‘The Counselor’ & How Cormac McCarthy Beat the Hollywood Curse

Faulkner, Fitzgerald, Huxley—none of the great novelists ever had an original screenplay produced. Cormac McCarthy has. But is his new movie, The Counselor, any good? By Andrew Romano.

Hollywood has never been kind to great fiction writers. But The Counselor—the new Ridley Scott film starring Michael Fassbender, Brad Pitt, Cameron Diaz, Javier Bardem, and Penelope Cruz—is different. Somehow novelist-turned-screenwriter Cormac McCarthy has avoided the curse of F. Scott Fitzgerald, Aldous Huxley, and Vladimir Nabokov and managed to convince a lot of very powerful people to make exactly the movie he wanted to make.

The question is whether that’s a good thing.

Consider how unique McCarthy’s experience has been. When his literary ancestors attempted to conquer La-La Land, they were rebuffed, rewritten, or humiliated. Fitzgerald is the most famous example. In 1927, depressed by the public’s lukewarm response to The Great Gatsby, the Jazz Age icon made his first trip west; he visited again four years later, on assignment to adapt someone else’s hit novel. Neither stint panned out.

Then his income began to dry up. As late as 1930, Fitzgerald was commanding $3,000 to $4,000 per short story; by 1936, his total book royalties amounted to about $80. Nearly bankrupt, Fitzgerald decided in 1937 to try his hand at screenwriting one more time, and with the assistance of an old pal, he secured a six-month, $1,000-a-week contract with MGM. At the time he described himself as a “pretty broken and prematurely old man who hasn’t a penny except what he can bring out of a weary mind and a sick body.”

Fitzgerald was so desperate to succeed in Hollywood that he watched and rewatched A Star is Born, filling page after typewritten page with tedious running tallies of camera movements and shot sequences: “group shot, close up, two shot, group shot,” and so on. It was no use. A pair of rewrite men scrapped Fitzgerald’s dialogue for A Yank at Oxford, and a collaborator was brought in to help polish his draft of Three Comrades—a five-month process that proved to be pointless when director Joseph Mankiewicz simply decided to revise Fitzgerald’s script himself. “I am utterly miserable,” Fitzgerald whimpered in a letter to Mankiewicz. “I’m a good writer—honest.”

The embarrassments continued. Screenplays for Marie Antoinette, The Women, and Madame Curie fizzled. Fitzgerald was fired from Gone with the Wind after one week. Cosmopolitan, a screen adaptation of Fitzgerald’s short story “Babylon Revisited” that he tailored for Shirley Temple, failed to make it past Temple’s mother, and Fitzgerald’s only original screenplay, Infidelity, which was written for Joan Crawford, was axed by censors. When Fitzgerald died of a heart attack on Dec. 21, 1940, in the Hollywood flat he shared with gossip columnist Sheilah Graham, he had only one screenwriting credit to his name.

Nabokov’s experience with Hollywood wasn’t as sad as Fitzgerald’s, but it wasn’t exactly successful, either. After declining an offer to adapt Lolita for the screen, Nabokov, in his own words, “experienced a small nocturnal illumination, of diabolical origin, perhaps, but unusually compelling in sheer bright force, and clearly perceived an attractive line of approach to a screen version.” Almost “magically,” he soon received a telegram from Hollywood urging him to reconsider. He agreed to write the script.

Christopher Karr recently described the fruit of Nabokov’s labors as “one of the strangest adaptations ever written”:

There are impossible stage directions, like “The taxi driver is strangely erratic” and “The Lecturer is now shown clearly except for a ripple or two of optical interference.” Page-long quotations from the novel are recapitulated as stage directions. Nabokov scripts lines for the dog (“Woof, woof.”), and even provides a parenthetical suggestion (perfunctorily) as to how the dog should bark. The novelist also writes a cameo for himself into the script. Lolita points to “that nut with the net over there.” The stage directions title him “The Butterfly Hunter” and then identify him: “His name is Vladimir Nabokov.” He catches a butterfly and has a brief, irrelevant exchange with Humbert.

Nabokov’s draft exceeded 400 pages. When Kubrick explained that the resulting movie would be seven hours long, they agreed to shelve the script. “He saw my novel in one way,” Nabokov said. “I saw it in another.”

Aldous Huxley’s experience was similar. Huxley managed to eke out a few screen credits for Pride and Prejudice, Jane Eyre, and Madame Curie, but he could never get his adaptation of Brave New World off the ground. When he submitted a version of Alice in Wonderland that sought to dramatize the “long-drawn struggles between Tory High Churchmen and liberal Modernists” and featured author Lewis Carroll in one of the lead roles, Disney rejected it outright.

Not every literary novelist has had such a hard time in Hollywood. In recent years Dave Eggers (A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius) has adapted Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are, co-written the hipster comedy Away We Go with his wife Vendela Vida, and earned a “story by” credit for 2012’s anti-fracking drama Promised Land with Matt Damon and John Krasinski. Since the mid-1990s Michael Chabon (The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay) has sold several original scripts, delivered treatments for X-Men and Fantastic Four, written an initial draft of Spider-Man 2, and worked on the script for John Carter. Larry McMurtry (Lonesome Dove) co-wrote the screenplay for The Last Picture Show with Peter Bogdanovich and even won the Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay for his work on Brokeback Mountain.

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Perhaps the greatest novelist to achieve some semblance of success in Hollywood was Nobel Prize winner William Faulkner, who adapted Ernest Hemingway’s To Have or Have Not and Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep for legendary director Howard Hawks, and who also did uncredited work on Gunga Din (1939), Mildred Pierce (1945) and The Southerner (1945), the last of which was directed by Jean Renoir. Yet even Faulkner dismissed his efforts in Lotusland. “A moving picture is by its nature a collaboration, and any collaboration is compromise,” he told The Paris Review in 1956. That’s why screenwriting “will never have the urgency for me which my own medium has.”

Remarkably, neither Faulkner, Fitzgerald, Huxley, nor Nabokov ever had an original screenplay—as opposed to a script adapted from one of their novels or short stories—produced by Hollywood. In fact, I can’t think of many (if any) major literary novelists who have written a solo original screenplay, managed to get that screenplay made into an actual movie, and pronounced themselves pleased with the final product. But that’s precisely what Cormac McCarthy has done with The Counselor.

A lifelong film buff, McCarthy has been writing screenplays since the 1970s; his archives include three that were never produced, including No Country for Old Men, which was a screenplay before it was a novel (and, later, a Coen Brothers film). In the past, McCarthy refused to meddle in the film versions of his work. But he wanted more control with The Counselor, which he wrote while taking a breather from two novels-in-progress, so he signed on as an executive producer and “weighed in on everything from the director and cast to subtle language tweaks and final edits.” As Michael Fassbender, who plays the title character, told The Wall Street Journal, McCarthy “was there every day”—the author spent more than a month on set in London and coastal Spain—“and if I was getting something wrong, he’d let me know.”

The result may represent the clearest on-screen realization of a great fiction writer’s vision to date. So far the critics have not been kind, awarding The Counselor a mediocre 49 rating on Metacritic. But I think many of them are missing the point, or at least the pleasure, of the movie.

Fitzgerald, Nabokov, Huxley, and the rest of them failed in Hollywood for a variety of reasons. But the root of the problem was always the same: none of them could abandon their novelistic instincts and adhere to the laws of screenwriting.

With The Counselor, we can finally see what that sort of “failure” looks like on screen. As The New York TimesManohla Dargis puts it, “Mr. McCarthy appears to have never read a screenwriting manual in his life.” This makes for a fascinating experiment in filmmaking.

Simply put, The Counselor is a horror story about moral repercussions: the moral repercussions of Fassbender’s character’s decision to help transport a massive shipment of cocaine from Mexico to Chicago as well as the larger moral repercussions of the violent drug war that’s currently raging on America’s southern border. Greed creates monsters; once you’re in, there’s no escape.

Sure, the characters are more like archetypes than human beings. But they’re also pure McCarthy: the sardonic, well-meaning Counselor, in over his head; the wry, rascally middleman Westray (Brad Pitt); the effusive, over-luxuriated Reiner (Javier Bardem); and most of all, the lethal, leonine Malkina (Cameron Diaz). The dialogue is pure McCarthy as well: clipped, resonant, near-Biblical—and somewhat pompous. For all their linguistic richness, McCarthy’s novels have always been pulpy, over-the-top, and absurd, in the best possible way. The Counselor is too.

And that’s because it’s McCarthy’s. Is The Counselor a great movie? Not really. But at least it’s an interesting one. And that’s more than you can say for the vast majority of films these days. Maybe Hollywood should let some more great novelists get their way.