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Cormac McCarthy's rugged road to respectability

The writer had been dismissed as an eccentric with 'horrible' style and a hacky, regional view. Now, the much-anticipated film 'The Road,' based on his Pulitzer-winning novel, opens Wednesday.

November 22, 2009|By Scott Timberg
  • McCarthyÂ’s next novel is set in New Orleans.
McCarthyÂ’s next novel is set in New Orleans. (The Pulitzer Prizes / EPA )

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."

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