I've talked about Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian on this blog before, not only for my love of the novel, but because there have been several attempts to adapt it into a film (most recently by James Franco)--something that many in the industry feel is an impossibility to do well, given the novel's immense violent nature. In fact, Ridley Scott, who once tried to get the project off the ground, famously said that "It would have been rated double-X."
A few years ago, William Monahan (who won the Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar for The Departed), was given the chance to adapt the novel. I've long wanted to read his draft, and thanks to a nice redditor, was finally able to get my hands on it.
Monahan's first act was written extraordinarily well. I fell into the story as quickly as I did the first time I read the novel. Although no one could match McCarthy's vivid description of mid-1800's Texas, Mexico, and California, Monahan does a serviceable job to say the least, especially with the limited amount of space he had to work with. The Kid's travels down to Texas, the Glanton gang's move into Mexico, the initial battles with the Apaches--it's done well.
Then the Judge is established, and it's clear where Monahan diverges from the book--to the detriment of the story. The master-craftsman McCarthy brilliantly layered the Judge within the multitude of members of the Glanton Gang, The character is slowly established, and it's not until deep into the novel that we realize his true significance, not only to this story, but to the world as a whole.
Monahan was restricted by time, so he hacked out most of the other character's dialogue. He gave the Judge much more prominent of a place in the story--right from his establishment. This ruins the whole character, and frankly, does immense damage to the story as well.
However, with the exception of this unfortunate fact, the Monahan script is relatively strong, specifically in the first act, and first-half of the second. The end of the second act and the entire third act do need some work. But, this is a very workable script, much to my amazement.
Monahan changes the ending (one of the greatest endings in fictional history, in my opinion), and absolutely crashes and burns with it. One has to wonder what the hell he was thinking. It's bizarre that he would even attempt to alter such a brilliant end to an amazing story. But he does. Probably an ego thing, but when you're adapting arguably the world's greatest living writer, don't fuck up the ending. Is that too much to ask?
I think with a bunch of work, which would definitely include the removal of (perhaps) 70% of the Judge's dialogue, and with the beefing up of some of the side characters (such as Toadvine and the Delawares), this script could be made to work to the level of our high expectations attached to McCarthy adaptations. Above all, that ridiculously bad ending would have to be changed back to McCarthy's original intention. (The greatest scene in the whole book is removed for some reason).
So, overall, I was impressed with Monahan's attempt. This is truly a near-impossible project. He took a hard shot, and it ended up being decent. In fact, the first third of the screenplay is pretty incredible. As it stands, however, I'd hate to see this script shot. The magic of who the Judge character is would have to be added back in, and that addition would certainly be made through substantial subtraction.