Cormac McCarthy’s rugged road to respectability

So many people are killed -- so graphically -- in some of his books that it’s almost unimaginable. In his latest novel, it’s after the end of the world, and besides wandering and waiting, almost nothing happens. He’s renowned for his dialogue, but tends to ignore plot and doesn’t use quotation marks.

The author was so poor he couldn’t afford toothpaste, but refused to do anything to promote his work. It’s the biography of a starving artist, not a Hollywood player. But with this week’s release of “The Road,” Cormac McCarthy -- the reclusive author who told Oprah Winfrey that he didn’t care if people read his books -- will be officially enshrined as one of Hollywood’s hottest properties.

It’s not just “The Road,” a grim but sometimes stirring post-apocalyptic tale directed by John Hillcoat and starring Viggo Mortensen, Charlize Theron and newcomer Kodi Smit-McPhee. Andrew Dominik, the adventurous Australian director who adapted “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford” from Ron Hansen’s novel, has expressed interest in McCarthy’s “The Crossing.”

Three of McCarthy’s key cinematic admirers -- Dominik, Hillcoat and “Road” screenwriter Joe Penhall -- all grew up in Australia. The sense of the landscape as a harsh, unforgiving place, says Penhall, “is part of both nations’ mythologies.” But it’s not just Aussies.

Todd Field, director of “In the Bedroom” and “Little Children,” is in the process of adapting “Blood Meridian,” which Ridley Scott was originally drawn to. (Scott Rudin, known for the best literary taste in Hollywood, owns the rights.)

It’s been a long slog to respectability, though. “His writing was horrific at the beginning, then he wrote about the West,” says Kenneth Lincoln, a UCLA professor whose critical study, “Cormac McCarthy: American Canticles,” appears in paperback in December. “The frontier narrative has never been taken seriously in New York. For over two decades, he was seen as a regionalist, an eccentric, certainly not highbrow.”

The Oscars for " No Country for Old Men,” the 2007 Coen Brothers film adapted from his ’05 novel, changed things, and not just in the film world, Lincoln says. “Now he’s become the cause célèbre of every English department. Academia follows the marketplace, including the movies. Suddenly, he’s being taught everywhere.”

McCarthy started publishing in 1965, with the novel “The Orchard Keeper.” He later became known as the greatest writer of the American West since Wallace Stegner, but he was originally deemed a “Southern writer” for his mix of twisted violence and ornate, Faulkneresque prose. (McCarthy, 76, who lives outside Santa Fe, N.M., did not respond to requests for comment.)

“Robert Penn Warren and Shelby Foote, the greats of Southern Gothic, recognized him from the beginning,” Lincoln says. “They saw what he could do in the ‘60s.”

Those first few novels were grotesque, graphic and filled with monstrous characters and instances of incest and cannibalism: If they’d been more popular they might have been deemed scandalous. “What McCarthy likes is the Old Testament violence,” says Lincoln. “As a good evolutionist, he puts that in the face of the Puritan sentimentalist, saying, ‘You think the world is all sweetness and light.’ ”

But with “Blood Meridian, or the Evening Redness in the West,” from 1985, McCarthy broke away from Faulkner’s influence and broke -- over the course of years -- into literary consciousness; influential critic Harold Bloom championed the book as an American classic. “ ‘Blood Meridian’ was the first one I heard a lot of talk about in Hollywood,” says “The Road” producer Nick Weschler.

“All the Pretty Horses,” the first in his “Border Trilogy” about the end of the West, became a literary sensation upon publication in 1992, charting as a bestseller and winning the National Book Award. By this point, McCarthy blended his biblical rapturousness with Melvillian sweep and Hemingway’s hard, clean line. Not everyone loved it: Charles McGrath, writing in the New Yorker, called the novelist “the last of the great overwriters,” for prose that is “slow-going, almost antique in its rhythms and diction.”

The first film adaptation of his work was largely deemed a failure. Billy Bob Thornton directed “All the Pretty Horses” with a promising cast -- Matt Damon and Henry Thomas as cowboy leads, and Penélope Cruz as a love interest overrepresented in ads. But Thornton and the studio could not agree on the right length, and the director lost his original score (by Daniel Lanois) and more than an hour of the film. Reviews were not kind, and it didn’t make money.

Thornton still feels stung by the experience -- he’s not directed since -- but said McCarthy’s work was not hard to adapt. “It was easier than I thought, because he has so much good dialogue, and he can give you a vibe of a scene with one line. And the land is such a character to him and you can shoot that.”

The next McCarthy adaptation, “No Country for Old Men,” turned things around considerably. “No Country” was a real anomaly: The author’s only tightly plotted genre work, it was written as a film script before it was published as a novel. This thriller -- about the collision between a Texas lawman and a deranged killer -- brought his work to a broad audience, and the film won four Academy Awards, including best picture and best adapted screenplay.

Even with McCarthy’s newfound cachet, bringing a grim, nearly metaphysical novel -- the characters don’t even have proper names -- to the screen was not easy. Though it’s called “The Road,” the book doesn’t exactly move.

Weschler, who has been reading McCarthy since the 1970s, has wanted to adapt him for almost as long. When Weschler found that he’d lost the chance to make “No Country,” he told McCarthy’s literary agents he wanted a shot at the next project. With partners, he optioned “The Road” while it was still a manuscript.

“A few companies were swirling around the material,” he says, most of them put off by the darkness of the premise. “But I had a vision of how to make it as a film, and I moved quickly.”

Even as a longtime fan, he was aware of the gamble. “ ‘The Road’ is so horrifying. Normally you would just put it down. But you can’t put it down. Even though it was incredibly dark, I saw it as a love story, between father and son.”

He took the idea to director John Hillcoat, who’d made the McCarthy-flavored, Nick Cave-penned “The Proposition,” and Penhall, a celebrated British playwright.

Penhall responded to the father-son story as well, and saw it as part of a long tradition. “In a very old-fashioned way, it was a story about people embarking on a desperate journey into the night, like [the 1955 film] ‘The Night of the Hunter’ -- through the American wilderness. I loved its classical simplicity. And it has an endless debate between optimism and pessimism, humanity and inhumanity -- topics that in the 21st century we’re forced to think about.”

As cinematic conceits go, two characters wandering a parched landscape covered in ash and bleached of color does not immediately seem like a winner. Though partly filmed in lush Oregon, much of the film takes place in settings so barren they resemble abstract art.

One distributor, Fox Searchlight, passed on the film, considering it too dark. And the movie, now released by the Weinstein Co., is now coming out a year later than originally scheduled.

The film begins, startlingly for those who know the novel, with a domestic scene, and Theron’s wife/mother character -- who commits suicide before the action begins -- casts a bigger shadow in the film. “I was fascinated by her point of view,” Penhall says. “Why not just despair? The man is haunted by these simple, ordinary things -- his wife, his horse, his piano. The mother’s suicide haunts every decision, motivates their living.”

Overall, the film is quite faithful to the book. The sense of hope may be played a bit larger than it is in the novel, but if anything, the film is even more grim and violent.

And then there’s that problem of the novel’s slim plot. Penhall says the story is driven by a changing relationship between the characters: the son’s maturing conscience, the father’s dropping of his cynicism and distrust. He sees “The Road” as resembling one of the 20th century’s most celebrated plays, “Waiting for Godot.”

“Two people in the middle of nowhere,” Penhall says. “There’s not a whole hell of a plot there either.”

UCLA’s Lincoln, who has not seen the film, thinks the adaptation will establish McCarthy even more solidly both in Hollywood and academia.

That may be, but none of the remaining McCarthy works are obvious commercial prospects. “Blood Meridian,” in a 2006 New York Times poll on the greatest American novel of the past quarter-century, tied for third. But it’s a nihilistic book full of massacres and would be tough to pull off. “I remember reading it,” says Weschler, “and thinking, ‘How are you gonna make this? You’d need Sam Peckinpah to make this movie!’ ”

Still, this reclusive, unlikely figure -- unconcerned with worldly goods, fame or even his readership -- has enormous cachet. His next novel, no due date announced and set in New Orleans circa 1980, involves the aftermath of a woman’s suicide.

“It’s amazing that McCarthy is so in demand in the film industry,” says Penhall, “at a time when movies are becoming more and more generic and formulaic.” It made the appearance of one of his books for a film tantalizing. “We leapt at it -- like dying men in the desert. It’s an increasingly rare and beautiful thing.”

Lincoln concedes that women often have trouble with the novels’ violence and relative lack of female characters. “He appeals to our interest in the courage of the hero and the idea of the West. Perhaps it sounds a little bit obsolete. But I think we’re going to need a strong stomach to get through the next 100 years.”