[(essay date 2013) In the following essay, Bayless and Redmon demonstrate that the film version of No Country for Old Men “depends on an unacknowledged source”: Flannery O’Connor’s 1953 short story “A Good Man Is Hard to Find.”]
On the surface, the Coens’ No Country for Old Men (2007) adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s novel by the same name is all McCarthy’s, a point reviewers have been quick to celebrate. A. O. Scott, for instance, praises “how well matched their methods turn out to be with the novelist’s.” Their camera finds a word-perfect way, writes Scott, “to disclose what the book describes.” James Berardinelli declares that the Coens have done what many doubted could be done by providing the world “a coherent and reasonably faithful adaptation of a Cormac McCarthy novel.” Even when a reviewer notes a moment of perceived originality, as Roger Ebert does, he does so with as much appreciation for what the source text inspires as for what that inspiration yielded. Ebert’s synopsis of the exchange between Chigurh (Javier Bardem) and an inconspicuous gas station owner (Gene Jones) illustrates as much. The dialogue in the gas station is first-rate, claims Ebert, in part, because it runs true to the novel. “You want to applaud the writing,” Ebert writes, “which comes from the Coen brothers, out of McCarthy.” The italicized portion succinctly captures the consensus of most reviewers: the Coens make a great film, in part, because they remain true to a great book.
There are sure to be critics within adaptation studies who are just as quick to venerate the Coens’ No Country for Old Men for how closely it matches McCarthy’s novel. Robert Stam observes that even critics within adaptation studies can get caught measuring a film’s worth through a sort of matching game between the original and the adaptation. One sees this most clearly in the “conventional language of adaptation criticism,” writes Stam, which is wrought with charges of “ethical perfidy … illegitimacy … aesthetic disgust and monstrosity … [and] religious sacrilege and blasphemy” (3). An unfaithful adaptation, it seems, exposes the still lingering belief in what Stam calls “the axiomatic superiority of literature to film” (4). So, on the rare instance that one succeeds in bringing a novel to screen in such a way that the former is preserved, there is reason to celebrate and for good reason. As Stam reasons, no matter how much one theoretically discredits the matter of fidelity, one must always admit that it “does retain a grain of experiential truth” (14). Many spectators arrive at the showing of an adapted text with the novel in mind. When the film departs from the original, the audience member aware of the original cannot help but be a little dissatisfied. One cannot escape this truth or theorize it out of existence. Therefore, a film like the Coens’ No Country for Old Men that preserves its source text becomes something of a welcome relief for audience members, reviewers, and critics alike.
At the same...