In this occasional featurelet, I'm going to rassle with various books that are unlikely to be filmed ... or at least unlikely to be filmed well. One of my favorite novels is Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian: or, the Evening Redness in the West. First, let me tick off a few things that may repel readers from the book itself. (1) It's a Western. (2) It has one of the bleakest tones and most depressing endings in American literature. (3) It's graphically, incorrigibly violent.
Any one of these might be enough to prevent this book from being filmed, in ascending order of importance. Unfortunately, they are also inseparable from the book, again in ascending order of importance. To sum up, the book follows a young runaway in the mid-19th century as he joins a gang of bloodthirsty mercenaries engaged in slaughtering Indians, Mexicans, and anyone else in their path, from Texas to the south and west. The most villainous in a pretty extensive roster of psychopaths is Judge Holden, a character often just called the judge, and he's one of the worst and best things in fiction ... a true monster from the depths.
In any case, there are plenty of Westerns -- even bleak ones -- still getting made these days, so that's less of a problem than it might have been. The dark tone and darker ending of this book are more problematic. We're talking the kind of storyline that makes Mystic River look like Finding Nemo. That runaway kid is no struggling saint; he participates enthusiastically in many atrocities (though McCarthy's technique is to blur the gang into a sort of anonymous mob during the worst scenes). Making the kid or anyone more reluctant or less culpable by way of their twitching conscience would lessen the impact of the whole theme.
And that theme is violence. Reducing the violence in this book would essentially rob it of its reason for being. War, killing, and torture are the main occupations of most of the book's characters, and it's how they relate to the world and each other. This way of life and death is repeatedly extolled by Judge Holden, quite eloquently in fact. There are hundreds of murders throughout Blood Meridian; several of the victims are children. It's dimly possible that you could have many of these things happening in a movie, but happening just out of frame, suggested or implied. But I have a hard time imagining any American studio executive greenlighting a script where infants have their brains dashed out against riverbed rocks, even if it does happen off-camera.
Tommy Lee Jones supposedly bought the rights to Blood Meridian back in 1999, with the intent to direct and star. Not sure if that's going to happen. His 2003 turkey, The Missing, almost looked like a very tame, surface-level dry run for Blood Meridian. But as far as I can tell, the actual filming of this book is in development hell at best. I'm not sure who Jones would play if he did star, as he's the wrong physical type and age for the main characters ... perhaps he could play the debauched priest Tobin, or the earless killer Toadvine.
If a serious attempt was made to translate this book to the screen, it would have to be so very, unforgivably, irredeemably violent that the backlash could sink a filmmaker's career. We're talking slaughter on the scale of Saving Private Ryan using the cruder methods of The Passion of the Christ, without the slightest redeeming motives of either. If the violence was played down, and the story transformed into a safe quest allegory, or spiritual journey, or if, worst of all, the ending was hopeful-ized ... well, it would be pathetic. I don't often say this, because I always feel there's got to be some worth in even failed book-movie translations, if not just the thrill you get from visually experiencing the story. But this is one book I'd want to see done right, or not at all.
I knew that the Glanton Gang (the group depicted in Blood Meridian) actually existed, but I hadn't known until recently that Judge Holden was also a historical character ("a cooler blooded villain never went unhung," reputedly). The general outlines of the story in Blood Meridian are described in Samuel Chamberlain's memoir My Confession: The Recollections of a Rogue.
So, the little fantasy segment: casting Blood Meridian.
The Kid - The problem here is the kid starts young (maybe mid teens), then ages through a couple short years (maybe less) with the gang of killers. He's never depicted as a lost innocent, so he needs to be young-looking but rough around the edges. Not too much of a pretty boy, but maybe a hint of something a little different from the worst of his colleagues. Still quite capable of horrendous acts, though. The book ends with a coda of the older, wiser, harder version of the kid, but I think there's too much age difference to try and use the same actor. Maybe Kieran Culkin for the kid version of "the kid" ... he could play a little younger I think. I'm at a loss who to pick for the middle-aged version.
Judge Holden - The judge is described as being physically immense: stout but not fat, strong but not muscular. He's also pale, smooth, and hairless. Hard to pull off, and there are not many big-man actors with the chops to do this part justice. The only one that seems even close, physically, is someone like Ron Perlman. But I'm not sure he could do anything for this part other than straightforward scenery chewing.
John Glanton - The head of the gang of hired killers. Certainly an evil man, but with more of a haunted and destroyed air about him rather than a happy devil like Judge Holden. Tommy Lee Jones might take a run at this role too, but I think he may just look too damn old and wrinkly these days. Who is the younger Tommy Lee Jones, but the older Matthew McConaughey? I'm somewhat lost on this one too.
The great thing is that there's such a gang of bastards in this book that the possibilities for nutty cameos would be endless. Johnny Depp, take your pick.