Our final guest article peeling back the cerebral layers of the Coen’s eccentric gray matter comes from Craig Kennedy, tzar-supreme of the cozy watering-hole of a blog Living in Cinema. Here he tackles the significant differences between Cormac McCarthy’s novel and the Coen’s adaptation. Be sure to check out his blog, which features industry news and reviews distilled through his keen wit and eloquence. He also has some of the best commentators and conversations going on in the blogosphere. Park your browser there for a spell and soak in the cinematic sunshine.
“The book was better than the movie.”
How many times have you heard someone say that? The truth is, books and movies are two very different things and the strengths of one don’t always play into the strengths of the other. There are exceptions of course. Gone With the Wind and The Godfather spring to mind as films that are equal to or better than their source novels. The movie versions might not be as rich or as in depth as the novels upon which they’re based, but they get the important things right and they still manage to work as movies.
To that list we can surely add the novel No Country for Old Men by Cormac McCarthy and the film based upon it by Joel and Ethan Coen. The first thing that stands out in a direct comparison of the two is how faithful the Coens were to their source, yet how they still made a film with a recognizable Coen stamp. No Country is unmistakably a Coen movie, from the basic framework of McCarthy’s noir plot, to the strong regional characters, to the dialogue; it’s at home in the Coen canon, yet they seem to have changed very little. Much of the dialogue was delivered intact and even the structure of the narrative survived the translation. Somehow it’s McCarthyesque and Coenesque all at the same time.
By necessity, the Coens did a lot of trimming and condensing, but they did a remarkable job of squeezing in the important details. So often, films feel like they’re missing something as they rush from one plot point to the next with little time for richness of detail. The Coen version of No Country wallows in its West Texas milieu, taking its time looking at the scenery, but somehow manages to thrum along like a narrative freight train.
Though it’s similar to its source, No Country isn’t a scene for scene, beat for beat recreation like a Harry Potter movie. One key difference is that of focus. The novel belongs to Sheriff Bell. Each chapter begins with Bell’s narration, which dovetails and counterpoints the action of the main story. Though the film opens with Bell speaking, much of what he says in the book is condensed and it turns up in other forms. Also, Bell has an entire backstory in the book that doesn’t make it into the film. The result is a movie that is more simplified thematically, but one that gives more of the characters an opportunity to shine.
There is one other curious change that happens quickly, but adds a whole new element to the film that wasn’t in the book. It goes a long way to changing the tenor of the story. This is a massive spoiler so if you haven’t seen the movie, well first of all shame on you for missing out on the best movie of last year, but also you shouldn’t be reading this paragraph. The scene in question is near the end when Chigurh confronts Carla Jean and gives her the opportunity to save her own life with a coin flip. In the book, she chooses heads, the coin comes up tails and Chigurh kills her. It’s a sad, but inevitable ending. In the movie however, Carla Jean resists, saying basically her life means more than just flip of a coin and she won’t let Chigurh reduce her to that.
CHIGURH: This is the best I can do. Call it.
CARLA JEAN: I knowed you was crazy when I saw you sitting there. I knowed exactly what was in store for me.
CHIGURH: Call it.
CARLA JEAN: No. I ain’t gonna call it.
CHIGURH: Call it.
CARLA JEAN: The coin don’t have no say. It’s just you.
CHIGURH: Well, I got here the same way the coin did.
The end result is no less inevitable, but Carla Jean’s brief defiance is everything. She represents the clearest assertion of humanity in the whole film and ought to come as a slap in the face to those who insist the Coens are cold filmmakers who despise their characters.
On paper it’s a pretty subtle difference, but so clearly intentional and important. In the book, she capitulates, but in the film she resists and it’s a beautiful yet sad moment. Though she still dies, Carla Jean maintains her humanity – something Chigurh most certainly does not have.
I’m reminded of the scene in Miller’s Crossing where Tom is sent out to kill Bernie and Bernie begs for his life saying he doesn’t want to die like some kind of animal. Tom relents – he believes a man deserves better. Like Carla Jean he later pays bitterly for his sentimentality, but he maintains his dignity at all times.
In the end, though No Country is bleak, the movie version has a slightly warmer center and a bit of resonance the novel does not have thanks to some of the subtle changes the Coens made with their brilliant screenplay. Regardless of the hell the Coens seem to enjoy putting their characters through, the characters are ultimately allowed their basic humanity. It’s all we enter the world with and if we’re lucky, it’s what we take with us when we leave. As retold by Joel and Ethan Coen, No Country for Old Men is an acknowledgement of that.