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Rescripting the Western in 'No Country for Old Men'

Sergio Rizzo
Cormac and the Coens

How the Coen Brothers' ostensibly faithful award winning adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's No Country For Old Men diverges from its creator's rather questionable politics.

Winning the Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay along with other awards, the Academy and the film critics were quick to acknowledge the success of Joel and Ethan Coen’s first adaptation of a literary work -- Cormac McCarthy’s novel, No Country for Old Men, a crime thriller set along the southwest Texas border with Mexico. However, while admiring the film’s superior acting, editing, cinematography and sound work, many critics ignored or minimized the extent to which the brothers’ script revised the venerated author’s novel. Observing that the book reads like a screenplay (which McCarthy has confirmed that it originally was) the common assumption was that the success of the film’s script rested on the filmmakers’ decision to let McCarthy’s story tell itself, “resisting manfully", as Sight and Sound editor Nick James puts it, “the temptation to tinker” with the original. This assumption was supported by the good-humored rapport between the filmmakers and the author. On Oscar night, for example, McCarthy relates that Ethan Coen, after accepting the Academy Award for the screenplay, returned to his seat and told McCarthy, “Well, I didn’t do anything, but I’m keeping it."

More than just humility, Ethan Coen’s self-effacing genuflection reflects deeply held beliefs about the derivative status of the screenwriter’s work when he or she adapts a “serious” work of literature. Elaborating on the process of adapting No Country for Old Men in an interview given at the film’s premier at Cannes, the Coens repeat the expected pieties: they stress their verbatim transcription of the novel’s dialogue, their gratitude to McCarthy for making their work easier, and they refer to the novel as, in the words of the French translator, “un trésor délicat”. However, in response to a question about their ability to remain faithful to the novel while making a film that is so clearly their own, Joel Coen makes a crucial distinction. He talks not about being faithful to McCarthy’s novel, but about being faithful to themselves and their original impulse to adapt the novel. It is the filmmakers’ ability to remain faithful to themselves and that impulse, not to McCarthy’s novel, that accounts for the film’s success. From this perspective, it becomes easier to appreciate how the film critiques the novel, providing an extensive overhaul of its conservative politics as well as its reliance on the conservative gender roles of the conventional Western.

In differing ways, McCarthy’s novel and the Coen brothers’ film respond to a United States that began the 21st century as “Bush country". McCarthy’s book, although originally written some years earlier as a screenplay that received little interest at the time, was rewritten as a novel and was published in 2005. This was one year before the Congressional midterm elections, wherein tremendous voter dissatisfaction with the Bush administration and the war in Iraq succeeded in giving the Democrats control of Congress, assuring Bush of a lame duck presidency and initiating what many had hoped would be an end to the war. Even more relevant to the novel’s publication date, though, may have been the deteriorating situation in Iraq the year before. By 2004, if not earlier, the news coming out of that country would be enough to suggest to any thinking person, let alone someone of McCarthy’s avid intellect, that the U.S. might have gotten itself into another Vietnam -- a war to which No Country for Old Men makes repeated reference.

Many critics assume the novel’s conservative protagonist Sheriff Bell is expressing McCarthy’s own political views. One of the least cautious of these, William Deresiewicz of The Nation, asserts that Bell is “clearly McCarthy’s mouthpiece” and that the story’s “single-minded effort to pile up the body count” results in little more than an excuse for “rubbing our tender little modern liberal noses in death’s horror”. McCarthy scholar David Cremean uses Deresiewicz’s hasty and defensive review to argue against the notion that Bell’s conservative politics could be a reflection of McCarthy’s own. However, in his efforts to distance McCarthy from Bell, Cremean makes the same error as Deresiewicz, only in reverse. He uses the author’s fiction to argue that McCarthy’s personal politics must be something more than “stereotypical conservatism”. Of course, the work of a complex writer should not be reduced to his or her political identification, whether it is, for example, the royalist politics of T.S. Eliot or the socialism of Upton Sinclair. On the other hand, a “judicious use of biocritism”, as Cremean terms his approach, should not ignore or try to explain away what the public record has to offer.

Although lately McCarthy has been more forthcoming -- even going on The Oprah Winfrey Show after the talk show host selected his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Road for her influential book club -- his refusal to give interviews and avoidance of the literary social world are a legendary part of what his earliest interviewer, Robert B. Woodward, terms a “masculine mystique”. Ironically, the author’s decision to let his work do the talking gives an outsized importance to the few allusive comments he makes. Unlike Sheriff Bell, McCarthy does not opine on abortion or other hot button issues of the day. Furthermore, Woodward applies the label of conservative to McCarthy with intriguing qualifiers, describing him as a “radical conservative” or “no typical reactionary”, and in Woodward’s second interview he is referred to as “a quiet 72-year-old-Southern conservative”.

Despite these difficulties in piecing together a sense of McCarthy’s politics, in his interviews one can easily find evidence of the “stereotypical conservatism” that Cremean denies. One example comes at the end of McCarthy’s second interview with Woodward when he laments the “easygoing New Age enclave” that Santa Fe, New Mexico has become. In particular, he is bothered by “the people who have gathered [there] from the coasts” and because of whom he contemplates returning to Texas. “If you don’t agree with them politically,” McCarthy complains, “you can’t just agree to disagree -- they think you’re crazy." For a writer who has made a career explaining that life entails bloodshed, this is a rather anemic approach to politics and political dialogue -- although it may accurately reflect the polarizing effect of the country’s present red-state/blue-state divide. If someone has an opinion different than your own, just agree to disagree, and if that doesn’t work, move to a state where others with a different opinion can’t bother you.

Another problematic aspect to McCarthy’s personal politics appears in a Rolling Stone profile of the writer and his association with the Santa Fe Institute. In describing McCarthy’s rigorous abstinence from the trappings of literary success, the profile reveals he “has never voted” and then gives in parentheses, as if in explanation, McCarthy’s comment that “poets shouldn’t vote”. Cremean at least acknowledges this comment, but only in a footnote where he dismisses it as “a humorous allusion” to Plato’s The Republic. Others might find McCarthy’s arty aversion to voting less than humorous, even harmful. One does not need to be a recipient, as McCarthy was, of the MacArthur Foundation’s “genius grant” to figure out how not voting amounts to voting for the status quo. Rather than succumb to the self-deluding idealism of participatory democracy -- while enjoying many of its benefits -- McCarthy seems to prefer the cold comfort of science that the Sante Fe Institute provides, where he can ruminate upon apocalyptic scenarios caused by things like the Yellowstone Caldera erupting or massive asteroids striking the Earth. However, for some, contemplating human life from the other side of extinction would make the exercise of voting even more necessary, not less.

Although Cremean cites the Rolling Stone profile, he overlooks parts of it that are pertinent to his discussion of McCarthy’s conservatism and No Country for Old Men. For example, David Kushner directly connects the fictional Sheriff Bell’s conservative anxiety over “bad manners” with McCarthy’s personal “code of civility". Nor does Cremean mention the comment Kushner uses to illustrate McCarthy’s resignation to “the fact that bad manners and violence are here to stay”:

‘There are a lot of people out there -- a lot who grew up in the Sixties and are still flower children -- who imagine you can just get people to stop being violent... They pretend that the world they live in is that world, but it’s not. The world’s not like the world they want to live in, and probably never will be.’

From my (admittedly liberal) perspective, it is hard to understand how anyone could single out the “flower children” as the main obstacle to dealing with the realities of a violent world. A far greater threat is those well-groomed “realists” from the '60s -- such as Colin Powell, Dick Cheney, and Donald Rumsfeld -- who gave us the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. A debatable point, perhaps, but what seems less debatable is that McCarthy sounds here very much like Sheriff Bell in his role as a “provincial conservative”. Given the public record, I agree with Walter Kirn of The New York Times who says that while Bell’s “red-state sentiments... may or may not represent the author’s feelings” one gets the impression that they “probably don’t violate them terribly.”

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