No Country for Old Men

1. The original No Country for Old Men, written by Cormac McCarthy, is a sparse, bare-bones pesudo-Western set in 1980. McCarthy’s unique prose is dry, yet occasionally poetic, and the book cycles between description of action/landscapes and characters’ inner monologues, specifically those of Anton Chigurh and Sheriff Bell. The story details the lives of these men and their opposing philosophies; Bell’s belief in free will contrasts sharply with Chigurh’s strict adherence to the idea of preordained fate (shown in his methodical killing of almost everyone who crosses his path, as if they were destined to die). Llewelyn Moss’s character dances between these ideals as a morally conflicted young man, who steals money from a drug deal gone wrong, but then also seems to be a redeemable character through the rest of his actions. Author McCarthy does not use quotation marks (or much other punctuation), making it so prose and dialogue mesh together. He paces his novel meticulously, and spends most of it softly yearning for a simpler time in the face of cold modernity, conveyed through the musings of Sheriff Bell.

2. The film version, directed by the Coen brothers and starring Tommy Lee Jones (Sheriff Bell), Javier Bardem (Anton Chigurh), and Josh Brolin (Llewelyn Moss), was critically acclaimed and highly honored at countless award shows. Technically, it’s flawless–the cinematography is precise and beautiful, and its absence of a score captures the silence of Western landscapes in an way that’s unprecedented in its perfection. The movie is tied very closely to the original novel, which makes it difficult to differentiate between the two in their broader elements (storyline, narration, characters).

3. All things considered, this adaptation is very faithful to the original. The story and characters are almost identical, and the screenwriters lifted some dialogue directly from McCarthy’s pages. One main difference, however, is in the pacing of the story’s action. While the book is meticulous and drawn-out in its pace, the movie takes some liberties–some scenes, like Llewelyn’s chase away from the drug deal crime scene by gangsters, are rushed through in the movie. The movie also changed the pacing of Anton’s pursuit of Moss in the motels; while the book describes these in detail, the movie juxtaposes them in order to create and maintain suspense. Some critics have condemned the Coen brothers’ addition of humor to the story as well. The book has very little humor, but the directors added some (much needed) comic relief into an otherwise very intense movie; it changes the tone of the story, and not everyone appreciated the change. Lastly, the film had to cut much of Chigurh’s lengthy discussions with his victims before he killed them, which I think might have been a mistake. Without these, it’s harder to discern Chigurh’s motives for his actions, and that makes him more of a confusing character.

4. This lengthy article, from one of our online journals, takes a philosophical look at film, addressing No Country for Old Men‘s lack of resolution as puzzling, yet tantalizing. This source compares No Country for Old Men to some of the Coen brothers’ other films, including Fargo, and addresses the notable absence of music and dialogue in the movie. This article, also from a film journal, addresses the lack of resolution as well, going as far as to refer to it as ‘controversial.’ The author compares the film to other movies who have defied convention and ‘broken the rules’ of movie making, including Psycho. By ending the movie the way they did, the Coen brothers defied the tradition of Westerns–not only do the good guys not win in the end, but no one wins. Both the ‘good’ and ‘evil’ characters live to fight another day, with no epic gun battle between them. In fact, Bell and Chigurh never even meet face to face.

5. While Cormac McCarthy’s novel has a smattering of humor, the film version of No Country for Old Men has much more. Is the patented mordant humor of the Coen brothers appropriate for McCarthy’s story, or does it do a disservice to the author’s intent?

Most dramatic stories are well served by a little comic relief. Macbeth’s Porter is the classic example, providing laughter that’s distracting from the heavy tension of the play, but not so funny that it’s out of place. Books and movies both do this in their own ways, but the book version of No Country for Old Men holds very little humor in its dry prose. Thesis: The Coen brothers managed to infuse a decent amount of humor into their adaptation, however, and they do so appropriately. The humor never feels out of place; it is often black comedy, which is appropriate to the mood of the movie. The humor is added in the most appropriate possible way, but it remains to be seen whether or not it does a disservice to McCarthy’s intent. It is impossible to know his intent for certain without discussing it directly with him, but the absence of humor in the original book was likely a deliberate choice. But maybe the book version didn’t need comic relief; it was paced more evenly, so it lacked much the intense suspense presented in the movie. The liberties that the Coen brothers took with pacing needed to be appropriately countered with some tension-relieving humor, and they did just that. It was a necessary addition in the wake of their other adaptations; without it, the movie might have been too suspenseful.


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