Book Review: No Country for Old Men

No Country for Old Men is one of my favorite movies. I recently read the book, by Cormac McCarthy, that the movie was based on. It was an interesting experience; normally one reads the book then watches the movie to compare the two, but more and more recently I’ve been watching the movie first then reading the book.

One result of this is I find it hard to look at the book as a book – I’m constantly comparing it to the movie, even though the book came first and stands on its own. Ah well.

Of course, there’s some things that a book can do that a movie can’t, and vice versa. The movie has cool fight scenes that don’t show up in the book; the book has a unique style of prose that works really well for what McCarthy is doing. It works for The Road, which I read a while ago, and it works for this. It would work horribly for, say, a romantic comedy. I’m not sure what to make of this.

But other than stuff like that, the book is really similar to the movie, which is another way of saying the movie does a good job of following the book. Every scene of the movie, pretty much, is from the book, and most scenes of the book show up in the movie. The only important exceptions that I can recall are a few of Sheriff Bell’s monologues and one of Anton Chigurh’s deterministic rants.

Of course, one of the reasons I loved the movie was the character of Anton Chigurh, so I found the slightly different way he was portrayed in the book somewhat interesting. Essentially, while in the movie he is portrayed as a straight determinist, he actually has something a bit more complex going on.

As far as I can tell, and I might be wrong, he clearly doesn’t really believe in free will, but he’s more of a fatalist than a scientific determinist. He thinks that your choices are determined by your personal characteristics, and so in any particular situation you can’t “change your mind”, but that what you do is still the result of who you are, and so you are still somewhat responsible for it. If, as we did in my Lit Trad III course, we look at things in personhood in terms of moira, ethos, and persona, Chigurh believes in only moira – but he still believes in personhood. He’d more of an ancient Greek fatalist than anything else, really.

So, NCfOM is well written, interesting, does some things the movie doesn’t… is it better than the movie? I honestly have a hard time saying it is. Each can do different things, but I don’t want to say the novel is per se a better narrative medium than the film, and it’s a damn good movie. And I’m not sure that what McCarthy is doing with the novel-specific aspects of his work – the prose style, the narratorial asides, etc – are important enough, that they manage things the movie simply could not. A book like Moby Dick would not work at all as a movie. Something like NCfOM, however, works nicely. And there is a power movies have that books do not – though vice versa, as well. So I don’t know.

In any case, both are good. I actually do think it’s worth it to both read the book and watch the movie. If you can only do one… watch the movie, because there are better books out there, but there’s not that many better movies out there. But do try to read some Cormac McCarthy at some point. He’s quickly turning into one of my favorite modern authors.

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