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No Country for Old Men: Book vs Film

January 7, 2015

No Country for Old MenCormac McCarthy, No Country for Old Men, 2005

Film directed by Joel and Ethan Coen, 2007

My dominant memory of the movie of No Country for Old Men is Javiar Bardem’s chilling portrayal of killer Anton Chigurh. Reading the book seven years later, my main impressions centre on the character of Texan Sheriff Ed Tom Bell. I was pulled in by his distinctive voice and dry sense of humour in both his dialogue and his long monologues, almost streams of consciousness, that introduce each chapter.

Sheriff Bell is conservative but honest and honourable. He deeply feels his duty to protect the people of his county but despairs at the violence accompanying the new boom in drug running (it is 1980): “I aint sure we’ve seen these people before. Their kind. I dont know what to do about em even. If you killed them all they’d have to build a annex on to hell.” (Sic – McCarthy is sparing in his use of apostrophes.)

The potential for brutality (and for goodness) is always present in human beings, and its manifestation depends on catalysts specific to time and place. But Bell, overwhelmed by a local explosion of violence, is denied that perspective, and is convinced that “the world is goin to hell in a handbasket”. Understandably, he forgets that there have always been periods of brutality in the American West, such as the massacres portrayed in McCarthy’s earlier novel, Blood Meridian.

Bell is hard on himself and disappointed at his own failures to protect local people. Deep guilt related to an incident in the Second World War is always with him. He says: “It’s a life’s work to see yourself for what you really are and even then you might be wrong. And that is somethin I don’t want to be wrong about.”

While the movie follows the book closely, reading the book is an altogether different pleasure to watching the movie. In both, I was spellbound by the characters and the story. But in reading, I was also mesmerised by the quality of McCarthy’s writing and the way he creates character through voice. And in watching, I was thrilled by the Coens’ directing and the actors performances, particularly that of Bardem. The movie caters a little more to our fascination with evil while the book makes us feel the goodness of a troubled man.

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