What’s the effect of cinema’s obsession with novel adaptations?
No Country for Old Men was one of my favourite films. I enjoyed its exploration of the death of the ‘Western’, use of fate and the acting of Javier Bardem. I enjoyed the film’s dialogue. I even enjoyed it so much that I decided to read the novel by Cormac McCarthy. It was there that I realised, that watching the film I had been enjoying something other than a ‘Coen brothers’ classic.’
To be a film by the Coen brothers is to join an esteemed cinematic pedigree. The dynamic duo gave us The Big Lebowski, Fargo and most recently another Western, True Grit. Their title, ‘The Coen brothers’, conjures up images of family and mythic status: only the directorial gods of cinema are known by surname only. Their films are known for their exploration of nihilism, coincidence and dark humour amongst other things. They are also frequently Academy Award winning.
However, reading No Country for Old Men I discovered that all of the things I loved about the film had their origins in the book. The film’s dialogue is virtually copy and pasted from the novel. The film’s best scenes: the limping dog, the coin toss, Chirgurh’s bizarre stare into the television: are all found in the novel. In fact only the ending of the film is different from the novel, and not hugely at all. This lead me to ask whether the film should really be regarded as a ‘Coen brother’s classic’ as it is.
What the Coen brothers appear to have done extremely successfully is to visualise the novel. Their setting, props, special effects and casting are superb. They are extremely ‘faithful’ to Cormac McCarthy’s writing, and their film is an almost carbon copy reproduction. However, that does not mean that the story of No Country for Old Men is theirs, or that they should really take much creative credit for adapting it. The Coen brothers have acted effectively, as cinematic midwives, nursing McCarthy’s work through birth into another medium with great success. But, it is a shame that now on the cover of McCarthy’s original novel, are the words ‘NOW A MAJOR MOTION PICTURE’ and that the film has all but eclipsed its printed brother.
I don’t mean to become one of those ‘the book is so much better’ critics: I find that just as cliché as anybody else. But sometimes that is simply the case: the film version of The Last King of Scotland is a hugely reduced and (in my opinion ruined) version of Giles Foden’s novel. The film version of Misery loses the internal psychology for which Stephen King’s novel is so famous, becoming instead a well-acted but flat screenplay about a writer being held hostage. In the case of that film I feel particularly sorry for James Caan, who is asked to portray tens of thousands of words of Paul Sheldon’s internal trauma using only facial expressions. It verges on an exercise in mime.
Whilst film has many advantages over literature, I feel that the medium can often be very destructive to literary property. There are written versions of The Beach, Trainspotting, The Shawshank Redemption, The Godfather, Chocolat, Forrest Gump, The Stepford Wives and Schindler’s List to name a few. War Horse, yet another Oscar nominated novel adaptation has been released this year. But just how many people still read Robert Bloch’s Psycho? And how many people watch Alfred Hitchcock’s?
Callum HaireImage credit - mueredicine