From Novel to Film: No Country for Old Men ed. by Lynnea Chapman King, Rick Wallach, and Jim Welsh
WARNING: CONTAINS PLOT SPOILERS
Cormac McCarthy’s No Country For Old Men was published in 2005. The Coen Brothers 2007 adaptation was nominated for eight Academy Awards and won four, including for Best Picture. It’s my favorite film, and McCarthy is one of my favorite writers, but this book caught my interest after a recent re-reading of No Country. I noticed a few significant differences between the book and the film, which is in general a very faithful adaptation. By necessity, any novel-to-film adaptation requires omission. I was curious how the choices were made for No Country. This book doesn’t actually answer those questions (the Coens are notoriously coy about discussing their own process), but it’s a treasure trove of interesting literary and film theory.
Unless you’re really into both the film and the novel, this book isn’t for you. It’s a collection of mostly academic essays about the two works. Front to back, it starts with pieces focusing on the book, then pieces that compare the two, ending with an interview with Roger Deakins, the film’s outstanding cinematographer. Some of the most interesting themes across the collection:
An examination of the literary predecessors of No Country’s notorious villain, Anton Chigurh. Most of the discussion focuses on an intertextual examination of other McCarthy antagonists, predominantly Blood Meridian’s the Judge and, to a lesser degree, the “triune” from Outer Dark. But the most convincing case compares Chigurh to Flannery O’Connor’s Misfit in “A Good Man is Hard to Find.”
Heroism and masculinity in the context of the American Western tradition. McCarthy is certainly not the first to call BS on the myth of the American West, and Blood Meridian does it in a more visceral, over-the-top way than No Country. But it would be difficult to find a work that more subverts the notion of American heroism than No Country.
The traditional Western film protagonist is the most iconic of American heroes. He “serves for Americans the same purpose as Hercules did for the Greeks” (Jason Mitchell). And in that tradition, the most standard storyline is the sheriff who fights the outlaws to literally bring law and order to the town. In No Country, we find Sheriff Bell, an introspective, befuddled law officer. He is of the proper lineage, descended from Texas Rangers. Yet he constantly expresses his bewilderment with not only the carnage of the battle before him, not only with the ongoing borderland drug war, but with modern life in general. He is clearly an out-of-step old man, complaining of kids with “green hair” and “bones in their noses.” He remains one step behind the chaos and plainly expresses his unwillingness to engage with the darkness (“a man would have to put his soul at hazard”). When the time comes, he does just that. He refuses to engage, literally backs away from a confrontation with the villain.
Furthermore, we learn that he earned the Bronze Star for his supposed heroics during a firefight in World War II, but the actual story is less heroic than one would like to think—he retreated from a machine gun position, saving himself but leaving his dying comrades. Bell is conflicted, regretful of being the subject of the lie. But when he confessed to his commanding officer that he did not deserve the medal, he was told to shut up and accept it. And he did. Again, a hero might at least stand up for the truth and bear the consequences if nothing else. Instead, we learn of the truth in a quiet conversation between Bell and his old Uncle Ellis. Ellis assures Bell that a more heroic stand would have ended with him dead. But this pragmatism is little consolation. We want our heroes to be heroic. Pragmatic protagonists are not satisfying. And Bell’s order from his superior to take the medal, to go along with the official storyline that he is indeed a hero, is an acknowledgement that Americans value our comforting myths over our uncomfortable truths. McCarthy is having none of this. In Bell, he shows us a representative of the Greatest Generation on his knees, overmatched, bowing out of the fight.
Which brings us to Llewelyn Moss. Moss is a man of action. Capable, decisive, resourceful. An independent man if there ever was one. An interesting essay by Sonya Topolnisky on how costume supports character in No Country describes Moss’s character as a “certain type of man: working class and Western. Moss’s independent, daring nature fulfills what the viewer has come to expect from a Western hero…we see him mastering the terrain, outrunning the bad men, and dexterously manipulating his firearms.” Of the trifecta of main characters, Moss represents our actionable protagonist. He is the everyman we want to relate to, certainly the character we root for. Moss engages with the enemy. He assures Chigurh that he’s going to hunt the villain down, make him his “special project.”
But Moss is compromised from the beginning. His entry into the story finds him as an opportunistic thief. When he comes upon the scene of the shootout in the desert, dead bodies and dead dogs, his first thought is to find the last man standing, the “ultimo hombre.” The one, he knows, who will have the drug money. His decision to take the money is a conscious decision to not just put his life in peril, but to put “his soul at hazard,” as Bell says it. Moss follows this with a second choice—to return later that night to the scene of the shootout to bring “agua” to a dying Mexican drug runner. As he’s walking out of his trailer, he tells his wife, Carla Jean, that he’s fixin’ to do something “dumber than hell.” He knows it is the right thing to do morally, but wrong for his survival. This is perhaps his last truly proactive decision. Everything from this point is reactionary, in relation to the chase. By choosing to participate in this game, he has forfeited his right to free will. He is now living in Chigurh’s worldview, where everything is predetermined by fate. And this in itself is an inversion of the classic notion of a hero, who by definition has agency. “Control matters. Winning matters, and the ability to achieve that victory becomes the Western hero’s defining characteristic…” (“Models of Masculinity,” Stacey Peebles).
And Pat Tyrer and Pat Nickell point out in their essay “Characters as Relics” that, “In an inversion of a Western cliché, Llewelyn Moss frequently runs from his pursuers. His pickup is disabled early—he never has a horse…Moss has no heroic moments, and spends much of the film wounded, weakened or disabled.”
Viewers who found No Country to be a weird or unsatisfying film mostly griped about the ending. This isn’t surprising—the ending is constructed to subvert the classic film narrative. The last we see of Llewelyn Moss alive is walking past the motel pool with a six-pack when a woman catches his eye (in the book she is a hitchhiker he befriends). We next see him via Sheriff Bell’s POV after reports of a shootout. Bell pulls up just as a group of drug-runners are fleeing, and Moss is already dead. This is not the ending we had hoped for. In classic American hero storytelling, the good guy triumphs over the bad guy. At the very least, the hero dies in a heroic display of sacrifice (e.g. Braveheart, Saving Private Ryan) or resistance (Butch Cassidy, Thelma & Louise). What happens to Moss, in cinematic terms, is sacrilege. There’s no putting up a good fight, no heroic gestures, no dying words. It strips away any opportunity to perceive him as a hero. Exactly as it’s intended.
So as main characters, we have a trifecta that includes the villain, a mystified coward and an opportunist who misses the leap and falls voiceless into the chasm. And to rub salt in, not only does Moss get himself killed, but in an inversion of the hero-as-protector construct, he takes his family down with him. After Moss is gone, Chigurh calls on Carla Jean.
Female Resistance in No Country. I’ve read several critiques of No Country as yet another macho work where the women take a back seat while the boys run around shooting up the town. This seems a flawed argument, perhaps based more on screen time than attention to content. To the contrary, the women in No Country are the strongest characters. Sheriff Bell’s wife, Loretta, is an anchoring force. And the only two people to successfully stare down Chigurh are the woman in Moss’s trailer park office (to comic effect) and Carla Jean, who calls Chigurh out on his coin-flip method of determining whether people live or die.
Chigurh: Call it.
Carla Jean: No. I ain’t going to call it.
Chigurh: Call it.
Carla Jean: The coin don’t have no say. It’s just you.
This moment effectively calls BS on Chigurh’s deterministic belief system. It is not enough to save Carla Jean, but as we see in No Country, living is not necessarily the same as winning. If Bell continues to live based on a pragmatic but unprincipled tack, Carla Jean is the opposite. She perishes but serves as the hero who finally wounds Chigurh in a way that counts. One could even argue that while her husband, in the masculine way, wounds Chigurh with bullets but fails to take him out, Carla Jean fires one clean shot at Chigurh’s ideology. “It’s just you.” Everything that Chigurh stands for is called into question in that one line. And as if in confirmation that something has been rattled in him, shortly after leaving Carla Jean’s home, Chirgurh’s car is side-swiped at an intersection, leaving him broken and bleeding, relying on two young boys for help.
Chaos vs Order. The notion of chaos vs order (or chaos theory) is all over McCarthy’s work. It’s often articulated as fate vs control or, as named for the analogy, the “butterfly effect” in which a small event (e.g. a butterfly flapping its wings) can alter a system in such a way that it eventually causes a much larger, unforeseen effect (e.g. a hurricane). In No Country, characters are thrown into stark categories when considered through this lens. Ironically, but perhaps by design, Bell and Chigurh are the two characters that most believe in order, though very different notions of it. Bell’s is a classic conservative social order, where kids respect their elders and men do the right thing. “Ed Tom [Bell] does not understand how a masculine character can act without an internal or social code” (“Gender Systems and Female Resistance,” Erin K. Johns). His despondency, however, is a result of him witnessing this code failing. He believes in a notion of social order that is disappearing and a religious order that is failing to materialize. In one of the saddest moments, Bell says, “I always figured when I got older, God would sorta come into my life somehow. And he didn’t.”
Yet the character with the most stringent code is Anton Chigurh. He believes that everything happens for a reason, that it’s all chained together in a series of perhaps unpredictable but purposeful events. In an early scene, he asks an uncomfortable gas station attendant to call a coin toss, asking the man if he knows the date on the coin.
Chigurh: It’s 1958. It’s been traveling twenty-two years to get here. And now it’s here. And I’m here…
In other words, the events of the world have conspired to bring them to this moment. And when the man wins the coin toss, Chigurh expands on his thesis:
Anything can be an instrument, Chigurh said. Small things. Things you wouldn’t even notice. They pass from hand to hand. People dont pay attention. And then one day there’s an accounting. And after that nothing is the same. Well, you say. It’s just a coin. For instance. Nothing special there. What could that be an instrument of? You see the problem. To separate the act from the thing. As if the parts of the same moment in history might be interchangeable with the parts of some other moment. How could that be? Well, it’s just a coin. Yes. That’s true. Is it?
As if continuing this train of thought in his conversation with Carla Jean:
This is the end. You can say things could have turned out differently. That they could have been some other way. But what does that mean? They are not some other way. They are this way.
Also pointed is Chigurh’s comment to Carson Wells before he shoots him: “If the rule you followed led you to this of what use is the rule?” In the film, that is followed by Carson’s response: “Do you have any idea how crazy you are?” Carson doesn’t understand Chigurh’s belief in connected events.
Wells and Moss, though their ideologies are less clearly denoted, are conversely characters that live by the seat of their pants. They seem to thrive in the disorder, both of them clearly believing they are in control of their own lives, that they can navigate the dangerous conflict before them. Both are tragically mistaken.
It’s also worth noting that Wells, Moss and possibly Chigurh are veterans of Vietnam (Moss a sniper, Wells a lieutenant colonel), whereas Bell is a vet of World War II. Culturally, the morally ambiguous nature of the Vietnam conflict as well as the nonlinear concept of messy jungle fighting contrasts starkly with the American role in WWII, the latter being the classic, heroic, clear-cut wartime narrative of the United States. Set in the early 1980s, the post-Vietnam hangover lingers. The myth of America as global hero is called into question.
Differences between the novel and the film. The final theme throughout this collection of essays is where the novel and film differ. There will always be differences required by the length constraints of film, but in an excellent essay by Dennis Cutchins (“Grace and Moss’s End”), he makes the case that through omission the film alters the character of Moss and in doing so alters the thematic judgment of the story. In the novel, we learn via the local sheriff that Moss was killed by a single assassin. The killer finds the hitchhiker Moss has befriended and drags her out of her room. Moss faces the killer with a gun but relinquishes his weapon when the killer threatens the girl. The killer then shoots Moss. The end result is still a dead protagonist, but this moment, nonexistent in the film, sets Moss up as a hero. A man of sacrifice. Even more important, it shows Moss having agency in this moment—he chose to act, and that choice led to his death. So while the film seems to accept Chigurh’s fatalistic worldview, the book is less certain.
I really enjoyed the various angles each essay takes on these two works. I was expecting the book to be more about the making of the film, perhaps a behind-the-scenes of some of the decisions that were made in the adaptation. I’d still be interested in that, but this book delivers in an ultimately more substantial way. It took me back to my film and literary theory classes from college and reminded me how fun it is to unpack works of art. If No Country for Old Men is a piece of art you’d like to unpack, then I highly recommend this book.