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Filming Blood Meridian, pt. 1: the problem

April 25, 2012

I read a few years ago that a film adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian was, if not quite in the works, a distinct possibility. Ever since I’ve thought on and off about whether such an adaptation could possibly succeed at making the book’s essence visible.

The obvious answer is “no, it’s too violent.” But it’s not immediately clear what we mean by that. Most people, I think, mean that the level of violence makes it impossible for any adaptation intended for mainstream American theaters to do it justice. And yes, there’s Comanches raping and killing an entire army of filibusters. Yes, there’s a tree of dead babies. Yes, there’s the bloody massacre and scalping of hundreds of women and children. Those are reasons the book could never be adapted honestly and be profitable, but they’re not reasons the book couldn’t be adapted honestly. These things could be filmed.

The problem, rather, is that even if these things were to be filmed, doing so wouldn’t capture the essence of the book. The words “tree of dead babies” and actual footage of a tree of dead babies do not have anything like the same effect on us. One makes us uncomfortable; the other makes us feel sick. A “faithful” film adaptation would devolve rather quickly into the pornography of violence, something the book never does (or so I would argue). And it would completely fail to capture the effect of the book’s narration of the violence, which relies less the power of images to arouse us and more the power of words to enchant us.

That’s one problem, at least. The other problem is the Judge. No one could play the Judge. He’s seven feet tall, weighs 336 pounds, has not a single hair on his body or head, can dance and fiddle expertly at the same time, and is possibly the God of War incarnate. Whenever gods are portrayed on screen they have to be explicitly marked as divine, and even then usually come across as humans with special powers. The Judge has to be officially human and yet come across as so extraordinary that, though we have no unambiguous evidence for the idea, we would believe it if he were to be revealed as divine. I cannot imagine any actor living up to the idea of the Judge.

These two are related, in that both boil down to the book being too mythic to film. A film of the Iliad would run into identical difficulties. The love-making of Zeus and Hera would either be just another sex scene, or would be omitted completely (as a recent film omits the gods from the story altogether). But it would be equally difficult to portray, say a “spear / thrust through him, by the navel; from the wound, / his bowels gush’d; and darkness veiled his eyes.” Even if a film did so, it would miss Homer’s point.

Adapting Blood Meridian, then, would be considerably more difficult than adapting McCarthy’s later No Country for Old Men, which the Coen Brothers did quite nicely. For a time I thought doing so was impossible. I no longer think so; I’ll say why in Part 2.

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