PRIOR TO 2007, only one of Cormac McCarthy’s ten novels had been adapted for film. All the Pretty Horses, the writer’s most successful book until The Road, so entranced Billy Bob Thornton that he chose it as his second directorial outing. (His first, Sling Blade, received the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay and turned the actor/writer/director into a star.) Thornton’s experience on the film was so unpleasant — Harvey Weinstein excised more than an hour of footage, and the compromised final product was a critical and financial failure — that he swore it would be his last time behind the camera. (It wasn’t, but he didn’t make another feature for more than a decade.) It may also explain why it wasn’t until the back-to-back, phenomenal success of The Road and the Coen Brothers’ take on No Country for Old Men that Hollywood began milking McCarthy for all he was worth.
John Hillcoat adapted The Road in 2009, turning the writer’s otherworldly prose into a film that was faithful to its source material without quite capturing its primal essence. Tommy Lee Jones, Ridley Scott, and James Franco have all begun work on Blood Meridian to no avail; Todd Field is said to still be developing the project in one capacity or another. McCarthy wrote the screenplay for Scott’s maligned The Counselor last year in one of the most unfortunate director-screenwriter mismatches in recent memory. And now, in what will hopefully be the worst movie based on a McCarthy novel, Franco and co-writer Vince Jolivette have settled for adapting 1973’s Child of God.
Not that there are many options left at this point, but this seems a strange choice all the same. The book tells of one Lester Ballard, whom McCarthy makes a point of describing early on as “a child of god much like yourself perhaps.” Fair enough, but few would play up the resemblance. An outsider in rural Tennessee circa the early 1960s who’s almost certainly suffering from unspecified mental problems, Ballard’s activities include murder, necrophilia, and arson. He comes across a dead couple, who had been having sex in their truck off the side of the road one night and, instantly aroused, leaves the man behind but takes the woman back to the abandoned cabin he lives in illegally. (Earlier, he was kicked out of his home and unsuccessfully tried to prevent it from being auctioned off.) Ballard later burns down the shack by accident with her dressed-up corpse still inside; he then does what any reasonable person would do and takes up residence in a nearby cave.
This architectural regression — house to shack to cave — corresponds to the nefariousness of Ballard’s behavior. The further removed from actual civilization he is, the less of a person he seemingly becomes. McCarthy doesn’t shy away from explicit descriptions of his protagonist’s antics, nor does he work especially hard to make us sympathize with him. In one of the book’s most telling segments, a smith sharpens an axe for Ballard. McCarthy spends several pages detailing every step of the process complete with lyrical descriptions of the different-colored flames that burn. At the end, the smith asks Ballard, “Reckon you could do it now from watchin?” “Do what,” asks Ballard. The man is simply not there in a very real way, and thus it’s hard to think him malicious. McCarthy underscores this later, when the local sheriff tells Ballard he is “either going to have to find some other way to live or some other place in the world to do it in.” And yet Ballard thrives in this environment — the labyrinthine cave system and abandoned shacks are ideally suited to his needs, and he’s bothered by the law and other human beings only sporadically.
The joy of any McCarthy book, even one as relentlessly grim as Child of God, stems largely from the writer’s dark imagery and rhythmic dialogue. Though all his cinematic adapters surely know this, only the Coens have been able to translate it into a visual language. Franco, clearly in love with the writing, puts a fragment of the first sentence (“They came like a caravan of carnival folk up through the swales of broomstraw and across the hill in the morning sun…”) on screen as an opening title card. This is our unimaginative introduction to McCarthy-by-way-of-Franco, and a sign of things to come: The filmmakers repeat this tactic a few more times, and divide the film into three sections marked by Roman numerals just as the novel does.
In the lead role, Scott Haze devotes himself to the material much more fully than Franco seems to, though his showy performance doesn’t fare much better. Like an Appalachian Brando, he sounds as though he’s stuffed his cheeks with cotton balls and made a concerted effort to speak as incomprehensibly as possible. One doesn’t often imagine anyone in a McCarthy novel raising their voice — a result of his aversion to punctuation, perhaps — yet Haze constantly seems on the verge of frothing at the mouth in anger and frustration rather than quietly muttering to himself. The actor eventually settles into the role, even making him sympathetic in a few choice scenes, but by then it feels like a half-measure that comes too late.
While fidelity to one’s source material is hardly a prerequisite to making a worthwhile movie, it seems odd, given Franco and Jolivette’s otherwise faithful decisions, how they handle the ending. In the book, Ballard is eventually sent away to a mental institution, where he dies after some years; his body is later donated to science. McCarthy’s description of Ballard’s precise corporeal fate makes for one of Child of God’s most memorably grotesque passages. It feels, if not quite karmic, then certainly hopeless. Franco opts to end his adaptation after Ballard eludes the posse that has gathered to make him answer for his crimes. Missing a hand and much of his arm after being fired upon by a would-be victim, Ballard leads the vigilantes (led by Franco himself) into his cave, escapes through a small opening no one else can fit through, spends an unspecified amount of time in subterranean darkness, and finally emerges like one of Romero’s zombies. Free at least, he flees through an empty field; we’re almost as elated as he is, but only because it’s over. In one of few executive decisions, Franco seems to retroactively turn his film into a pitch-black comedy. The man sitting nearest me found it inexplicably hilarious, but I expect few others to share his enthusiasm.
Ultimately, the dissatisfaction in both the novel and (to a much greater extent) Franco’s adaptation comes from the feeling that it’s based on a false premise. There’s nothing about Ballard to indicate he’s anything less than an anomaly, a one-in-a-million outsider who never had any chance of finding a place in this or any other society—Meursault without the ability to express himself. McCarthy’s insistence that he’s like anybody else reads as a lone sympathetic gesture among a laundry list of reasons to believe that Ballard is not long of this world, and Franco’s more sympathetic treatment never quite takes. Neither the novelist nor the filmmaker makes much of an attempt to explain the how and why of Lester Ballard other than a passing reference to him “never being right” after his father committed suicide. But was he ever truly “right” in the first place?