Last week I talked about visiting the Stanley Kubrick exhibit. I wrote briefly about how highly I think of 2001: A Space Odyssey, referencing a mental list I like to keep. This mental ranking is an exercise first and foremost, not a set-in-stone declaration of value. I think there’s something to be gained creatively from keeping track of the greatest things you’ve seen, if only so you always have that standard tucked away for comparison. Well after I watched No Country for Old Men for the first time it didn’t make the list. I liked it a whole lot. I thought it was a great work of art, but it didn’t clamber its way to the top of my proverbial list. As time passed however I thought more and more about the movie. I read about it. I rewatched the hotel sequence. I let it stew in the pot of my mind for a while, and came to the conclusion it deserved not only a place on the list, but a high place. Honestly ranking the list is inherently a flawed conceit. Some pieces of art just don’t deserve straightforward comparison. That being said, gun to my head, No Country for Old Men might be top five material.
The thing is I hadn’t read the book. All the Pretty Horses and The Crossing had already instilled in me a healthy fondness for Cormac McCarthy’s elegiac prose and story style. As well as a few much-needed life lessons (don’t ride your horse in to Mexico, for the love of God). Both books, especially The Crossing, were beautiful, depressing, emotional, and fascinating reads. So I knew at some point I would have to read No Country for Old Men. Of course, there are quite a few Cormac McCarthy books I should get around to reading, and it was hard to know if No Country for Old Men deserved jumping to the top of the list. The short novel managed to insert itself into the front of the cue by default. A copy of it made it to my shelf before any other book of his. Not only that but after slogging through Michael Moorcock’s great-but-grinding novel The Laughter of Carthage there was a certain appeal to picking up a book I could finish in a few days without the helping-hand that is speed-reading.
So I read No Country for Old Men.
Initially I was struck with a typical and unsurprising problem. The film’s imagery was just too vivid in my mind. Roger Deakin’s jaw-dropping cinematography and the film’s perfect cast were too effective a representation of the novel’s prose. I couldn’t help but imagine the desert the way it was in the movie, Chigurh the way he was in the movie, the scenes playing out the way they did in the movie. As the book went on however I focused more on the writing and managed to distance myself from the admittedly understandable point of reference. It started to take on a life of its own, as it deserved. Cormac McCarthy’s beautiful and unique use of language and pacing made the book its own gripping little entity. When the book actually diverges from the movie it culminated their mental separation. I could view the book on it’s own, at least until I finished it.
Naturally after finishing the book I rewatched Joel and Ethan Coen’s adaptation. I immediately knew I needed to compare the two for a whole host of reasons.
The novel was a beautiful and grim rumination on men’s waning days. It captured a vivid and unique image and frequently defied conventional expectations, by doing things like easing the drama off more and more as the novel progressed, stripping back the tension and viscera until only philosophy was left. McCarthy’s typically blood-soaked vision of the Mexican border was as grim as always, filled with assassins and warring gangs and brutally sociopathic murderers. Llewelyn enters this world unprepared in many ways, but the novel rarely dwells on this. In fact the ex-sniper gets a grip on the situation unexpectedly fast, and holds his own better than he should. Especially when Anton Chigurh, a philosophizing angel of death, starts chasing him. The novel flits between those two points of view and a third, a small town sheriff trying his best to keep his jurisdiction safe.
The Coen brothers adapted this movie entirely on their own. They’re true artists, handling the same three tasks Kubrick considered necessary for artistic control – writing, directing, and editing. They picked the perfect Cormac McCarthy novel to adapt. Its short size lends itself perfectly to the runtime of an average film. Still the Coens chose a route much braver then it might at first seem. They stuck as close to the novel as they possibly could, with one exception. Cormac McCarthy’s treatment of plot is decidedly uncinematic, and it’s easy to imagine how lesser attempts at adapting his work could become overly concerned with dramatizing it. Instead the Coens lean towards the anti-movie feel they seem to be increasingly interested in at this point in their career. The follow the ebb and flow of the novel exactly. It opens almost verbatim from the first pages. It ends with the exact same speech. It winds down the drama in the same way. It’s all very literal.
Except for one major character, a young seventeen year old hitchhiker Llewelyn Moss picks up in the book. He drives this girl around, talking to her for sometime in the book. When he eventually dies (off-page) it’s in a hotel with the girl. They’re gun-downed side-by-side, leading Moss’ wife to the false assumption that he was cheating on her when he died. The character takes up quite a bit of time in the book, mainly forcing Llewelyn Moss to talk about himself. It seems the Coens made a reasonable choice, quite probably driven by the urge to conserve time, to cut the character from the movie entirely. A few moments in the movie are stolen from these scenes of conversation and used elsewhere. Even though the movie makes no particular show of it – Llewelyn dies (off-screen) while drinking beer with a single woman at a hotel. The woman even matches the novel’s description of the hitchhiker. However we barely see her and Llewelyn interact, she’s almost a background character.
This particular decision seems quite logical to me. The hitchhiker does little to propel the plot forward, and grants us almost no new information. It never feels superfluous in the book, in fact the conversations the two have are quite memorable, but it certainly seems like the thing to cut, if something had to be cut. It’s not like the Coens have even the slightest misunderstanding of what makes the book important, and so this small absence has little bearing on the themes (although the thematic significance in the book is certainly related to the main themes, it’s not essential) of the final movie.
Now inevitably the question that arises from adaptations is one of superiority. “The book was better” has become a rallying cry of sorts. Which is reasonable, if occasionally obnoxious or false. The thing is I’m at a complete impasse as to which No Country of Old Men I’d take over the other. The Coens’ film perfectly encapsulates the book, translating its themes to the screen with aplomb and dragging most of its scenes straight off the page without any kind of alteration. There isn’t a single frame of that movie that doesn’t feel like a perfect and necessary visualization from the book. The cast completely embodies the characters from the novel. The scenery is perfect. The scenes play out the exactly way they’re described, or, if not are fantastic and suited to the material anyways (the last portion of the hotel confrontation).
So if No Country for Old Men is a perfect adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s novel, and really and honestly I believe it is, then we have to compare the works of art in other ways. Except, perhaps unsurprisingly, the two pieces don’t make for an easy comparison.
Cormac McCarthy’s novel has one thing the movie can never imitate – Cormac McCarthy’s awe inspiring writing. Ever sentence he puts down on page is like a beautiful piece of burning wood; unique, fascinating, somber, and occasionally wildly strange. He uses words uniquely, yet powerfully.
On the other hand Joel and Ethan Coen’s film has several things the novel couldn’t possibly have. Roger Deakin is at the peak of his game in this movie. Every shot in that film is beautiful. Without exception. The Coens’ editing is…just indescribably wonderful. Their adaptation of the hotel shoot-out is one of the best-edited action scenes I’ve ever seen. Every beat happens AS your mind realizes what’s going to happen. This keeps it surprising and tense without ever being unclear or even remotely chaotic. It’s an utter masterclass.
I guess what I’m saying is that No Country for Old Men is a masterpiece. Clarification not needed.