Cormac McCarthy Adaptations in Film

Cormac McCarthy is considered to be one of the greatest contemporary American writers living and working today. McCarthy has written twelve novels, two plays, five screenplays, and three short stories, traversing the Western and post-apocalyptic genres. Writing-wise, McCarthy is known for his vivid portrayals of violence and exceptional writing style, which utilizes sparse use of punctuation and attribution.

Like so many other great writers, McCarthy’s work has been adapted to the big screen, starting with All the Pretty Horses in 2000. As a way to gauge what makes a great adaptation, let’s discuss the five films adapted from McCarthy’s work, ranking them from best to worst.

The Genius of McCarthy’s Writing

The primary reason any writer’s work gets adapted is because of the appeal, popularity, or genius of their writing. Though McCarthy saw some success throughout his early career, it wasn’t until 1992 when All the Pretty Horses came out. The popularity and success of that book birthed the McCarthy adaptations of the 21st century.

McCarthy’s biggest strength is his ability to craft a story that reads like a dreamlike state. The author’s composition depends on clear, direct, practically scriptural language deprived of everything except the most essential punctuation. It’s an interesting combo that makes for an easy yet vivid read.

The Good

Like so many other film adaptations, there’s some good in the McCarthy adaptation catalog and some bad. Most agree there are at least three worthwhile films to view (especially one) of the five, while the other two are only worth visiting if you’re a huge fan of his work.

No Country For Old Men (2007)

Logline – Violence, and mayhem ensue after a hunter stumbles upon a drug deal gone wrong and more than two million dollars in cash near the Rio Grande.

Every McCarthy fan, casual reader, or someone who has just seen these five films agrees that No Country For Old Men is an absolute masterpiece. Though it’s not McCarthy’s best book (at least in my opinion), having the Coen brothers behind this captivating yet chilling story catapulted it to a top ten film of the decade.

The Road (2009)

Logline – In a dangerous post-apocalyptic world, an ailing father defends his son as they slowly travel to the sea.

Though The Road is a good film, it’s a big drop-off from the masterpiece that is No Country For Old Men. It’s strange because I enjoy the book variation of The Road better than No Country For Old Men. Still, the performances of Viggo Mortensen and Kodi Smit-McPhee keep this deeply disturbing apocalyptic story going and will evoke an emotional response from anyone.

The Sunset Limited (2011)

Logline – Through a chance encounter, two men of opposing ideologies deliberate spiritual, philosophical, and profound matters in a New York City apartment.

Adapted from McCarthy’s 2006 play of the same name, The Sunset Limited is nothing more than a philosophical introspective film between two men. One who is religious and an optimist and another who is a nihilist. The slow pace and style of the film aren’t for everyone, but it’s worth watching, especially if you’re looking for a deeper question in a film.

The Bad

Now that we’ve highlighted the three great to decent films in the McCarthy adaptation world, we can’t forget about that bad. This isn’t to shame or make fun of these films, seeing as there’s something to learn with every film, no matter how might be. Still, it’s best to honestly discuss why these didn’t work.

All the Pretty Horses (2000)

Logline – Two Texas cowboys head to Mexico for work but soon find themselves in trouble with the law after one of them falls in love with a wealthy rancher’s daughter.

I always feel strange criticizing anything, but All The Pretty Horses isn’t a good film. There isn’t much to like between Matt Damon being miscast, a lack of characterization, and a truly terrible score.

Child of God (2013)

Logline – A dispossessed, violent man’s disastrous attempt to exist outside the social order.

When you think it can get any worse, you have 2013’s Child of God. In defense of the film, Child of God is practically impossible to adapt, given the depravity and brutality of the source material. Still, it could’ve been a little better.



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