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Why Cormac McCarthy’s Novels Shouldn’t be Made into Films (or, at least, why the books are better)

While reading prose fiction, occasionally you encounter depictions of physical actions, performed by outsized characters, that come across as so richly visual that it’s natural to wonder whether this piece of prose fiction should in fact be a film or would be better as a film, seen on a giant screen instead of the printed page. And when you find yourself doing that sort of wondering, you start to think that the sort of novel that relies on descriptions of actions without any sort of highly stylized or over-determined prose or some other kinds of post-modern pyrotechnics is not much of a novel because film and other visual media have sufficiently invaded everyone’s consciousness and saddled the novel with severe limitations—chief among them modernism’s concern with newness and postmodernism’s concern with self-awareness.

What’s a novelist to do but remove and edit out any scenes that seem even somewhat “filmy” for fear of someone suggesting that their novel would “make a great movie”?

C. McCarthy’s one novelist who’s certainly been accused of writing novels that would look great on the silver screen. But to wish to see the movie is to wish for an inferior experience. I think I can prove this by considering just two details from his novel All the Pretty Horses.

The first: early in the novel, just after they ran away from home, Lacey Rawlins, protagonist John Grady Cole’s co-conspirator, squatted down to gut a rabbit he’d shot, then “rose and wiped the blade on his trouserleg and folded shut the knife.”

This is nice fiction; it accurately demonstrates, via a simply and perfectly described action, that Rawlins is probably accustomed to guts on his knife, and that he knows, without even thinking about it, that dirty pants for a clean blade is always a good trade.

The second detail I’ll mention is the sort most prose fiction writers would waterboard their grandmothers for.

While describing John Grady Cole waiting in a theatre’s lobby during intermission, McCarthy writes: “He’d turned up one leg of his jeans into a small cuff and from time to time he leaned and tipped into this receptacle the soft white ash of his cigarette.”

It tells so much. Cole’s not exactly the theatre-going type, but if he must go, he respects the mores of high culture by refusing to soil their nice carpeting. He’s not going dress up like some goddam stuffed shirt just to see a few people prance around on a raised platform, but he’s certainly not interested in making an ass of himself. He’s a cowboy, but he’s not the type who wears a ten-gallon hat to a Paris café and screams at the waiter to bring more ketchup for his freedom fries. This simple action also demonstrates his resourcefulness and his ability to adapt and make himself comfortable in any circumstance, even though he’s probably most comfortable on a horse’s back far, far from the theatre, in the wilderness roping cattle. Of course, important parts of this character resonate deeply with Americans, for whom cowboys are the archetypal version of, say, UAW members compelled to live in a world that, blown by the breezes of globalization and technological advances, passed them by. So there’s something sadly romantic about this character, and it’s captured in this detail.

Indeed, as the novel moves along, you begin to realize just how perfect this simple action described Cole, the cigarette smoking, coffee drinking, basically no-family-having, hard working, about-horse-knowing, quick thinking, plain speaking, chess playing, good Spanish having, sir-and-ma’am saying runaway cowboy tough son of a bitch.

There are three reasons why these two details, particularly the second one, are better in the book than in any movie: elapsed time, noise, and point of view.

Time: you can stop reading and ruminate on a detail and tease out all its various possible significations and resonances. The DVD pause button doesn’t work, because the medium of film gives you everything, vulnerablizes you, and prevents you from doing that sort of thinking while couch-ridden. While reading, even if you stop, you’re still reading and making images–you’re not forced to so abruptly change mental gears.

Noise: if it were film, could we hear Rawlins wipe the knife or Cole flick the ash? Would music play or horses neigh in the background? Would we hear the murmurs of theatergoers and the clink of intermission wine glasses? No filmmaker, even of the sparsest school, with all these possibilities at her command, can turn them down. These simple actions would be accompanied by noise, and the noise would lessen their effectiveness, I submit, because their simplicity and unadorned-ness is part of their point.

Point of view: what camera angle would the auteur employ? What lighting? How much of Grady’s body would we see? How long would the shot be, before switching to another camera? The mere fact of the presence of the lens, it’s overwhelming eye-ness, forces the director to make so many choices that, again, the details depicted so simply by McCarthy become cluttered by so much other stuff. And always the viewer must stand behind the lens, voyeur-like, watching.

Only in prose fiction can these simple actions come to us immaculate, unburdened by perspective, noise, and the passing of time. And these simple actions need to be immaculate for the text to retain its incredible power. Especially if you’re examining the extent to which beauty inheres in simplicity, which I think McCarthy is. Especially if you’re depicting the beauty of lives stripped down to their essentials, which he certainly is.

Perhaps film can do justice to these themes in its own way, but in the case of All the Pretty Horses, eliminate all the baggage, like the cowboy who needs only his horse and his hat, and read it.