For things at a common destination, there is a common path. Cormac McCarthy wrote that deep inside No Country for Old Men, and it is a line that best explains the efforts of Joel and Ethan Coen. They prepare McCarthy’s piece for consumption about as stringently and coldly as Anton Chigurh acts in the novel. A fine quality to possess for any adaptation, but The Coen Brothers managed it time and time again. Their work on No Country for Old Men is one that settled well not just with those self-proclaimed cinema buffs, but with general audiences also. It, like The Dark Knight and Fight Club, is part of a select group well-loved by most and mocked by some for being that nice, comfortable line between film-bro and film-buff.
That blurring of the line decimates the sincerely strong underlying efforts of Javier Bardem and Josh Brolin here. No Country for Old Men is an interesting text not least because it does away with conventional structure and grammar. To adapt that to the screen is impossible, the flow changes, and what it turns into is just as endearing and emotionally cold as the text. Chigurh, naturally, is the best realisation of that. It is through the movement and choice of angles deployed throughout. More importantly though is the stance of Bardem, the way he carries the performance in physical actions is arguably more important than the dialogue, which is plain, biting and effective. The coin toss scenes, the interaction with the motel hostess and the shootout, they’re all fantastic bits and pieces of a wider, stronger Coen Brothers piece.
Naturally, the focus is going to be on such a strong role. Bardem plays well with McCarthy’s prose because it lends itself to cold characters with no drive beyond what is asked of them. It’s where Brolin and Tommy Lee Jones are left to pick up larger pieces of the story, to flesh out areas and characters that were left hanging on and around in the written piece. The Coens behind the camera make sure to have that lingering effect present in the book. To its detriment at times. McCarthy’s simplicity of dialogue without boundaries presented a great opportunity to get stuck in with some harsh characters that had no real moral outlook, whereas No Country for Old Men’s adaptation to the screen needs to filter in some sort of heroics for an audience to latch onto.
Fair it is to do so, it changes little of McCarthy’s prose. It arguably improves it in some smaller pockets. The bulk of the changes made are just elongations of core themes or bits of flair and detail that the Coen Brothers have dab hands for. It is not as though great swathes of dialogue and meaning are chopped and changed, and No Country for Old Men certainly benefits from being an engaging and faithful adaptation. But it knows when to question McCarthy’s prose, and doing so leads to better interactions than sections of the book can offer. It is the perfect idealisation of the adaptive feature, the fine line between authorial sanctity and interesting changes made by unique voices.