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In Cormac McCarthy and Performance: Page, Stage, Screen, Stacey Peebles questions the writer’s typical positioning as a recluse and sets out to dismantle this reputation by tracking his sustained creative engagement with theatrical and cinematic adaptations of his work. Peebles plumbs the Cormac McCarthy Papers (housed in the Wittliff Collections at Texas State University), the notes of McCarthy’s longtime editor, Albert Erskine, interviews, critical reviews, and behind-the-scenes material to construct a rich history of the writer’s interventions into film and theater. This historiographical aim is evident in the book’s structure; Peebles moves through the theatrical and cinematic subset of McCarthy’s oeuvre in a roughly chronological manner, beginning with McCarthy’s first foray into screenwriting with The Gardener’s Son (1977) and ending with a nod to the future in an account of the many failed attempts to adapt the novel Blood Meridian (1985). Throughout her analysis, Peebles identifies a shared notion of tragedy among these works, wherein the creation of community can mitigate the effects of violence in McCarthy’s tragic landscapes. Here, her access to archival material proves most useful; she notes an evolution toward this conception of tragedy in successive drafts of McCarthy’s early screenplays and in the development of these screenplays into later novels. The most successful adaptations of McCarthy’s work adhere to this notion of tragedy and favor an adaptive mode of superimposition rather than fidelity. Across the book’s six chapters, Peebles groups McCarthy’s screenplays, scripts, and adaptations of his novels, and plays according to shared form, as in the chapters on McCarthy’s unproduced screenplays and his works for theater or, in the case of film adaptations, a shared approach and critical outcome. Peebles reads McCarthy’s three unproduced screenplays—‘Cities of the Plain,’ ‘Whales and Men,’ and ‘No Country for Old Men,’—as early meditations on the tragic hero, ecological collapse, and the centrality of community, all of which McCarthy would build upon in later novels—namely The Border Trilogy (1992–8), The Road (2006), and No Country for Old Men (2005). Peebles consistently draws connections across the various modes of storytelling that McCarthy employs, making a compelling case for the inclusion of these lesser-known theatrical and cinematic works in comprehensive studies of McCarthy’s writing. She likewise compares elements across page and stage in her analysis of McCarthy’s two plays—The Stonemason (1995) and The Sunset Limited (2006). McCarthy was intimately involved in productions of both plays, to the detriment of The Stonemason and to the benefit of The Sunset Limited. While attempts to stage the earlier play suffered from McCarthy’s reticence to adjust his representation of African American characters and women, the production of the later play achieved critical acclaim in part due to McCarthy’s preference for a physically and dramatically restrained performance. While Peebles dwells on McCarthy’s personal engagement with the various performances of his work, she takes great care in avoiding fidelity and authorial primacy as guiding premises when studying filmic adaptations of his writing. Instead, methods of adaptation become the organizing logic of the remainder of the book. Billy Bob Thornton’s All the Pretty Horses (2000) and John Hillcoat’s The Road (2009) align with Thomas Leitch’s notion of a curatorial approach to adaptation, and despite being devoted to their respective source texts, each film falls short of fully realizing McCarthy’s conception of tragedy in their optimistic endings, which Peebles correlates to their lukewarm reception. Joel and Ethan Coen’s No Country for Old Men (2007) and Tommy Lee Jones’ The Sunset Limited (2011) succeed due to the superimposition (another term Peebles borrows from Leitch) of the filmmakers’ intervention over and alongside McCarthy’s works in such a way as to emphasize the prospect of community in the face of suffering. Finally, Ridley Scott’s The Counselor (2013) and James Franco’s Child of God (2013) are neither sufficiently curatorial nor superimposing in approach, and each film, in diverging from their source texts, fails to generate sympathy for characters that are key to their narratives’ tragic arcs—Malkina in The Counselor and Lester Ballard in Child of God. In her scrutiny of these adaptations, Peebles recognizes superimposition and the careful articulation of tragedy as instrumental in adapting McCarthy’s work. Bookending these paired and trebled analyses are a chapter on The Gardener’s Son, which initiated McCarthy’s fascination with film writing and production, and a conclusion focusing on Blood Meridian’s reputation as an unadaptable novel following false starts by screenwriters Steve Tesich and Bill Monahan and directors Ridley Scott, Todd Field, Andrew Dominik, Tommy Lee Jones, John Hillcoat, and James Franco. While some projects fizzled out due to rights issues and scheduling conflicts, others struggled to cope with the sheer violence and gloom of the novel, which McCarthy dismisses as an illegitimate impediment to adaptation. This issue of adapting Blood Meridian points to two interesting trends that emerge in Peebles’ book. The first is the rampant fascination with screening and staging McCarthy’s work on the part of filmmakers, actors, and dramatists, and the sheer weight that the writer’s name carries following the publication of his bestseller All the Pretty Horses in 1992. The second is McCarthy’s continued, unabashed intervention into adaptations of his work. In positioning McCarthy at the narrative center of her history, Peebles succeeds in dispelling the myth of McCarthy as hermit. She refashions him as a writer drawn to various media as the story necessitates, eager to participate in all stages of the creative process. This engaged, present characterization of McCarthy gets a bit lost in Peebles’ discussion of the film adaptations of his novels, for which he appears to have served a more minor role. Nonetheless, Peebles effectively justifies the inclusion of these screenplays, scripts, and adaptations among McCarthy’s recognized body of work. This book would enrich scholarship on McCarthy’s novels, adaptation studies, and tragedy in the Western and Southern Gothic traditions. © The Author(s) 2018. Published by Oxford University Press. All rights reserved. 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Adaptation – Oxford University Press
Published: Aug 1, 2018
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