In the evening he saddled his horse and rode out west from the house. The wind was much abated and it was very cold and the sun sat blood red and elliptic under the reefs of bloodred cloud before him. He rode where he would always choose to ride, out where the western fork of the old Comanche road coming down out of the Kiowa country to the north passed through the westernmost section of the ranch and you could see the faint trace of it bearing south over the low prairie that lay between the north and middle forks of the Concho River. At the hour he’d always choose when the shadows were long and the ancient road was shaped before him in the rose and canted light like a dream of the past where the painted ponies and the riders of that lost nation came down out of the north with their faces chalked and their long hair plaited and each armed for war which was their life and the women and children and women with children at their breasts all of them pledged in blood and redeemable in blood only. When the wind was in the north you could hear them, the horses and the breath of the horses and the horses’ hooves that were shod in rawhide and the rattle of lances and the constant drag of the travois poles in the sand like the passing of some enormous serpent and the young boys naked on wild horses jaunty as circus riders and hazing wild horses before them and the dogs trotting with their tongues aloll and foot-slaves following half naked and sorely burdened and above all the low chant of their traveling song which the riders sang as they rode, nation and ghost of nation passing in a soft chorale across that mineral waste to darkness bearing lost to all history and all remembrance like a grail the sum of their secular and transitory and violent lives.
From Cormac McCarthy’s novel All the Pretty Horses—
—which I picked up again the other day to find a passage in connection to The Passenger and started rereading. The swelling rhythm of this passage would have knocked my socks off had I been wearing socks.
Versions of the phrase What else repeat throughout The Passenger, sometimes at the beginning of a sentence but more often than not as a two-word statement or question. It’s a verbal tic not unlike the plentiful instances of They rode on to be found in Blood Meridian, and like that phrase, it serves as a linguistic placeholder that both moves the action of the novel and also advances one of its central philosophical themes.
What else? here is plaintive, existential, but also human, relatable.
The novel Blood Meridian (1985) establishes Cormac McCarthy as unchallenged king of literary mule carnage. No fewer than fifty-nine specific mules die in the book, plus dozens more that are alluded to in groups and bunches. Mules are shot, roasted, drowned, knifed, and slain by thirst; but the largest number, 50 out of a conducta of 122 mules carrying quicksilver for mining, plummet from a single cliff during an ambush, performing an almost choreographic display of motion and color, “the animals dropping silently as martyrs, turning sedately in the empty air and exploding on the rocks below in startling bursts of blood and silver as the flasks broke open and the mercury loomed wobbling in the air in great sheets and lobes and small trembling satellites. . . . Half a hundred mules had been ridden off the escarpment.”
A small mule danced in a flowered field. He stopped to watch it. It rose on its hind legs like a satyr and sawed its head about. It whinnied and hauled at its rope and kicked and it stopped and stood splayfooted and stared at Western and then went hopping and howling. It had browsed through a nest of wasps but Western didnt know how to help it and he went on.
The Passenger, Cormac McCarthy
This minor scene in the last pages of The Passenger seems like another previously-rare self-referential move on McCarthy’s part. Our “unchallenged king of literary mule carnage” sets up what appears, at first, a bucolic, even corny image—a mule dancing in a field of flowers. The pastoral, frolicking image comes undone under scrutiny—the mule is not at play but under duress. But the duress is not the result of a moral malice. It’s simply natural. Western cannot assuage the mule’s pain, he can only observe it, which he does so with a stoic measure of sympathy.
He said that the souls of horses mirror the souls of men more closely than men suppose and that horses also love war. Men say they only learn this but he said that no creature can learn that which his heart has no shape to hold.
All the Pretty Horses, Cormac McCarthy
The other dream was this. There was a riderless horse standing at a gate at dawn. Some other country, some other time. The news that the horse brings is a day’s ride old, no more. The horse’s dreams were once of mares and grass and water. The sun. But those dreams are no more. His is a world of blood and slaughter and the screams of men and animals all of which he has little understanding of. The horse stands at the gate with his head bowed while the day breaks. He wears a cloak of knitted steel dark with blood and he stands with one forefoot tilted upon the stones. No one comes. The news does not arrive.
The Passenger, Cormac McCarthy
The above passage was probably the saddest moment in The Passenger for me. The speaker is the ghost of Long John Sheddan, present in the consciousness of Bobby Western. It is the horse’s dream inside of Sheddan’s dream (inside of Western’s dream (McCarthy’s dream)) that I find so sad—an Edenic vision flooded with the reality of blood and violence, by the mechanics of war. The horse stalks the stones of the earth, awaiting a revelation that does not come to pass. No one comes. The news does not arrive.
I always thought when I got older that God would sort of come into my life in some way. He didn’t. I don’t blame him. If I was him I’d have the same opinion about me that he does.
No Country for Old Men, Cormac McCarthy
I waited to hear from God and I never did.
The Passenger, Cormac McCarthy
Like most writers committed to pessimism, McCarthy is never very far from theodicy. Relentless pain, relentlessly displayed, has a way of provoking metaphysical complaint. . . .
But [in Blood Meridian] McCarthy stifles the question of theodicy before it can really speak. His myth of eternal violence—his vision of men “invested with a purpose whose origins were antecedent to them”—asserts, in effect, that rebellion is pointless because this is how it will always be. Instead of suffering, there is represented violence; instead of struggle, death; instead of lament, blood.
I don’t know if Wood has written on the latest, not last, but close-to-last, novel from McCarthy. The only review I’ve read was a short tweet from a contemporary Irish writer whose latest novel I very-much admired. He did not think The Passenger was good. I believe he wrote that it was, in fact, very bad. I really loved The Passenger, and when I finally get this last little riff out of my system, I might even read some reviews.
In the dawn there is a man progressing over the plain by means of holes which he is making in the ground. He uses an implement with two handles and he chucks it into the hole and he enkindles the stone in the hole with his steel hole by hole striking the fire out of the rock which God has put there. On the plain behind him are the wanderers in search of bones and those who do not search and they move haltingly in the light like mechanisms whose movements are monitored with escapement and pallet so that they appear restrained by a prudence or reflectiveness which has no inner reality and they cross in their progress one by one that track of holes that runs to the rim of the visible ground and which seems less the pursuit of some continuance than the verification of a principle, a validation of a sequence and causality as if each round and perfect hole owed its existence to the one before it there on that prairie upon which are the bones and the gatherers of bones and those who do not gather. He strikes fire in the hole and draws out his steel. Then they all move on again.
Blood Meridian, Cormac McCarthy
In the end, she had said, there will be nothing that cannot be simulated. And this will be the final abridgment of privilege. This is the world to come. Not some other. The only alternate is the surprise in those antic shapes burned into the concrete.
The Passenger, Cormac McCarthy
The final moments of The Passenger, particularly Alicia Western’s words (via Bobby’s memory) seem to echo the gnostic dream that is the epilogue of Blood Meridian. Her apocalyptic final line (again, via Bobby’s consciousness) evokes the consequences of the atomic bomb, a new original sin of creation: “My father’s latterday petroglyphs and the people upon the road naked and howling.”
Alicia chooses to erase herself from the world, while Bobby stays in it, lives. The final moments of The Passenger point to a sliver of metaphysical hope:
He knew on the day of his death he would see her face and he could hope to carry that beauty with him into the darkness with him, the last pagan on earth, singing softly on his pallet in an unknown tongue.
“Having your book turned into a movie is like seeing your oxen turned into bouillon cubes” — John LeCarre
Movies rarely compare favorably to the books from which they are adapted and almost never surpass them. Still, film adaptations of books can be fantastic if handled by the right director–take Mexican director Alfonso Cuarón for example, whose brilliant films Children of Men and Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (adaptations of books by P.D James and J.K. Rowling, respectively) convey richly imagined, engrossing worlds. Cuarón’s films join a small stable of adaptations that live up to–if not surpass–the books on which they are based. Most great film adaptations turn good genre fiction into great art. However, great literature doesn’t usually fare so well. Geniuses like Kubrick and Coppola have reconfigured airport reading like Stephen King’s The Shining and Mario Puzo’s The Godfather into cinematic masterpieces, but has anyone ever done justice to Melville or Hemingway or Hawthorne or Fitzgerald (of the four attempts at translating Gatsby to the screen, the 1974 Coppola-produced effort is arguably the best, but consider how short it falls of capturing Fitzgerald’s vision)? Which brings up the question: just how good, bad, or indifferent will the upcoming movie adaptation of Cormac McCarhy’s Pulitzer Prize winnerThe Roadbe? We thought we’d navigate the pros and cons here.
What The Road film adaptation has going for it:
The director: Australian director John Hillcoat’s 2005 feature film debut The Proposition captured the bloody violence and moral ambiguity of a world alienated from civilization. We loved the movie, and not enough people have seen it. The tone Hillcoat achieved in The Proposition seems well matched to McCarthy’s grim vision.
The producer: Nick Wechsler’s list of films includes Sex, Lies, and Videotape, The Player, Requiem for a Dream, 25th Hour, and Drugstore Cowboy–so it seems like he knows how to sit back and let a filmmaker create art without trying to, you know, have a massive Hollywood hit.
The leading man: Viggo Mortensen as the father seems like a great choice. Mortensen brought depth to the role he’s most famous for–Aragorn in The Lord of the Rings trilogy–something of a feat when you consider most of his screen time was devoted to scowling, brooding, or chopping up orcs. He was fantastic in the films he did with David Cronenberg, A History of Violenceand Eastern Promises (his bathhouse fight scene is unbelievable). Mortensen’s a published author who started his own publishing house, Perceval Press, so he probably understands the literary gravity of The Road.
The story: Anyone who’s read The Road knows that it’s a sad and moving and strangely beautiful take on one of the most hackneyed devices of science fiction: the post-apocalyptic wasteland.
Potential problem spots for The Road film adaptation:
The cast: We don’t know much about twelve year old Kodi Smit-McPhee who plays the son, but we do know that that is a major role. Let’s hope Kodi is more Jodie, less Jake Lloyd or (shiver) Dakota Fanning. However, Viggo’s had pretty positive things to say about him. Ringers Robert Duvall and Guy Pearce are also in there, but there aren’t too many other speaking parts in the book besides the father and the son, so it’s hard to predict what they’ll be doing–hopefully Hillcoat hasn’t fiddled with the story too much. Charlize Theron is also in the movie. The wife character showed up in a few dreamy flashbacks, but was more of a shadow than a fleshed out character; again, hopefully Hillcoat hasn’t chosen to expand the role to appease a wider demographic.
The story: Some of the best moments of The Road consist of the father’s inner monologues on memory and loss and very few directors can pull off a voice-over successfully (Terrence Malick is the only one who comes to mind right now). Of course, this problem of language is always the problem of movie adaptation.
All the Pretty Horses: Billy Bob Thornton’s leaden 2000 adaptation of the first of McCarthy’s “border trilogy” is pretty boring. I’ll admit that I’ve never finished the book, despite three attempts [ed. note: I finished the “border trilogy” in spring of ’09. Books are far, far, far superior to the film].
No Country for Old Men: Even though the Coens did a great job with No Country for Old Men, the book was still better than the movie–and No Country is, in some ways, McCarthy’s take on a genre novel, the crime procedural. In this sense, the Coens made a smart move, but they still couldn’t convey the depth and meaning of the book–again, much of it delivered via Sheriff Ed Tom Bell’s inner monologues. Although The Road may appear to have genre fiction elements–namely, the tropes of post-apocalyptic sci-fi–to describe it as such would be a severe limitation, as would be to film it in such a manner.
The advance stills: Sure, they’re grim and bleak, but are they grim and bleak enough?
Also, why the stylized cart? If you’ve read the novel, you know what I mean–the cart needs to be a grocery store cart, homeless style! Hang on–
–that’s better! (NB: images link to a gallery of advance images)
Does it seem worth seeing in the theater?
Yes. We’ll be carrying the fire on or around November 26th (and just in time for Thanksgiving!)