With James Franco’s recent test footage for his not-to-be Blood Meridian film adaptation now online, it’s time to think about what we want from a movie version of the landmark novel. Franco shot that test footage a few years ago and showed it to Scott Rudin, who owns the rights to the novel, but Rudin seems to have turned him down—and should continue to do so.
So Franco, instead, directed another movie adaptation of a Cormac McCarthy novel: Child of God. The movie comes out this week, and Franco wrote a piece for The Daily Beast explaining why he loves McCarthy’s work and why he wanted to bring it to the screen. It’s a heartfelt essay that shows a sincere appreciation for McCarthy’s vision, and an understanding of his signature poetic ugliness.
However, having an understanding of the literary merits of McCarthy’s work doesn’t mean Franco has the ability to make good movies from his books. Directing an adaptation of a literary masterpiece takes some skill, and Franco has shown—twice—with William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying and McCarthy’s Child of God—that he’s no good at it. The two movies premiered at Cannes and Venice respectively, and were widely dismissed by critics at both. His adaptation of Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury is going to premiere at this year’s Venice Film Festival, and advance buzz is mute. Adapting another inherently un-cinematic novel isn’t a wise choice as the next step, especially a property as massive in scale as Blood Meridian.
In his Daily Beast essay, Franco mentions Harold Bloom as the man who introduced him to McCarthy. Bloom is one of the author’s champions, calling Blood Meridian, published in 1985, “the ultimate Western.” In an interview with the AV Club, he said, “It was the greatest single book since Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying. … It culminates all the aesthetic potential that Western fiction can have. I don’t think that anyone can hope to improve on it, that it essentially closes out the tradition.” According to Bloom, Blood Meridian says everything the Western—as a genre about the conquest of the wilderness, the conflict with Native Americans, and the violence of mankind in a lawless territory—has to say.
You may disagree, but there’s no question: The novel is a massive landmark in the history of the genre in literature, changing the way we talk about the Western as a whole. Every Western literary novel post-Blood Meridian needs to somehow address its status in postmodern terms and justify why the genre is still relevant, casting some new interpretation on the traditional Western novel themes.
In the history of cinema, something similar happened to the Western genre, with Unforgiven in 1992. The first major wave of Western films started with DW Griffith, and then extended through the age of John Ford and John Wayne, largely addressing chivalry and the relationship between Americans and Native Americans. The second phase of the Western genre started with Spaghetti Westerns, where Clint Eastwood is the central figure.
Then in 1992, Eastwood directed Unforgiven, which is the cinema version of “the ultimate Western.” Eastwood also stars in the movie, as a retired bandit who once again takes up his gun to take out a couple of violent cowboys. The movie portrays the basic building blocks of the genre to be simplistic, unfit to represent real life. It addresses the Western as a genre itself, as something with faded relevance in American society. It’d also the last Western Eastwood ever made.
So now we’re in the third phase of Westerns in cinema, the “neo-Western” phase, as critics have called it. These movies address the subjects of the Western (frontier expansion, Manifest Destiny) in a different context. Consider three recent examples of neo-Westerns: Rango (2011), Meek’s Cutoff (2010), and The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada (2005). Gore Verbinski’s Rango takes on the Western on a meta-note. It has a character named “The Spirit of the West,” who looks an awful lot like Clint Eastwood himself, giving advice to the title character. Kelly Reichardt’s Meek’s Cutoff addresses Bush-era Western expansionism metaphorically in an Old West setting. Melquiades Estrada, by Tommy Lee Jones, considers the traditional Western conflict of the “civilized” white man and the “uncivilized” Native American and connects it to America’s contemporary border problem.
A movie adaptation of Blood Meridian, to be good, must somehow meld the ideas that both literature and cinema are in a new phase of the Western genre. I’m sure Franco has been thinking about that, but I’m not confident he can represent it cinematically.
Tommy Lee Jones, who directed Melquiades Estrada, might actually be the perfect director. He’s best known as an actor, but he’s also excellent behind the camera. He has actually adapted McCarthy before, with The Sunset Limited in 2011. His newest movie, another neo-Western, The Homesman, premiered at Cannes this year and was well-reviewed. Jones is thinking about the neo-Western genre more than anyone else, and if anyone can put a good adaptation of Blood Meridian onscreen, it’s him. Maybe he can give James Franco a cameo.