The Strange Case of Cormac McCarthy, Screenwriter

mccarthyWe rarely appraise our most revered literary writers on the basis of their screenwriting. The bald truth is that most great writers never wrote original screenplays, and when they did, they were seldom produced. (Even the crop of famous literary men who dabbled in Hollywood — Faulkner, Fitzgerald, Nabokov, Dos Passos — routinely failed.) Nor do we judge these writers on their adapted screenplays, precisely because these works were adaptations and not originals, but also because Hollywood is a collaboration machine that historically chews up and swallows the solitary imagination, at least during production.

More often than not, the perception of the film’s quality determines the value of the screenplay. Woody Allen has been nominated for Best Original Screenplay 16 times (he’s won three), but I couldn’t tell you if the screenplays were actually any good, having never read them. The screenplay and the film are distinct, almost irreconcilable mediums, and the screenplay is considered a formal parasite on the film, only to be considered by watching the film rather than reading the thing itself. Actually, the more I think about it, screenplays are not often considered at all, except by actors, who call them scripts. This term obviously implies that these written artifacts aren’t “plays” in the literary sense, but lines of code to be plugged into a machine.

One revered writer has entered into this strange literary territory is Cormac McCarthy. Known for a long career of violent, neo-Yeatsian novels stuffed with hyper-precise idiom and mythopoeic characters — novels that have earned him a sterling reputation not only among literary readers, but also among the wider public and even genre fans — McCarthy has recently punctuated his output with dramatic writing. In 2006, McCarthy wrote The Sunset Limited, a “novel in dramatic form” about an evangelical black man named “Black,” who saves a white atheist professor, named “White,” from jumping in front of a train. The play-as-novel was later produced, leaving me to wonder how a novel can be produced as a play. Then, in 2011, Tommy Lee Jones, who had acted in an adaptation of McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men, produced a version of The Sunset Limited for HBO starring Samuel L. Jackson.

Spare, predictably minimalist and archetype driven, The Sunset Limited seemed fashioned out of tin, at least with respect to its gargantuan subjects: race, religion, death, ethics, etc. And it was the first time that I began to wonder whether the 21st century McCarthy choses these grotesque themes and characters in order to avoid the hard work of building a world. The new drama made me wonder whether I only truly respected the McCarthy of old, or whether The Sunset Limited was just a misstep. But, to be honest, McCarthy’s The Road, also from 2006, is not on par with his earlier work. It’s plagued with the same archetypal sketchiness: a spare yet unsparing post-apocalyptic world that comes across as half-formed when compared to his early novels or even Blood Meridian. Ideally suited for an adaptation, The Road was quickly snatched up and made into a mediocre film in 2009.

It became obvious that McCarthy, at the end of the aughts, had made a strange, Faustian pact with Hollywood. His hyper-violent novels had found a home on the screen. After three decades of reclusion spent avoiding commercialization of his work, McCarthy quickly had four adaptations in ten years — All the Pretty Horses, No Country for Old Men, The Road, and The Sunset Limited.

Either to regain control of his screen legacy, or possibly out of genuine writerly interest, McCarthy then did something relatively uncommon for an established, literary author: he wrote an original screenplay that was quickly produced. Yes, 2013’s The Counselor is a bizarre Ridley Scott production wherein Cameron Diaz has sex with a Ferrari, but it also comes across as truer McCarthy. Although I can admit that the film is not a great one, I can’t shake the feeling that it was rejected by audiences on the basis of its screenplay, which is basically a series of intellectual dialogues punctuated by sex and violence. Though the film was predictably, lazily panned, its screenplay nonetheless restored a small amount of my faith in McCarthy and perhaps made his legacy more interesting.

So it’s all the more interesting that, this week, Ecco has released a paperback version of Cormac McCarthy’s first screenplay, The Gardener’s Son. It turns out that McCarthy had a knack for screenwriting at an early stage: the film, produced for a PBS series called Visions in 1976, was nominated for two Emmy awards. Still, it’s unclear whether McCarthy wrote the screenplay out of genuine literary interest or if he just needed money.

Commissioned by filmmaker Richard Pearce, an admirer of McCarthy’s who was tasked with making his first film, The Gardener’s Son is better than McCarthy’s screenplays and novels since 2000. Frankly, it lacks the Manichean obsessions (Good vs. Evil, Light vs. Dark, Life vs. Death) of his recent work. Set in Graniteville, South Carolina not long after the Civil War, it’s a Shakespearean-style drama that melds the absence of fathers (Hamlet) with the certain tragedy of dueling families (Romeo and Juliet, etc).

The story opens with the death of Mr. Gregg, the owner of a prosperous mill and overlord Graniteville, a nearly Utopian settlement. It appears that Mr. Gregg, on the verge of death, has just mangled the leg of his worker’s son, Robert McEvoy. And, perhaps uncharacteristically in McCarthy’s work, a class battle is soon forged. As the years go by, the Utopian experiment in Graniteville gives way to sexual exploitation and greed, mostly on the part of Mr. Gregg’s son James, and from there a history of violence unfolds.

Flush with actual characters, not just archetypes, The Gardener’s Son, as a screenplay, is elegant, robust, and suitably elliptical. Yet the quality of the work throws its authors recent failures into relief. In either case, its publication does little to illuminate the quality of Cormac McCarthy’s screen output, which has to be among the strangest in American letters.