The phrase “unfilmable” gets thrown around often when the discussion of adapting great novels for the screen is brought to the table. This is because what makes so many great novels characteristically great is their multiplicity. So much goes on in the confines of a novel’s pages. So much that it often cannot be fit into a reasonable running time. Additionally, much of the goings on in great novels just often doesn’t seem to be what one would call cinematic. A significant portion of Moby Dick consists of Melville’s ruminations on the concept of whaling itself, along with lengthy descriptions of leviathans and subsequent dense paragraphs musing on what those descriptions might possibly mean, thematically. From a literary perspective, this works; however, from a cinematic perspective, it’s difficult to see how one could fit encyclopedic descriptions of the whaling industry into a film without boring the audience into a stupor. In addition to that, to truly capture the spirit and meaning of a book, a spirit so eloquently displayed in prose, on the screen often seems near impossible.
Stanley Kubrick, as a rebuttal to those unceasing cries of “Unfilmable!” said: “If it can be written, or thought, it can be filmed.” This seems a tad idealistic, but Mr. Kubrick makes something of a valid point (and he’d know a thing or two about adapting difficult novels, considering 2001: A Space Odyssey and Barry Lyndon). Even if something is written in the most complicated manner possible, if one can extract what truly matters from a work and film that, then one has a successful adaptation. Great novels certainly provide a challenge in terms of adaptation, but if one takes on the project with the right state of mind and doesn’t try to be too faithful, then a really excellent movie can begin to take form. Cormac McCarthy’s masterpiece, Blood Meridian or The Evening Redness In The West, is one of those classic novels deemed by the skeptical masses to be unfilmable. In this particular case, I’m going to side with Mr. Kubrick. Sure, a Blood Meridian adaptation would be a challenge for any filmmaker, even the very best in the business. However, in the right hands, a Blood Meridian movie would be, quite likely, the greatest film ever made. The novel is so rich and a film that could properly tap into those riches would be something almost spiritually iridescent, beyond few films that have come before it. Here’s how, in my mind, it would work.
Many adaptations, including John Hillcoat’s version of McCarthy’s The Road, suffer from a kind of slavish faithfulness to their source material. Blood Meridian is too vast and dense a novel to be adapted wholesale. The novel itself hardly has a narrative arc at all, for the real arc is in the progressive moral degradation of the main character, known only as “the Kid.” Thus, the film should follow an episodic sort of nature, both aimless in its moving from scene to scene yet with an inherent feeling of impending doom. Things happen seemingly for no reason, yet there’s always an atmosphere that an overarching event of great magnitude is going to happen.
The greatness of Blood Meridian seems borne less out of scenes and more out of images. McCarthy has always been one of the best writers there is in terms of crafting a powerful image that’s seared into the mind of the reader long after the book has been closed. Here’s a description of a night ride through the desert, to give an idea of the kind of gravity McCarthy’s descriptions carry: “All night sheetlightning quaked sourceless to the west beyond the midnight thunderheads, making a bluish day of the distant desert, the mountains on the sudden skyline stark and black and livid like a land of some other order out there whose true geology was not stone but fear.” Vibrant images like that seem to radiate off the page and seem to be a testament to why Blood Meridian would make such an excellent motion picture. If a director with enough of a visual sense was to take on this project, those haunting images in the novel could become some of the most powerful in all of cinema. That deep, ethereal atmosphere of the novel is really what would have to be captured on celluloid to truly work. Directors like PT Anderson or the Coen Brothers, whose No Country for Old Men is a perfect example of how to adapt McCarthy, would be ideal here.
Violence, as with much of McCarthy’s work, is a central to Blood Meridian. The character of the Judge seems to function as a sort of God fit for the horrible and depraved world of the Old West. McCarthy is showing violence as a natural order in the world–something that isn’t just inevitable but divine. As the Kid becomes more exposed to this horrid world of blood, he becomes less desensitized to the violence than indoctrinated in its bloody teachings. The film would have to be very deliberately paced and slow, with the scenes of grotesque violence abstracted so as to give the viewers the feeling of a detached observer watching something strange and absurd unfolding in front of them. Thus, the viewer of the adaptation would understand that violence is something unearthly and incongruous with real life, and the strange nature of the violent acts would fit the odd, surreal atmosphere of the film.
The key to what could be a truly masterful adaptation of the novel would be in the casting of Judge Holden. The Judge is an utterly hairless, hulking figure who looms over the book like the dense clouds of an oncoming hurricane. He’s both God and Satan, a figure borne out of the scorched and sandy bowels of the desert with a mission only of death and carnage. His presence, even when he is not present, runs throughout the book. He speaks of philosophy, archaeology, botany, and religion. He believes that “war is the truest form of divination.” If one were to miscast the Judge, the film would fail immediately. Perhaps the most difficult aspect of adapting Blood Meridian would be to find an actor who could properly portray the calculated chaos of Judge Holden. Daniel Day-Lewis, of course, comes to mind. His performance as Daniel Plainview in There Will Be Blood seems to carry an essence of the Judge in it, and the full commitment he gives to every role he takes makes him seem ideal for a character as complex and eerie as the Judge. Michael Shannon, too, could be a candidate for the judge, what with the crazed look of violence that seems inherent to his visage. He carries just the right amount of unhinged-edness to play a character like Judge Holden. Imagining Shannon wholly bald, walking insane, naked, and bloody through some southwestern desert is enough to fuel one’s nightmares for a year.
Who knows if a proper Blood Meridian adaptation is ever made? Describing ideal films is a whole lot easier than actually making the film itself, and Blood Meridian certainly has numerous challenges in its nature that would somewhat impede its adaptation. However, no book should ever be considered unfilmable. Novels can be difficult to make, of course, but anything can be adapted if the filmmaker comes at it with a vision and the right mindset. L.A. Confidential and Cloud Atlas were at one point also considered “unfilmable,” but that didn’t stop them from being made into damn fine films. If a director has a real understanding of the book and isn’t too tied down with a faithfulness to the text, there’s really no telling what could be done. If done by a director who can translate the thematic and prosaic richness of McCarthy’s epic western unto the screen, a Blood Meridian adaptation could rank among the very best films ever. If it can be written, or thought, it probably can be filmed; and if it can’t, people should still go ahead and try. Perhaps a proper Blood Meridian adaptation never will be made, but no one will ever know if no one ever tries. And with such a potential for greatness, why shouldn’t someone try to adapt the novel? It is only unfilmable if we say it is.
Featured Image: Random House