As widespread as they are, film adaptations of novels rarely come close to satisfying audiences familiar with the source. The relationship between reader and reading material can possess a covetous quality. Novels spark the imagination of an individual, and what is a film version if not one person’s interpretation of an author’s text? It’s inevitable that these two perspectives – reader’s and filmmaker’s – will clash, citing salient details in the book that were omitted from the film adaptation, or something as seemingly petty as the inexplicable change of a character’s hair color on its way from page to screen.
But one enduring, and valid, argument in this debate is that a proper film adaptation is a direct one. That a writer could copy and paste the book’s text into a screenwriting program, slap “FADE TO BLACK” at the bottom and slide the script into production. Being of a visual medium, the film would have to undergo some obvious tweaking in order to service the aesthetic value a book can get away without, but if a story worked well on the page, there’s no reason why it shouldn’t work just as well in another storytelling medium.
Joel and Ethan Coen provided what is perhaps as concrete an answer to this question as ever with No Country for Old Men, their unusually faithful film adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s taut, violent novel about elusive cash and the people after it. “No Country for Old Men” isn’t McCarthy’s most popular novel, but the film is far and away the highest-profile screen adaptation of his work. Winning four Oscars in 2007 including Best Picture and Best Director, and currently holding a 94% on Rotten Tomatoes, its ample critical acclaim would suggest that the experiment worked, that such a keenly tailored movie version in some cases could triumph, but the Coens waver so little from the original text that the film actually comes off more as an exercise in laziness than loyalty.
Upon superficial first glance, the Coen’s flair for hyper-stylized dialogue and sporadic bursts of violence seem a suitable compliment to McCarthy’s prose. But a deeper delve illustrates that after a certain point the Coens and McCarthy have dueling sensibilities, which corners No Country for Old Men as something resembling the Coen brothers’ first directing job for hire.
Which begs the question: Who is the Coens’ film for? It’s a perfectly serviceable adaptation – one could say even pandering – an impractical word to associate with the filmmakers’ audacious catalog. No Country for Old Men is the siblings’ 12th film, and it’s the first that seems content to exercise questionable restraint. Their latest, Inside Llewyn Davis, embraces a similar inertia in the way the characters interact and emote, but it makes sense within that film’s themes of detachment and disillusionment. In No Country, the sluggishness of the sun-baked characters’ drawl extends to the scenes of tension and action, which fails to suggest it’s a dogged style choice rather than the product of two aging guys’ boredom. This idea is only exacerbated by the laughably exhausted use of dissolves to transition between scenes, a Filmmaking 101 no-no, which only makes the film seem to drag on and on.
It’s not that the Coens seem disinterested with the film they made or the book on which it’s based, but their intent to preserve the text ultimately robs the film of a vitality evident even in their lesser works. Nearly every flat, languidly paced moment in No Country for Old Men is a frustrating missed opportunity. McCarthy’s specific writing style seems to be misinterpreted here. His terse sentences and neglect for punctuation may seem straightforward on the page, but that doesn’t mean they have to be delivered by actors that way. In fact, the non-committal nature of the text reads more like a stage play, leaving the lines of dialogue open to a hundred different interpretations. Most every performer in No Country for Old Men, however, mutters their lines in the same robotic monotone, giving no insight into or sense of character, but to strictly be in service of the words.
It would be different if the words themselves serviced the characters or even the story, but an exchange like this one between Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin) and his wife Carla Jean (an impeccable Kelly MacDonald) is solely in business for the writing:
“If I don’t come back, tell Mother I love her.”
“Your mother’s dead, Llewelyn.”
“Well then. I’ll tell her myself.”
There’s a fun twist of phrase there, but in a movie reality makes no sense why this man would forget that his mother is dead, other than to have a cool exit line. Compare this exchange to one between Carson Wells (played by Woody Harrelson) and a character simply known as Man Who Hires Wells (played by an amusingly mustachioed Stephen Root). The quick scene takes place in an office in a high rise, for the first time elevating us from the seedy dust bowl underworld of the Rio Grande. The scene thumps with life largely due to Harrelson’s swagger, which reaches its apex in their final exchange. As Wells moves toward the door after receiving his assignment, he turns back:
“You know I counted the floors of this building from the street?”
“There’s one missing.”
“We’ll look into it.”
Wells’s comment, like Moss’s, doesn’t make much sense. But it is cheeky diversion, and any proponent of lilting language would willfully beckon an ear in its direction. The reason it works so much better than Moss’s “mother” line is that we know Wells is just being a dick, and in that moment his character is affirmed, while Brolin’s Moss never evolves beyond a mouthpiece for McCarthy’s words.
Until Harrelson shows up about an hour in, No Country for Old Men is woefully absent of that kind of loose performance, one that feels more fitting in the Coen brothers’ universe than out of the pages of McCarthy’s stoic text. Rather than monotonously reciting his dialogue like nearly every performer in the film, Harrelson spun his to flushed life, giving a glimpse of what could have been: a film richer with nuance and variety in one of the Coens’ most intensely bleak universes.
Which is why it’s so frustrating to see Javier Bardem, as the unstoppable killer Anton Chigurh whose weapon of choice is a gun used to stun animals prior to slaughter, who does his best to be memorable for something other than his infamously grotesque mop top. He certainly looks the part of a soulless hitman, but his whole foundation crumbles the second he opens his mouth. Chigurh’s accent is supposed to be implacable, but Bardem too often sounds like a Spanish-speaking actor trying to hide his accent. Chigurh is meant to be a type of enigma that can only exist on the page. Like letting air out of a balloon, the mystery surrounding him only dissipates as such certainties as a face, a hairdo, and a voice are so readily provided. And honestly, the getup, the hair and the ghostly way in which he moves is a little too precious for Chigurh to be truly terrifying.
Both the film and the novel are bookended by speeches by Sheriff Bell, in the film played by Tommy Lee Jones, who often laments about how the world is going to hell. In the novel there are more of these diversions, which are welcome, as they frame the story well, and spotlight Bell more as a main character. The problem with them in the film is that McCarthy writes dialogue the way he writes prose, and even a dominating pro like Tommy Lee Jones can’t overcome McCarthy’s straightforward stiltedness. Cinema requires variance, and Bardem’s bizarre accent isn’t enough to differentiate between the many one-note voices throughout No Country for Old Men.
None of this is to suggest that McCarthy, also the author of Blood Meridian and the Pulitzer Prize-winning The Road, is a lazy writer. He just has different priorities as an author. A narrative film deserves more care. No Country for Old Men is not an experimental film, at least not intentionally. It does, at times exhilaratingly, eschew filmic conventions. Its abrupt ending for example, identical to the book’s, is a continuing point of contention with casual audiences, but the off-screen ambiguous death of Llewelyn Moss is one of the film’s ballsier and more fascinating twists, even if it happens almost exactly that way in the novel.
The Coen brothers’ No Country for Old Men is a rare example of a too-faithful adaptation of a novel, one that stubbornly refuses to explore and expound upon what the text readily provides. It’s not always sacrilege to adjust or, ahem, adapt to an author’s original intent if the spirit of the source is kept intact. With No Country, the Coens took their devotion to the material so gravely that they conceded their previously established uncompromising filmmaking stamp to a likeminded author whose work could have benefited from a little compromise in the other direction.