or break character. If you don’t get him right the movie fails.

    • Definitely. So much of the potential movie is make or break.

    • T-Haggard
      0

      I do not know if anyone here has actually heard Blood Meridian’s audiobook as read by Richard Poe. His voice is haunting, and it made me realise early on that the most important quality of whomever may be cast for that part, should there ever be a Blood Meridian movie, is the judge’s voice.

    • The only man to play the part of the Judge, in my opinion, is John Goodman.

    • Mickey Rourke as the judge, maybe?

  10. If they ever adapt it, please get Paul Thomas Anderson involved.

    • JacalynBowser
      0

      For directing this adaptation, there are two people who could do it: the Coen Brothers. I would have loved to see a Kubrick adaptation of this as well.

  11. Marcus Dean

    McCarthy was definitely right when he said it would take someone with a bountful imagination and I can’t help but think that isn’t James Franco. Was his version from the same treatment that Assassination of Jesse James’s Andrew Dominik was working on from a couple of years ago? Or is it a new iteration?

    • Hahaha, I think you might be right. I don’t think so, I think it was a separate venture. Although I would be kind of interested in seeing Andrew Dominik’s treatment.

      • Marcus Dean

        Yeah, I’d definitely pay to see Dominik’s version. Jesse James was my favourite film, but oh well eh? Lets just hope he doesn’t cast Seth Rogen and Jonah Hill in it.

  12. Aaron Hatch

    A great article for a great source material. I hope the film soon becomes a reality because as you address, making this book into a film in not as hard as one would thing.

  13. I’ve felt ever since I first read Blood Meridian in 2002 (twice more since) that it would take a Kubrick to make such a complex story work on the screen. I’ve even wondered if Tarantino could pull it off.

  14. sussette
    0

    Steve Urkel as the judge. Hed walk the country side,, grab his suspenders, point at scalped Indians and say, “Did I do that?”

  15. Nothing is “unfilmable” but this will be difficult. Please don’t ruin my favourite book if you adapt it.

  16. Camacho
    0

    Good post. Leave this adaptation to be.

  17. Blood Meridian is an intensely visual work, and demands the visual scope of a Kubrick or Ridley Scott. The book is highly-stylized, and a similarly stylized visual language would help reinforce the themes found in it.

    • True, but keeping the visuals from seeming over-symbolic would be another challenge…thanks for the comment!

  18. Felicia Bonanno

    That one passage of the beautiful prose writing makes me want to read the book, but I don’t know if I could handle the horrible violence you described. I love how you tie the presence of hideous violence into the author’s gorgeous imagery with the line “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.” I loved this analysis.

    • It’s pretty hard to take in. On the other hand, McCarthy wrote a book that is legitimately unlike any other in the genre. It’s absolutely worth reading for that alone, I think, and really, the way he writes is just so incredible that it really makes you feel like the suffering he put you through was purposeful and not just for spectacle. Thanks for the comment!

  19. Any film adaptation of Blood Meridian has no other fate but to disgrace the book. Leave Blood Meridian alone. Let it be what it is; one of the greatest pieces of literature ever penned.

    • that’s a bit of a stretch man, it’s a great story, but the narration is a bit pompous. I know what a desert looks like, I know what it looks like when the sun is rising, and I know what it looks like when the sun is setting. I know what a mirage is. Plus he was obviously writing it with a thesaurus sitting in front of him. He’s no Mark Twain.

      • Dusty45s
        0

        I completely agree that McCarthy is no Mark Twain. There’s a reason that Twain’s books have been reduced to being considered classic children’s literature… even Huckleberry Finn, which has adult themes.
        McCarthy is a wonderful writer, even if his prose may be a little too colourful for some readers. I would consider him to be more in line with Faulkner than Twain.

  20. Hettie Houck
    0

    I think Blood Meridian could be a fantastic movie, as long as they don’t treat the audience like a bunch of idiots.

  21. My most favorite novel. I have been dying to see a film version of it.

  22. Jesse Munoz

    This is a fantastic essay, Mariana. McCarthy has written two books (Blood Meridian and The Road) that are among my favorite reads … and that I probably could not force myself to read again! I came away from both novels mentally exhausted. Have you seen the adaptation of The Road? I was rather ambivalent about it but I did think it more or less hit the mood of the book. As for Blood Meridian, I just don’t know how some of the novel’s most effective and strange scenes (the Judge dancing naked comes to mind) translate to film. And the epilogue is a brilliant poetic page, full of foreboding … how does a filmmaker approach that? Some of the directors listed in the comments above are compelling, but it would really take a massive dose of chuzpah to tackle this difficult novel.

    Thanks again for a great article.

    • Thanks! I haven’t seen The Road yet, but I hear it’s a pretty faithful and atmospherically accurate adaptation. Somehow I think Blood Meridian will be a lot harder to capture; its scope is a lot larger, and the idea of trying to film certain parts, like you mentioned, seems challenging to say the least. How do you convincingly film a bunch of mules and their riders being pushed off a cliff? How do you frame it? My guess is it would be hard for a lot of directors to avoid softening the subject matter, even just in how they shoot a particular grisly event. Thanks again for the comment!

  23. Blood Meridian wouldn’t work as a 2 hour movie, it really needs a mini-series to properly put the whole story into play.

  24. I would love to see this adaptation, and I love McCarthy’s comment on it. One of the reasons why I love his books is that his writing, like you articulate, is absolutely captivating. Contrast that with the level of violence (often, carelessly, heartlessly) and it just makes his books….magical. Sad but beautiful.

    • Definitely. I’d even specify that statement as “ALWAYS carelessly, heartlessly.” McCarthy’s brand of violence is completely devoid of any purpose or justification. It’s such a strange thing to see in a story, which I think is part of what makes his books so beautiful (in such a horrible way). Thanks for the comment!

  25. Thank you for writing this article.

  26. Very interesting subject. I’d really like to see a film or mini-series adapted from Blood Meridian, I’m sure the right filmmaker could an appropriately brutal adaptation. The up and coming British director Ben Wheatley has reviled me with his skill for grindingly realistic violence.

    Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho is more violent than Blood Meridian, surely? Mary Harron’s adaptation was very good despite much of the book’s violence being removed.

    • Yeah, there’s gotta be a filmmaker that can do it justice somewhere. My only concern is that the violence in Blood Meridian is truly ever-present, unlike most violence in most works of art, including American Psycho. I might just be saying so because I’m not a huge fan of that book, but in American Psycho it seems more important that there be violence somewhere so it can support the ultimate “meaning” of the book than in Blood Meridian, where the point of the book depends on there being violence literally everywhere. I actually think American Psycho works much better as a movie. The satire comes across better that way, where in the book the violence just came across as self-indulgent and sensationalist to me.

    • Also, thanks for reading!

      • There’s no doubt that Ellis knew the book’s content would attract a lot of attention, but considering American Psycho is from the first person perspective of a extremely warped and disturbed man, I think the novel is appropriately abhorrent. Part of what makes the book such a hard read is that the first person narration denies the reader a way out of Patrick Bateman’s rotten psyche.

        Thank you for an interesting read! I’m going to relocate my old copy of Blood Meridian and put it on my summer reading list.

  27. Usually to reason viewers think that the book was better than the movie is because with books we get to create our own visuals as we best see fit. In a case with so much violence like this, I almost think there has to be a film to visualize these violent acts. The common person has never seen someone scalped or clubbed in real life, so we cannot truly visualize how horrifying it is without seeing it in front of us.

    • Maybe. In some ways, I think the book relies on its readers’ imaginations to visualize an amount and kind of violence that I doubt we’ll ever see on screen, whether it be because of censorship, queasiness, impossibility to shoot (the many animal deaths come to mind), or otherwise. It’s a weird effect- you can look away from a movie that offends you, but reading McCarthy’s descriptions of violence it’s impossible to avert your mind’s eye. You may as well have seen it happen.

  28. It would be too disappointing to say that it could not be made into a movie for these reasons. It is true that there are certain conventions in films, and if someone wishes to work in defiance of them, please let them. There is no reason why a certain level of violence which is allowed in prose should not be allowed in film. If every work of art were made with the primary aim in mind being to coddle the audience, nothing of much worth would be made. Honest portrayals are rarely, if ever, comfortable. Also, just because McCarthy made certain aspects work in his novel does not mean we as readers should accept them as easily workable. Lengthy monologues and characters difficult to empathize with aren’t exactly smiled on in prose either, but it can be done, as McCarthy has shown us, and there is no reason why it could not be done in film as well. I do not necessarily believe that Blood Meridian needs or should be made into a film, only that if the challenge is issued, someone could certainly answer to it.

    • Aw man, agreed. I have no doubt that there exists a perfect team that could make a really incredible Blood Meridian movie or miniseries. Really, the main problem is financing and marketing. A big studio will NEVER fund this movie without major debilitating changes to the story, so someone very powerful, very rich, and probably very eccentric would have to be the main force behind this. Those people exist, but even so, they still would have to sell the film to a distributor, which would probably require more paring down of the brutality, which as we all know is crucial to the point of the book. Even if they managed to get something good funded and made, the film will almost certainly be NC-17, which is almost never shown in theaters or sold in movie stores. It’s an almost idiotic risk on the part of the industry, no matter how revolutionary a good Blood Meridian movie would be. I don’t think it’ll happen anytime soon. If it does, I doubt it will do the book justice. Maybe someday… 🙁

      Thanks for reading!

  29. Franco is very ambitious, but has fallen quite short when it comes to adapting novels from authors like McCarthy and Faulkner. Maybe Blood Meridian is filmable, but not with him at the helm.

  30. I think Cary Fukunaga could direct blood meridian. True detective was pretty good, and beasts of no nation was so brutal but in my opinion a well made movie.

  31. Afer seeing The Revenant, I think Inarritu would be the perfect Director for this.

  32. Excellent eassay! I am really late to this party. BM is one of my favorite books of all time and I’m really on the fence whether I’d like to see a film adaptation. Although, I don’t think it’s completely impossible to do so. Take the Coen brother’s No Country For Old men, I thought it was spectacular, the casting was great, the directing ws great, and the cinematography was great! It was pretty true to the book if you ask me.

    If you ever see John Hillcoat/ Nick Cave’s ” The Proposition “, that’s what I imagine Blood Meridian to be like. The scenery and grisly violence in that movie are pretty on par with BM. I do think casting would be a challenge as well as conveying extreme scenes of violence. Take the Comanche attack in the book, the scene McCarthy paints is frightening, dream like, and beautiful all at once.

    If anything, it should be animated. Katsuhiro Otomo (Akira) or Miyazaki could do a good job maybe?

  33. Jeff Gangwer
    0

    “Blood Meridian” would only work as a ten- or twelve-part H.B.O. miniseries. Ridley Scott COULD do it. Hell, I’d write the teleplays for free if I only knew some Hollywood connections..! If anyone is interested, let me know.

  34. DaveAnyc
    0

    Jeff Gangwer, never give away your work for free.

    My feeling is this could easily be made into a film and not exceed the boundaries set for violence etc by todays standards. What’s missing, though, in all discussion so far is the real point of the story, and with that point in hand, which is the choice of doing good vs evil. The nameless protagonist drifts along throughout the whole book until the very end, when he is metaphorically aged though literally it’s not written as being that long a time passing, and he comes to the end and he finally makes the choice between the devil and not the devil. And then the Judge shoots his ass in the outhouse.
    the point the point… If you’re going to ride with the Devil (the judge) then you’re going to answer to the Devil in the end.
    That book, if looked at non-literally, is packed with metaphors and meanings, as are all of his books, that show the decisions that people must make in order to be more than just mammals with smartphones.

    That all being said, I’d rather see a modern adaptation placed in the wild west of our world, the wild mideast. Drones, Mercs, power answering to known… Easy to make this movie, methinks.

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