Films / Thriller

No Country for Old Men: Adaptation Review

Adapting a novel into a screenplay and subsequently, into a film, can be a difficult process, and usually, the film version stands as the weaker of the two. Occasionally, however, a movie ends up being superior to its novel origin – Jaws, Children of Men and Blade Runner – but such movies shouldn’t be considered reflective of the source material; their tone or style is not what the author had in mind, as the director has approached the subject with a different view. For example, Kubrick’s The Shining is a superior product to Stephen King’s pulpier original, at least in terms of atmosphere and style, but the focus between the two is completely different – the novel works on the horrors of alcoholism and its effect on family life, whereas the film works like an inverted 2001, highlighting the darkness in humanity and poison within cultural heritage – and so the film could not be considered a true adaptation, despite coming out stronger overall. Making a perfect adaptation however, does not mean following the book religiously – look at the first Harry Potter movies – but it means following the tone or themes of the original novel. Both mediums are very different, and with a perfect adaptation the two compliment each other. Films which have succeeded in this regard are The Silence of the Lambs, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, and Fight Club; movies in which everyone involved understood what the source material was about and sort to channel this onto a screen. No Country for Old Men, with its multiple Oscar wins, stands as a more recent example of perfect adaptation, which the Coen Brothers’ movie serving as a wonderful representation of Cormac McCarthy’s crime thriller, and as such, the movie is worth looking at in more detail.no9The plot remains mainly unchanged across the two, a three-way storyline focusing on three different men. Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin) is hunting deer in the desert when he comes across a Mexican drug deal gone wrong; there are bodies everywhere and cars riddled with bullets, the source of the commotion being over 2 million dollars in cash which Moss, on impulse, steals. Little does Moss know that Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem), a ruthless and unstoppable pyschopath, is on his trail. Meanwhile, Sheriff Bell (Tommy Lee Jones), a world-weary ageing law man, sets out to pick up the pieces.no8It’s easy to see why the Coen Brothers were drawn to the novel, as McCarthy’s text touches upon many of their familiar motifs. No Country for Old Men defies genre, in a way mirroring the Coen’s previous work; it’s a crime thriller but one which doesn’t play by the standard narrative rules, seeking to twist reader expectations – important characters die suddenly off screen for example, saviours are set up to be destroyed, and there is no real conclusion, at least not in the usual sense; we’re given thematic closure and even then, the apocalyptic final message isn’t one to leave readers feeling good. It’s an unsettling, eerie story, the turns against convention seeking to take away the reader’s safety net. There’s also themes regarding chance and the randomness of life, the everyman in an impossible situation, and the unexplainable evil in the world; all ideas the Coen Brothers have worked with before, particularly in their most well known movie, Fargo. They get what McCarthy was going for, and as such, were the perfect candidates for directing the feature. tommy lee jonesMcCarthy’s style lends itself to adaptation too – his novels are written in sparse, Hemingway-esq prose, and tend to avoid detailed analysis of his characters’ minds. The biggest issue with adaptation is that novels allow readers to get into characters’ heads; you can’t really do that in film – you can’t explain what someone is thinking so directly. McCarthy’s style negates his characters’ internal struggles, with the focus instead upon their actions; they are defined by what they do not by how they think – and this is especially true in No Country, which means the novel is perfectly suited for screen. Most of McCarthy’s brilliant dialogue is simply transported into the feature word for word.No Country for Old Men movie image Javier BardemThe most glaring change relates to Tommy Lee Jones’s Sheriff Bell. In the novel, McCarthy provides lengthy internal monologues for Bell alone, which thematically hold the story together. The idea is that the world is changing, and not changing for the better; Bell is facing an evolving evil which is incomprehensible, and feels that he is no longer fit to take on a world he no longer understands. There’s an undercurrent of great sadness and horror, and a relateable notion of ageing, of finding the new world terrifying. Things are getting worse and won’t get better. Bell doesn’t really get involved in the action of the plot but serves to witness the aftermath of the violence and chaos; he is our window into the madness and the heart of the novel. The movie does not lose this theme however; it simply adapts to it. We’re provided with a chilling opening monologue from Bell interlaced over sun-drenched desert fields and this sets the bleak mood to come; the rest of Bell’s main monologues are adapted into the action in other ways, via conversations and newspaper reports and explained dreams. We don’t lose the essence of the novel.no6What does get left behind however is Bell’s WW2 backstory and the sense that he is trying to redeem himself for his past failings; this lack of redemption serves to highlight the randomness of the plot and the incomprehensible horror of the situation; there’s no rhyme or reason to anything here. The Coen Brothers do insert a brilliant and confusing scene in which Bell comes across a motel room with Chigurh waiting inside, a scene which is a masterpiece of style and editing. Chigurh is shown lurking in the dark, yet Bell enters an empty room; Chigurh is representative of Bell’s fear here, and was never actually around, at least not by the time Bell arrives. By stepping into the room anyway, despite what Bell thinks is standing in the dark, we’re given a sense of his redemption, though its tied in with a great element of fear. This is a perfect example of taking a theme of the book and twisting it to fit the screen; Bell remains the focus of the feature.no5The film does its best work with the villain. Anton Chigurh is one of literature’s greatest monsters, and perfectly captured by Javier Bardem here. Similar to Brad Pitt’s Tyler Durden or Louise Fletcher’s Nurse Ratched, Bardem/Chigurh is an example of amazing casting, with the actor completely understanding the character and channelling the author’s intentions. The Coens give Bardem an unusual and striking haircut, and Bardem’s new English (being Spanish, the actor hadn’t worked in English before) gives him an alien, otherworldly quality. This is a tremendous character portrayed by a tremendous actor and it’s no wonder Bardem got the Oscar. Chigurh serves as a strong thematic highlight in both novel and film; he represents the evil in the world and the randomness of chance, as well as the (paradoxical) inevitability of fate. He is a maniac, but one with a strange sense of law and principles – he sticks to his word and his logic, despite being monstrous and murderous, has a weird twisted truth to it. The coin scenes highlight his detachment; giving the murders to fate removes his involvement, for he doesn’t pull the trigger so much as life does, and highlight the terrifying notion that people are accountable for every moment of their lives. Life is made up of chance yes, but the decisions you make put you in positions and so essentially, everything that happens to is both your fault and completely out of your hands. For example, you get hit by a car – it took you, as well as the driver of the car, a lifetime of random events to both reach that point at the same time; you are in a sense, accountable for chance and fate. This a chilling theme of the novel and translates perfectly into the country for old menNo Country is a fantastic film, based on a wonderfully dark and powerful novel. The strength of great adaptation is that both movie and book complement each other and feel the same in style and tone. Neither is better than the other; both are simply excellent versions of the same story, and virtually interchangeable. It’s rare when literature and cinema align like this, and amazing when they do.


3 thoughts on “No Country for Old Men: Adaptation Review

  1. Pingback: Top 10 Movie Villains | Some Films and Stuff

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