Cormac McCarthy, the mastermind behind some of contemporary literature's most riveting tales, has a unique narrative voice that feels simultaneously vast and intimate. So, when the work of this literary genius—who sadly passed away earlier this year—collides with the visual spectacle of Hollywood, what emerges?
In this list, we're ranking McCarthy's screen adaptations from those that didn't quite hit their mark to the absolute cinematic masterpieces.
6. Child of God (2013, novel published 1973)
James Franco's attempt to wade into the murky waters of McCarthy's world with Child of God, let's just say it was... interesting? The film chronicles the life of Lester Ballard, our not-so-favorite outcast in 1950s Tennessee. As Ballard gets more isolated from society, his hobbies take a macabre twist. Franco gives us a version that, while visually striking, sometimes feels like it's trying too hard to capture the essence of McCarthy's dark narrative. The Appalachian backdrop does serve some hauntingly beautiful moments, even if they're sometimes overshadowed by the more, let's say, "Franco-ified" choices.
Rumor has it Franco once toyed with the idea of adapting McCarthy's Blood Meridian for the big screen, a thought that might send shivers down the spines of die-hard McCarthy fans, given the craptacular execution of Child of God
Child of God
5. All the Pretty Horses (2000, novel published 1992)
Another actor turned director, this time it’s Billy Bob Thornton. This film adaptation gallops us through John Grady Cole's odyssey from Texas to Mexico, as he seeks both love and purpose amidst ranches and rodeos. But from the novel’s mesmerizingly poetic depiction of the American Southwest, what did we get? Matt Damon in cowboy boots. While All the Pretty Horses boasted stunning visuals of sprawling landscapes and twilight horizons, it left out substantial chunks of Cole's personal journey. Those introspective passages that made readers pause and reflect? Sadly, they were left on the cutting room floor. Perhaps the filmmakers were too dazzled by the allure of a Hollywood romance to bother with something as trivial as the soul of the story.
All the Pretty Horses
4. The Counselor (2013)
Unlike the other adaptations, The Counselor holds a unique place because McCarthy penned the screenplay himself. Instead of being adapted from a novel, this film was McCarthy's direct vision for the big screen. The story, brimming with McCarthy’s trademark bleakness, centers around a lawyer who finds himself entangled in drug trafficking. Despite an ensemble cast including Michael Fassbender, Penélope Cruz, Cameron Diaz, and Javier Bardem, the film polarized critics.
While some hailed it as a profound exploration of greed and consequence, others felt it was dense and lacked narrative cohesion. Ultimately, it was McCarthy unfiltered—a screenplay written with the same complex dialogues and grim undertones as his novels. For fans, it was an exciting glimpse into what happens when McCarthy bypasses the novel format altogether.
3. The Sunset Limited (2011, play production 2006)
Here’s a twist for you: The Sunset Limited isn't your typical McCarthy novel—because it's actually a play! Taking a break from his expansive landscapes and larger-than-life characters, McCarthy chose to confine us to a single room with two blokes and a world of existential debate. Samuel L. Jackson and Tommy Lee Jones brought this bottled-up tension to the screen, and the results? Explosive. The play’s inherently claustrophobic nature was palpable in every frame. While we can't vouch for the stage drama firsthand having never seen it nor read the original text, two powerhouse performances by the leads make this adaptation worth a watch.
The Sunset Limited
2. The Road (2009, novel published 2006)
Ah, The Road, that cheery tale of post-apocalyptic father-son bonding! Viggo Mortensen and Kodi Smit-McPhee did an impeccable job bringing the novel’s haunting narrative to life. Both formats offer their unique strengths: The novel immerses readers in a deep, introspective experience through its lyrical prose, while the movie provides a vivid, tangible representation of the story's events. The Road, whether on page or screen, delivers a powerful and moving exploration of hope, love, and survival in a world stripped of its humanity. Some fans may have caught the film's slightly more hopeful (dare we say, Hollywood?) tone, especially towards the end, but overall, truly a close second in our rankings.
1. No Country for Old Men (2007, novel published 2005)
Last, but definitely not least, the crown jewel of McCarthy adaptations. No Country for Old Men is as close to perfection as you can get, with Javier Bardem giving us all nightmares as the cold-blooded Anton Chigurh. This adaptation is a testament to how books and films can complement each other. The Coen Brothers' meticulous direction, combined with Roger Deakins’ stellar cinematography, creates an atmosphere that’s both tense and atmospheric. The silent stretches, punctuated with bouts of intense violence, echo the unpredictability of life and the consequences of our choices. The film, while respecting its source material, carves out its own identity, making it an unforgettable cinematic experience.