Book Vs. Film: No Country For Old Men
If you're anything like me, you find books that spawned films and films adapted from books weirdly irresistible. Almost literally irresistible, in fact–I frequently wind up half-reluctantly checking out films that look awful based on books that were awful (Dreamcatcher immediately leaps to mind for some strange reason), and muddling through books that aren't very interesting which prompted films that weren't very interesting. (Earlier this year, I bullied myself about halfway through the book version of Fierce People before finally accepting that I just didn't care, and giving up.) There's just something about the questions "What will that look like onscreen?" and "What insights did the movie version have to leave out?" that overwhelm my common sense, artistic tastes, and overbookedness, and send me off to the library or bookstore or theater for the flip side of whatever I've just read or seen. Why? Simple curiosity, and an ongoing fascination with the relationship between books and film.
Alternately, if you're nothing like me, then you probably won't find this latest running A.V. Club column particularly interesting. I'm setting out to semi-regularly compare the films I see with the books that spawned them – current releases and older material alike. While this column will inevitably at points devolve into "The movie added this scene and left out that scene," the purpose isn't just to list all the changes; I'd like, in part, to get into how they compare as experiences, and whether it's worth it for fans (or ravening non-fans, for that matter) of one version to seek out the other.
On some level, I accept that a film and a book are different creatures, that a perfect adaptation is impossible, and that both versions should stand on their own merits. Which is a good tack to take in a review. At the same time, who watches a movie based on a book without wondering what the book's like? Who notices that someone's making a film out of something they've read, and doesn't wonder whether the filmmakers will do justice to the story?
Not me. Which explains nearly a quarter of the books I've read this year: Children Of Men, Perfume: The Story Of A Murderer, Bridge To Terabithia (though that one was a re-read), The Namesake, Auntie Mame: An Irreverent Escapade, The Talented Mr. Ripley, Thank You For Smoking, The Brave, Battle Royale, Bambi, The Jane Austen Book Club, The Nanny Diaries, The Dark Is Rising, The Martian Child, and a couple more things I'm hoping to cover here before the end of the year. Really, I'm starting this column largely because I read books that were made into films and watch films that were adapted from books pretty obsessively, and I think it's high time I channeled some of that energy into actually talking to people about how the versions stack up.
A note for this inaugural column: While I often see films before they hit theaters, and could in all likelihood get these columns out to coincide with the films' release dates, I'm going to attempt not to, because I'm going to be discussing a lot of very specific plot points, and in many cases, how the ending of the book differed from the ending of the film. I can't imagine many people wanting to talk about a film's plot in excruciating detail on the day it opens. So most of the time, I won't be bringing up films here until they've been in theaters at least a week or two.
And in case that wasn't clear enough, HERE'S YOUR BIG FAT SPOILER WARNING. This column will go in depth about whatever it's covering, and this week is no exception. If you read further, you're going to find out a bunch of things you really don't want to know about this book/movie unless you haven't seen it yet, or just really hate surprises. So proceed with appropriate caution. Onward
• Book: No Country For Old Men, Cormac McCarthy, 2005
• Film: No Country For Old Men, directed by Joel & Ethan Coen, 2007
Cormac McCarthy's novels are a specialized taste, and not just because he leans heavily toward stylized gothic Westerns; fans like his arid intensity, while detractors bitch about his stylized prose, which tends to be as blunt and choppy as a Hemingway novel, with half the punctuation. Take this excerpt from No Country For Old Men, as protagonist Llewelyn Moss (played by Josh Brolin in the film version) tracks a wounded drug dealer away from an apparent shootout in the desert:
He went back to the first truck and stood looking at the open door on the passenger side. There were no bulletholes in the door but there was blood on the seat. The key was still in the ignition and he reached in and turned it and then pushed the windowbutton. The glass ratcheted slowly up out of the channel. There were two bulletholes in it and a fine spray of dried blood on the inside of the glass. He stood there thinking about that. He looked at the ground. Stains of blood in the clay. Blood in the grass. He looked out down the track south across the caldera back the way the truck had come. There had to be a last man standing. And it wasnt the cuate in the Bronco begging for water.
He walked out on the floodplain and cut a wide circle to see where the track of the tires in the thin grass would show in the sun. He cut for sign a hundred feet to the south. He picked up the man's trail and followed it until he came to blood in the grass. Then more blood.
You aint goin far, he said. You may think you are. But you aint.
That lack of quotation marks and apostrophes extends throughout the entire book, and it drives some people up a tree. Given that I wound up as a professional editor largely because of a lifelong anal-retentiveness about grammar and punctuation, I sympathize. For some people, this aspect of McCarthy's writing is a deal-killer, and the short, punchy sentences aren't much better.
But that aside, McCarthy's No Country For Old Men is a taut, engrossing thriller, one that emphasizes its drama by downplaying it, presenting events in a straightforward, low-key, orderly way that builds up far more impact than, say, Dan Brown's histrionic attempts to build tension by yelling at the reader that it's time to be excited. The Coen brothers' screen version can't help but be more dynamic than McCarthy's novel; even though they maintain the book's cool tone by having the characters rarely raise their voices or even evince outward emotion, just the intensity of their stares gives the story an immediate urgency beyond the book's. Instead, the book has a sort of heavy inevitability, as though every event – no matter how left-field – follows implacably from the one before.
The Coens, by contrast, have a distinctive but more malleable style; they tend toward heightened narrative whether they're doing noir or comedy, but their tendency to play around with styles and genres makes it harder to recognize their authorial stamp, except insofar that the vast majority of their movies are terrific. No Country For Old Men is no exception. (It's pretty much a lock for a slot on my top five films of the year, and at the moment, it's looking like a possible number one.) It's a bracing thriller, a cat-and-mouse game involving (as Coen movies tend to) a lot of extra cats and mice running around complicating the story and throwing out stylized, entertaining, and frequently bizarre performances. It's also almost unbearably funny, in an exceedingly dry Western sort of way. The characters stay straight-faced and rarely bat an eye no matter what they run up against; they express tension and misery and anger and frustration alike by just getting a little more sardonic. It isn't a movie filled with exclamation points, but it's a beautifully subtle one, for a Western noir packed with random bloodshed and a serial killer who strolls around punching holes in people's heads with a compressed-air tank.
I picked up McCarthy's novel after watching the Coens' No Country film adaptation because I was thrown by the abrupt offscreen death of seeming protagonist Llewelyn Moss, and by the film's similarly abrupt ending. Above all, I wanted to find out whether the book ended the same way, or whether that was a Coen brothers drama trick. Turns out that No Country the film is an unusually tight book adaptation; there isn't a whole lot of variation between them. And the book does end in pretty much the same place, though instead of describing a dream to his wife, Sheriff Bell (the Tommy Lee Jones character) is essentially describing it to the reader, in one of many italicized interludes, presented as a inner monologue about the ways he feels the world is changing around him.
These interludes, which are fairly frequent throughout the book, represent the biggest difference between the film and the novel. McCarthy opens with one, with Sheriff Bell talking about an unrepentant teenage murderer, and the effect that boy had on him. The Coens (who also scripted their No Country adaptation) also open their film with this monologue, delivered in voiceover by Tommy Lee Jones, though the movie hasn't introduced his character yet, and won't for some time. The tone is right, and it's a pointed introduction to the story's themes in both cases, but the film's timing is comparatively awkward; the monologue interludes in the book, which are sometimes brief and sometimes expansive, help establish Sheriff Bell as more of a main character, and make it less thoroughly jarring when Moss suddenly turns up dead. Whereas in the film, that sudden spate of narration comes from nowhere, and isn't immediately pinned to anyone.
The Coens do incorporate a lot of the best material from Bell's inter-chapter monologues into other points of their film; after that initial voiceover, Bell largely delivers his thoughts in dialogue form to other people, as when he tells his deputy in the diner the story about the people who took in pensioners, tortured them to death, buried them in the back yard, and cashed their checks. Other interlude material is less essential, and gets dropped entirely.
There are other significant differences between the film and book version:
• The book is less removed about the end of the interaction between Chigurh (the Javier Bardem character) and Moss' wife toward the end of the film; it spells out the fact that he shoots her. She also doesn't refuse to call heads or tails on his coin: She calls it incorrectly, though they then have pretty much the same conversation they have in the film, about how he, not the coin, is deciding her fate.
• The book is also more specific about how Chigurh ended up in the car of the deputy he kills at the beginning of the film; he murdered a man for a snotty remark, then permitted himself to be captured "to see if I could extricate myself by an act of will." Explaining some aspects of his life to Carson Wells (the Woody Harrelson character) before killing him, Chigurh describes this as a vain, foolish act.
• The first hotel confrontation between Moss and Chigurh plays out very differently; rather than punching out the lock and wounding Moss, Chigurh apparently steals a key from the murdered clerk and quietly enters Moss' room, and Moss hides and takes him captive at gunpoint, so they have a chance to see and know each other. Then Moss runs and the chase/shootout begins.
• There's a scene where Chigurh delivers the recovered cash to some higher-up whom he's never met before, but whom he's clearly decided is now his employer; he presents the money and they come to terms after a brief "How did you find me?" "What difference does it make?" conversation. Which really makes more sense than the film version of his story, which makes it fairly unclear whom he's working for. That does make him spookier and ghostlier, but also less like a real character.
• There's also a protracted scene toward the end where Sheriff Bell interviews one of the kids who witnessed Chigurh's car accident, and apparently stole Chigurh's gun out of his car afterward. This doesn't come to much, apart from filling Bell in on some details that the readers already know.
• The hilarious and horrible chase scene with the dog that follows Moss downstream until he manages to dry out his gun and shoot it is an invention of the film, and doesn't appear in the book in any way.
• Where the film last sees Moss alive heading off to have a beer with a lady who calls to him from poolside at her hotel, the book has a lengthy interlude between him and a young female hitchhiker, whom he gives money and advice, in a homey interlude that seems fairly similar to Richard Farnsworth's interaction with the young runaway in David Lynch's The Straight Story. He actually dies because he puts down his gun when the Mexicans following him take her hostage; that scene doesn't happen "onscreen" in the book any more than it does in the film, but a witness describes it in some small detail. The Coens may have eliminated the underage-hitchhiker subplot for time considerations, or because it might be harder to convince film audiences that Moss didn't sleep with the girl (who repeatedly propositions him, either because she likes his style or because she's used to paying her way in sex) at some offscreen, between-scenes interlude, which would undermine the dynamic between him and his wife. In fact, in a film, it would be slightly difficult to keep audiences from thinking he was on the prowl after her even if he didn't ever follow through.
Not that people reading the novel necessarily know much about where Moss' mind is during that period, or whether he ever actually considers sex with the girl; McCarthy rarely explores his characters' inner lives, except by observing their actions. Bell's monologue interludes are about as close as he comes to outright explaining what his characters are thinking.
Which really makes No Country an excellent candidate to be placed onscreen. The main problem with book-to-film adaptations is that books tend to explore characters' mental states in ways that films rarely can, except through all-too-often-awkward devices like exposition, narration, and voiceover. Since McCarthy doesn't tend to go there – No Country is far more about what his men-of-action characters do than about how they feel about it – little is lost in the transition, apart from some of the flow of the language, which the Coens include verbatim exceedingly often. The list of plot changes above may seem long, but they represent a small percentage of the actual story, which mostly plays out in the film exactly as McCarthy put it on the page, scene for scene, conversation for conversation. A lot of the speeches and wittiest exchanges are verbatim from the book.
What the book does better: Mostly, it's more thematically consistent, thanks to the Bell interludes, which open, close, and space out the book, making it more clearly about him and his conviction that America is falling apart, becoming the kind of place where fellows like him just don't belong. (As near as I noticed, the phrase "no country for old men" never actually appears either in the book or the film.)
What the film does better: The film is richer and less arid, with more of a hushed, oppressive dread, the kind of looming sense of doom that David Lynch (okay, and also often the Coens) excels at building. The performances are uniformly terrific, and help flesh out the bare-bones characters. Also, without really changing any particulars, the movie stretches out some of the book's quick-sketch processes, turning them into little mysteries. At several points in both the book and film version, characters gather ordinary objects and ploddingly, deliberately, step-by-step, use them to surprising ends. McCarthy tends to cover this kind of thing in a few bare sentences; the Coens stretch it out over five calculated minutes of mysterious yet focused activity, raising the ongoing question "What is he up to?" and emphasizing the innate cleverness and creativity of the two leads in particular.
Petty little altered detail: In the book, when Moss leaves the badly wounded Mexican behind in the truck early on, and the Mexican begs him to shut the truck door so the wolves don't get in, Moss says there aren't any wolves, but he obligingly shuts the door anyway. In the film, he says the same line and walks off, leaving the door standing open, in the process coming across as just a little more of a coldhearted hard-ass.
Does the film version "get" the book? Absolutely. This is one of the best book-to-film adaptations I've ever seen, both in terms of a close following of the text, and in terms of playing out the author's intentions rather than undermining or erasing them.
Book, film, neither, or both? This is a harder call than most of the titles I've read this year, and no doubt I'm influenced by having seen the film first. But in the end, I'd say the two versions are close enough to be all but redundant experiences. If you really loved the film, there's no harm in reading the book, but it doesn't significantly expand the experience. And in the end, the terrific low-burn performances and beautiful cinematography make the film version more rewarding.
Next time on Book Vs. Film:
And coming soon: