The Bliss of Book Adaptation Ignorance
I have it on good authority that Mario Puzo’s novel version of The Godfather is pretty awful and the film finds redemption in the story through cinematography and general handling. The film version of A Clockwork Orange is better than the original novel simply because it does not have the awful 2st chapter which tries to rationalize Alex’s behavior by saying it was a process of him growing up to better understand. Considering he represented an idea of evil, I don’t the identification as youthful toil only. I thought this movie could bring me to like a Coen brothers film, but I guess it wasn’t meant to be between us. The original novel wasn’t very good, but all the positives the novel had going for it is lost in this film adaptation. Then 2001: A Space Odyssey is the only time a major author adapted a film into a book. Arthur C. Clarke’s handicap of trying to interpret the film made his novel feel like a tell all of the film’s mysteries instead of an equal work of similar mystery and wonder.
There are plenty of bad novels. More films should be able to do well to adapt them, but movies generally stay inferior because they try to adapt the lengths of the novel and minuscule their own ambitions. Not enough films know how to find sleeves of a novel’s themes and see how they can make them more cinematic. Examples of adaptation mistakes are everywhere in film history. A filmmaking duo that has been about adaptations of late have been the Coen Brothers. They won a Best Picture Oscar for No Country for Old Men and are returning to rural dirt later this year with True Grit. The latter has the ill fortune of also having a famous film made for it, but I believe True Grit will be a good film. It isn’t because I think it will actually be bad, but due to the fact I have not read the original novel. Any feeling of an informed opinion may be an untrue presumption for the new Coens film.
As far as No Country for Old Men is concerned, I thought it would be the movie to bring me to like a Coen brothers film, but I guess it wasn’t meant to be between us. While the trailer looked good and the temperament of the film is has none of the Coen hangs up that annoy me, the film is still as unsatisfactory and hollow as any other Coen film. I felt this way by reading the novel. The original novel isn’t very good, but all the positives the novel had going for it is lost in this film adaptation. All the Coens prove is that film is an entertainment operation when faced with a challenge of a novel that has themes and objectives. Cinematic does not have to mean exciting in the shallow end and
The reason is simple. The Coen Brothers dedicate the majority of the film to making a thriller. In the novel, Tommy Lee Jones character is at the heart of the story. His commentary and experience guides everything. The mishap of misplaced money and a subsequent chase for it (while still prominent in the novel) doesn’t take on such a large percentage of the story time as it does in the film. The only times we see Tommy Lee Jones is in small spurts where his character interaction provides better anecdotes than anything else. The Coen Brothers embrace the chance to take a killing spree and make it an elaborate noir spectacle. The composition and filmmaking has thriller written all over it. It marginalizes all chances for themes and characterization.
Also, in the novel, Llewelyn Moss is much more human. He isn’t an adversary of Anton Chigurh but a dumb guy who got in the wrong situation and never knew when to stop. Like the structure of the first half of Native Son, the story is about how a terrifying event unfolds and starts to out weigh any original good intentions. Moss is at the the heart of the nervous tension. The novel highlights his fear a lot greater and focuses more on his bad mistakes. The film tries to make up for what it doesn’t acknowledge in the novel by showing his fateful mistakes later on, but his characterization is still pure grit, a kind of offset of Chigurh who can go toe to toe with him in deviousness. The final scene with Chigurh and Moss’ wife is very annoying. He says her life can be saved if her husband chose her over himself, but the question of morality doesn’t match the undertone of the characterization. It feels like a wrap up to give meaning to an out and out thriller that looks and feels like every other thriller.
As far as Tommy Lee Jones’ character is concerned, I don’t mind if he is marginalized. Like I said above, a film has to pick and choose within a novel of what it is going to highlight. However, all the film is adapting here is the skeleton of the story with nothing more. In a cynical way, maybe one should be happy that No Country for Old Men at least retains dialogue from the novel since the Coens have been laughing about earlier films of theirs being adaptations of things they never read. This film is a straight adaptation, yet it reminds me of what Sergio Leone did to Akrira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo. Just take the original story and make it into a stylistic exercise. Here it feels like the Coens are gutting Sam Peckinpah. He made ultra violent Westerns and rural action films. His pattern of telling his stories is by lifting personal themes of male personality to the front tier of the story so the audience is aware of the personal battles going on with a character. The Coens do more than Leone by making nods to the dramatic elements of the story. However, they don’t do enough to honor the story. The film should have been all or nothing with the novel.
Then the final 20 minutes feel like the novel. Jones’ character takes prominence and it has a tone that feels like the novel, but it isn’t satisfying. It feels tacked on like the film knows it has to make meaning out of all the ridiculousness of the rest of the story. The film could have made choices to make the film feel more realistic to life circumstances, but it just gravitated to the large number of deaths in the novel and exploited it. I’m not saying the film should have been a true dedication to the novel. Considering the novel was far from perfect, it shouldn’t have. Its just of all the things the film chose to ditch and throw away. In the novel, you feel the fear the possibility of hell reigning down on Moss’s loved ones for what he is doing. In the film, you get a nod to this at the end. The film did not need to throw away the best parts.
As a thriller, it’s well made. Parts of the film are really well done, but the film needs to be looked at for its overall qualities. It doesn’t just want to be a thriller but something more. This isn’t like Fargo where the heightened accents made a stark drama a dead pan comedy on top of the tragedy. Here there are noir odes encrusted with greater dramatic implications. The Coen Brothers film to the limits of their limited personality and infuse dated references (noir) and small quirks and details everywhere. Moss’s wife is killed at the end and you only know it because Chigurh checks his boots on the porch for blood. That was a good touch, but those touches don’t make a film. I think the Coen Brothers lost the larger scope of characterization that was needed.
Postscript. My favorite line in the film was, “You’re going to have to ride bitch” when Chigurh had to ride in between two men in the pick up truck. I liked it for no more reason except that I hadn’t heard that expression used since I was a kid. I come from a pick up truck world and it was once common.