All the Pretty Horses: Adaptation for Screen

18 January 2012

With his lived-in face and voice, Billy Bob Thornton might seem like an ideal actor to play one of Cormac McCarthy’s grizzled Western characters but it was as director that he worked on the 2000 film adaptation of All the Pretty Horses.

Matt Damon starred as John Grady Cole, with Penelope Cruz as Alejandra Villareal. Henry Thomas, the one-time child actor who played Elliott in ET, was John Grady’s sidekick Rawlins and Lucas Black took the part of Blevins. Sam Shepard, another actor on whom nature has bestowed a face absolutely right for a Cormac McCarthy movie, played J. C. Franklin. The film received mixed reviews on its release and was not a big box-office success.

McCarthy himself was ambivalent about the movie. ‘It could’ve been better,’ he acknowledged in an interview in the Wall Street Journal some years later. However, he was sure he knew the reason for its shortcomings. ‘The director had the notion that he could put the entire book up on the screen. Well, you can’t do that. You have to pick out the story that you want to tell and put that on the screen. And so he made this four-hour film and then he found that if he was actually going to get it released, he would have to cut it down to two hours.’

Viewed today, over a decade after it was made, Thornton’s version of All the Pretty Horses, even in its truncated form, seems a better film than most critics were prepared to admit at the time of its release. Roger Ebert, a dissenting voice then in liking it, now seems right in describing it as ‘the kind of movie that’s best seen on a big screen’, an ‘elegiac Western’ about ‘the feeling of being young, on horseback, in a foreign country, in trouble, and in love.’

Adaptation 1: Short stories on film

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