Book vs. Movie: No Country For Old Men. Part 1: The Book

Filed in Uncategorized by on March 5, 2008 0 Comments

    I was happy to see No Country For Old Men back in the theaters.  I’d missed my opportunity to catch this one.  I had always had a negative association with Cormac McCarthy; I don’t know why, as I had never read him.  When the Coen brothers made the film, though, I was pretty skeptical of my skepticism.  We were shown the trailer at last year’s Borders General Manager conference in Denver and I had to admit (even before I knew it was a Coen bro’s film) I was pretty blown away.  This was obviously a stark, dramatic work driven solely on the caliber of the actors involved.

The book.

    That brings me to this year, when the film was released.  Once it became obvious that I wasn’t going to see it in the theater I was able to solve another problem I was having: what to do with my January credit.  I downloaded the book and set to work.

    Just as some background: when I listen to an audio book I do make it a point to pick up the actual book and read a few chapters now and then, ahead of when I’ll get to them in the audio version.  The reasons why I do this are complex but exemplified perfectly in No Country For Old Men: the book is written in straight narrative style, with no quotation marks.  Each chapter has a brief introduction (in italics) usually filled with some introspection from Sheriff Ed Tom Bell.  These passages are the only substantial parts of the book that “wax poetic.”  The rest of the book’s story is told mainly through actions and dialogue.  It only took a few discs to break through my anti-McCarthy prejudice and realize that yes, indeed, this is a great book.  Stark is the word of the day in this modern western and though McCarthy spares very little on long description of the environment the characters exist in, I could see the barren and dry wastes of this area.  Not so much through the eyes of the characters, but through the masterful dialogue, both internal and external:

       Moss sat with the heels of his boots dug into the volcanic gravel of the ridge and glassed the desert below him with a pair of twelve power german binoculars. … The antelope were a little under a mile away. The sun was up less than an hour and the shadow of the ridge and the datilla and the rocks fell far out across the floodplain below him. Somewhere out there was the shadow of Moss himself. He lowered the binoculars and sat studying the land. Far to the south the raw mountains of Mexico. The breaks of the river. To the west the baked terracotta terrain of the running borderlands. He spat dryly and wiped his mouth on the shoulder of his cotton workshirt.

    That’s good stuff.  McCarthy’s actual language is really a split between American Western dialect and the smoky language of a crime novel.  The book’s pace does not let up as we follow the characters: Llewellen Moss, a man who finds himself the possessor of a large sum of money found among a trove of bodies; Ed Tom Bell, the weathered Sheriff who serves more the role of a Chandler crime detective than a gun-toting Old West outlaw-killing Sheriff; and Anton Chigurh – certainly one of the most complete and terrifying literary villains ever created.  Chigurh is what he is, to the core, and not an atom of him deviates from his horrifying personal code.

    That’s hard core.  Some of the most interesting and complete information that we’re given about Chigurh comes from Carson Wells, a former Special Forces man who knows Chigurh and understands him completely.  Wells is a good character, but his job is mainly to explain to the reader enough about Chigurh to make him fully and completely terrifying.  In this sense, Wells sort of does his job and leaves.

    This is really a novel about motivation.  What motivates Moss to take the money?  What motivates Chigurh to pursue it so relentlessly, yet vapidly?  And, most importantly: what motivates Sheriff Bell, the novel’s paladin, serving as the Old West Sheriff in his monologues in which he laments the state of the world (the book’s title is never voiced in the book, but in these monologues and in one conversation with an aging relative one is left on the edge of their seat, just waiting for it.  I can hear it now: “Yeah … this is no, country, for old men.”  It never happens.)  In his actions, though, he fills the role of the not-expounded-upon crime detective, exhibiting his motivations through his actions.
    So, I enjoyed the book.  It’s not my favorite, but I’ve definitely forgiven McCarthy whatever terrible wrong he’s done me in a past life and I’m intrigued to read the rest of his stuff.  I have a feeling that what I have here is an “ok” book by a great writer.  Some things I didn’t like were actually mirrors of what I did: the dialogue, while it certainly feels natural, requires a sort of suspension of disbelief.  I kind of had to just take McCarthy on his word that people in Texas in the 1980’s talked like that.  The alternating of heady and thoughtful prose straight from Bell’s mind with the novel’s relentless action-driven pace through the rest of it can be jarring, especially in the moments of the book where “big ideas” are addressed outside of the context of Bell’s introductions.

    So that’s the book.  I’m off to see the movie in about an hour and a half, and tonight I’ll pass the verdict on the comparison in another article.

Here’s the link to the film review.

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Musician, writer, photographer, bookstore manager - which of these does not belong?I say none of them. I'm just an artist at heart and I approach bookselling as an art - a dying one.

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