Film That Book! The Orchard Keeper by Cormac McCarthy

Film That Book: The Orchard Keeper by Cormac McCarthy

Instead of sitting around complaining about Hollywood being devoid of ideas, we’re taking the initiative and stealing ideas from books first! So before the next sequel, franchise film or remake hits the screens, please consider investing in a library card and discovering the wonderful world of literature. Then start making speculative casting and directorial choices. Film That Book! It’s a game the whole internet can (and will) play!


The Orchard Keeper by Cormac McCarthy - First EditionCormac McCarthy’s first novel THE ORCHARD KEEPER was originally published in 1965, winning the William Faulkner Foundation Award on its debut. Set between the wars in the isolated Tennessee community of Redbranch, it tells the story of outlaw and bootlegger Marion Sydler, who kills hitchhiker Kenneth Rattner after the latter attempts to attack and rob him. Sydler dumps the body on the property of the cantankerous old backwoodsman Arthur Ownby, who doesn’t report the act but instead builds a kind of shrine to protect it. Rattner’s son, John Wesley, forms relationships with both Sydler and the old man, unaware of the part each has played in the death of his father.


Cormac McCarthy is no stranger to cinemagoers. In addition to successful adaptations of his works by Billy Bob Thornton (All the Pretty Horses), the Coen Brothers (No Country for Old Men), John Hillcoat (The Road) and even James Franco (Child of God), he has written a number of pieces directly for the screen. His screenplays for The Gardener’s Son and The Sunset Limited made their way to television, while Ridley Scott directed 2013’s The Counsellor to a mixed reception. Yet over half of his novels remain unfilmed, and in the case of the long-gestating Blood Meridian, attempts to make it have never gotten off the ground. Some consider that to be “unfilmable” whereas McCarthy is quoted as saying it would require “bountiful imagination and a lot of balls.” The same could be said of THE ORCHARD KEEPER, a book that deals with the big biblical themes of the End of Days and expulsion from paradise. Even so, McCarthy’s character-focused examination of the relationship between fathers and sons, in this case de facto ones, carries much of the same dramatic weight of The Road with a side of rural America that is not often seen on screen.


There are two key elements to getting THE ORCHARD KEEPER right: a willingness to let the characters play out the scenes themselves and a reverential respect for nature. The hyper-masculinity of McCarthy’s work has so far exclusively led male directors to the adaptations, but there’s something about this novel in particular that could change all that. Debra Granik certainly has show us the meaning of family relations in rural America in Winter’s Bone. So Yong Kim (For Ellen, Lovesong) also has a strong focus on character, willing to let moments linger and trusting always in the strength of her exceptional casts to date. Yet for our money, Kelly Reichardt (Meek’s Cutoff, Certain Women) would be a perfect voice to translate McCarthy to the screen. Her chronicle of a group of women moved westward in Meek’s Cutoff is what is needed to tap into the pacing of a McCarthy novel, while her interconnected approach to character-based stories in Certain Women is structurally similar in the way it flips back and forth between leads.


Film That Book: Dream cast of The Orchard Keeper by Cormac McCarthy

Looking at the photos above, this is the point in the article where we start to worry whether or not this is good casting or we’ve simply seen them all play similar roles before. McCarthy is sparse on physical descriptions in THE ORCHARD KEEPER, often referring to his three principals simply as “the man,” “the boy” and “the old man.” Tom Hardy played a bootlegger in Lawless, in a similar era under a director (Hillcoat) who has also shot a McCarthy adaptation. So that might be lazy casting on our part, but he’s our Marian Sydler. We were so impressed by Finn Wolfhard as Mike Wheeler in Netflix’s Stranger Things, we feel that his distinctive look and earnestness is ideal for the Rattner boy.  Plus at 13, he’s currently around the right age to play John Wesley. Finally, Robert Duvall has played a hermit woodsman before, and perhaps it’s his crazy beard (and his ability to carry gravitas with a little bit of paranoia) that we had in mind with casting him as Arthur Ownby.

Did we get it right? Completely wrong? Who would you pick? What other books would you like us to do in this series? Let us know any or all of those things in the comments below.