MCCARTHY AND FRANCO
I love Cormac McCarthy. I’ve read every one of his published works and have ranked them (here). I’ve seen every movie adaptation of his work except for All the Pretty Horses. And I like Child of God—a lot. Despite my feelings about the book, and my teensy-weensy knowledge about filmaking, I know Child of God should not become a movie.
Why? This has nothing to with James Franco being lead on the project. I think he has some great performances (Milk, 127 Hours, Freaks and Geeks). Apparently he’s a published author as well. So he’s probably capable of writing a movie script. But again, this script should not be Child of God. My overarching reason is this: it’s not a commercial story.
NOTE ON COMMERCIALISM
I know. Believe me, I know. A movie doesn’t have to be a “feel goody” or “gritty action blockbuster” to be great. However, there should be some potential for commercial success when deciding to make a film. After No Country for Old Men, it’s clear that Cormac McCarthy’s work has that potential on the big screen. I think almost all of his works have this potential. Child of God is the one exception. Yes, viewers might see it because of his name, but for most, the story itself will not be appealing. I’ll give you two reasons why.
1. The Protagonist IS A HOMELESS MURDERING NECROPHILIAC.
Yes, that’s right. Lester Ballard kills people and then has sex with their corpses. Outside of the initial set-up and the fact that he has some genetic resemblance to humanity, Ballard is completely unlikeable. Who wants to watch a movie about an extreme moral deviant with an IQ well below Forrest Gump’s? I’d guess very few. While there are successful movies about sociopaths, this goes a few steps beyond the basic serial killer plot.
One reason McCarthy is successful with Ballard as his protagonist is that he keeps chapters short, uses a larger font size, and keeps things under 200 pages. The other reason he’s successful is that he’s Cormac McCarthy. Very few novelists can pull this off and I’ve never seen one movie that can keep an audience interested in a protagonist this degenerate. There is no way around this enormous problem.
2. PEOPLE HAVE SEEN ENOUGH “MANKIND IS JUST MESSED-UP” MOVIES.
Don’t get me wrong, I love depravity on film, and so do many people, as long as theres a greater point to the depravity. In this case, any greater point would be hard to effectively convey through film. McCarthy again makes this readable because of brevity and innate talent. Yes, there is some nuance to the message, but that comes off effectively because McCarthy’s unique gift of lyricism. As a film, any of that nuance is bound to be lost in translation, or worse yet, painfully attempted by some tacked on lines of narration.
1. Turn it into an hour long HBO special.
An hour is a long enough time frame to get the important points across. HBO might also have the best audience for it after their production of The Sunset Limited. Treat it as a short “shock and awe” story and maybe it will be successful. However, because of how dark this story is, I’m skeptical about this too. I’d really lean toward a second solution.
2. Pick a different book to adapt.
Want missfits? Take any of McCarthy’s other books. Really, any other book is likely to be more successful, not just commercially, but critically as well. So Blood Meridian may be too tough to tackle. That’s fine. Then what about Suttree? There you can find some of Child of God’s themes, wrapped up in a more commercially respectable story. In Suttree you also have a really likable homeless protagonist. With James Franco’s experience playing isolated characters and likable social outcasts, he is much more likely to be successful with Suttree.
I know Child of God is the challenging book to adapt, but hopefully it’s more than just the challenge that has captured Franco’s attention. Hopefully, it’s more than the desire to shock and awe audiences with Lester Ballard too.
If Child of God does get fully adapted to film, hopefully there is a compelling reason for making it that James Franco saw and I missed.