How “No Country For Old Men” Went From Novel to Movie

As Cormac McCarthy, the author of No Country for Old Men would put it: when we look back at the past, we tend to view it through “pink lens”. He recalled regular conversations with his grandmother, where she lamented that in her youth, young men wouldn’t spend nights playing poker while their girlfriends were left alone. Of course, such proclamations, as McCarthy knew, were unfounded as men have been known to partake in poker, pool, and other activities without their better halves since the beginning of time. However, his grandmother believed her statement and that in her lifetime the world had shifted — perhaps for the worse. 

Written during the apprehensive periods after 9/11, No Country For Old Men is a story about corruption and greed, chance and justice, but it’s also a story about the foreboding future that we’re hurtling towards, and the ineptitude of our leaders, our law enforcements, and ourselves as we brace for violence and destructive forces that our beyond our comprehension. 

Over a decade since it’s initial publication and adaptation by the Coen Brothers, the story’s nihilistic themes are still relevant as we’re now confronted with obstacles that the old men in charge seem unprepared to handle. 

This is the story of Cormac McCathy’s inspiration and Joel and Ethan Coen’s process towards adapting the novel that pulls off the shades and reveals a world worthy of pessimism. 

The Novel

Born in 1933 in Providence, Rhode Island, Cormac McCarthy knew from an early age that he would fail to be a respectable citizen. Hating school from the early days and vowing never to waste his life working, taking orders from others, he pursued a life as a writer, educating himself with books during his time in the Air Force while dispatched in Alaska, when he was twenty-three years old. 

With a curriculum designed by himself, he read novels feverishly from literary greats including Herman Melville, Fedor Dostoyevsky, and William Faulkner, who was perhaps the one he drew his style from the most. A lot of Faulkerian themes could be found in McCarthy’s first novel, The Orchard Keeper, published in 1965 had, which makes sense because it earned him The William Faulkner Foundation Award for notable debut novel. 

McCarthy, with a literary grant, would end up building momentum from his first novel, travelling Europe, writing three more novels, before receiving a McArthur Genius Grant that enabled him, in 1985, to publish his fifth and perhaps most critically revered work, Blood Meridian, pushing him to the level as one of the great American writers of his generation.

In the 90s, McCarthy finally got mainstream recognition for The Border trilogy that included, All the Pretty Horses, published in 1992, The Crossing, published in 1994, and Cities of the Plains, published in 1998. While Blood Meridian was a violent, horrific story full of blood and carnage — The Border trilogy was restrained. However, with his next novel, No Country for Old Men, published in 2005, McCarthy turned the dial back, as the depiction of senseless evil required a trail of blood for the readers and the old sheriff in the story to follow.   

As the years past, McCarthy stayed true to his personal ideology and avoided succumbing to greed or distractions. He made his writing the prime focus of his life, forgoing lucrative opportunities and public adulations. He grew up not wanting to work, and in a way he succeeded. In a rare interview with Oprah in 2007, after winning a Pulitzer Prize for his 2006 novel, The Road, the writer dispelled the illusion that his achievements — although were not work — weren’t effortless. He had no advice to offer aspiring writers seeking a workfree life, except this, “if you are really dedicated, you can probably do it.” One has to work to not work. 

The Movie

Prior to 2000, the relationship between McCarthy and Hollywood had not been great. For example, Blood Meridian was deemed a cursed adaptation project. The list of esteemed filmmakers that had been linked to the project and then forced to surrender due to the complexity included Ridley Scott, Tommy Lee Jones, Martin Scorsese, John Hillcoat, and James Franco. The problem wasn’t that these filmmakers weren’t imaginative or talented enough, the problem was that the studios weren’t willing to take a risk on it. 

Go figure, that the first adaptation that Hollywood would commit to was All the Pretty Horses in 2000. Directed by Billy Bob Thornton and starring Matt Damon and Penelope Cruz, All the Pretty Horses received an overwhelmingly negative reception to no fault of the source material. What hurt McCarthy’s first movie adaptation was the politics behind the production. The first cut of the movie was over three hours long, as Thronton had wanted, but Miramax insisted that he cut 35% from it. It was this that ripped the heart and soul from the movie, making it feel rushed, uninvolved, and flat. Some believe that the edits were forced upon Thronton because of his previous directorial foray, Sling Blade, in 1996, where he’d refused to make edits. 

McCarthy always had an interest in stage and cinema. During his career, he experimented with writing scripts including a play, Sunset Limited in 2006 and a screenplay, The Counselor in 2013, directed by Ridley Scott. No Country for Old Men was originally written as a script, however, when it didn’t gain any tractions from Hollywood, he rewrote it as a novel. 

Luckily, by the time he was ready to publish, the manuscript found its way into the hands of producer Scott Rubin. Rubin purchased the film rights and handed the script to Joel and Ethan Coen, who were starting their next project, which was an adaptation of a novel. The novel they had in mind initially was To the White Sea by James Dickie, published in 1993, a story of an American gunner surviving the final months of World War II in war-torn Tokyo. In the summer of 2005, the Coen brothers decided to put To the White Sea on the shelf and focus on No Country for Old Men. 

What motivated them to pursue No Country for Old Men was how unconventional the story was told and the subverting genres. They loved the idea of the good guy and the bad guy never meeting face-to-face. They were drawn by the unforgiving landscape and the sentimentality of the story. 

While No Country for Old Men would be the first official Coen Brothers adaptation, they were no strangers to drawing inspiration from literature. Their 1990 neo-noir, Miller’s Crossing was inspired by American novelist Dashiell Hammett and the 2000 comedy, O’Brother, Where Art Thou? was a modern interpretation of Homer’s Odyssey. When asked about their selection process by Charlie Rose in a 2007 interview, they simply stated, “Why not start with Cormac? Why not start with the best?” 

And so they did. While one brother typed on the computer, the other held a copy of No Country for Old Men open flat. They were praised for the faithfulness to the novel, where they didn’t so much as alter, but rather compressed scenes to fit with the medium of film.

Shot by the admired cinematographer, Roger Deakins, No Country For Old Men was a sharp left turn from the Coen Brothers’ two disappointing attempts at comedy, Intolerable Cruelty starring George Clooney and Cathrine Zeta-Jones in 2003 and The Ladykiller starring Tom Hanks in 2004. Pulling from the starkness of Fargo, the violence of Miller’s Crossing and the stylization of The Man Who Wasn’t There, No Country for Old Men required the Coen Brothers and Deakins to be absolutely precise technically, in order to capture the realism that the story required. 

Meticulous storyboarding kept the movie on track, even through all the debates regarding the staged violence on screen. Without the violence, the emotional payoff would be lost and the merciless evil will lack the gravatas the story required. The movie doesn’t glamourize the violence, but instead shows the brutality of it. The violence happens quickly, savage and painful — and in a way, without purpose. The famous coin flip scene in the convenience store simply wouldn’t have the same tension, if we, the audience, didn’t recognize what could be possible if chance went the other way. 

No Country for Old Men is a movie almost devoid of music. The choice to go with a minimalistic soundtrack was seen as a removal of a film making safety net. Music helps the audience reach an emotional peak faster. It guides the story and builds tension, allowing the viewer to anticipate what will happen next. Think back to any thriller or suspense movie, and you may recall the soundtrack leading up to a climactic moment. But without music, the storytelling is exposed, giving the audience an out-of-the-comfort-zone experience, making the movie arguably more gripping and suspenseful. It puts you there with the characters. You hear the breathing. You hear the footsteps. You hear your heart pumping. 

The Coen brothers had a clear vision of who they wanted to cast in the role of the aging sheriff Ed Tom Bell. There was a shortlist of actors who had the qualities to portray a character who could really inhabit the landscape and provide a profound performance of an elderly man coming to terms. Tommy Lee Jones grew up in San Saba, Texas, not far from where the story was set.

Initially, the role of Lewellyn Moss was offered to Heath Ledger, who in 2006 was coming off one of the biggest years with starring roles in The Lords of DogTown, The Brothers Grimm, and Brokeback Mountain, which earned him his first Oscar nomination. However, Ledger had to turn down the opportunity because he wanted to spend time with his daughter. 

Then came Josh Brolin. With help from Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez to film an audition reel during a lunch break while on set for 2007’s Grindhouse, Brolin entered the conversation for the vacant role. While the audition tape — shot on a million dollar camera — didn’t have the desired effect for the Coen Brothers. The director and writer duo would eventually meet with Brolin, through much persistence from his agent — and decided that the child star from The Goonies was the right choice. Even though before shooting started, Brolin got into a motorcycle accident while heading back from a wardrobe fitting, breaking his collarbone. Luckily for Brolin, his character would have a bullet wound in the shoulder for the majority of the movie. 

The most memorable performance in No Country for Old Men came from Javier Bardem’s portrayal of the psychotic hitman, Anton Chigurh. The role brought a lot of challenges to Bardem, including a femine haircut that was not a wig but his real hair, which made going out in public during the three months of filming a unique experience for the Spanish actor. Another challenge was finding humanity in a character that had no qualms towards human life. Bardem pointed to the scene where Chigurh was alone stitching up his wound as an important one for the character as it showed the audience that he was not immune to pain, he was not a robot, and it’s there that we understand that this monster was like us, and that made him so much scarier. 

With a budget of $25 million, No Country for Old Men was shot in the early summer of 2006 in Las Vegas and New Mexico, where it first crossed paths with a rival movie that it’ll forever be connected to: Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood. The Daniel Day-Lewis epic about a ruthless oil tycoon, based on the 1927 novel by Upton Sinclair Oil!, shared location with the Coen Brothers in Marfa, New Mexico. The biggest problem with the shared location was that There Will Be Blood’s production sent heavy smoke into the air one day, causing No Country for Old Men to pause their shoot to allow the smoke to dissipate. Both movies set in the desert, with similar themes of greed and corruption, will be deemed by many to be the top two movies that year.  

What made many love No Country for Old Men were perhaps the same reasons some disliked it. It was a movie that defied conventions, it straddled genres — suspense, crime, western, and american gothic — and it was, to many, infuriatingly mysterious. The offscreen death of Moss, the villain’s pathetic escape, and the abrupt ending, left many confused. But it was in those cinematic choices that made the movie so memorable, because it mirrored the lives we were living. We brought our own interpretation to the story. Are we governed by destiny or self-determination? Are we the hunters or the hunted? How have our immoral acts lead to where we are now, and how many more can we get away with before our luck runs out? These are of course questions without clear answers, but No Country for Old Men suggests that our luck is already up, and here are the consequences. What do we make of that? 

On May 19, 2007, No Country for Old Men premiered at the Cannes Film Festival where it became a frontrunner for the Palm D’or but would end up losing to the Romanian film, 4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days. On November 9, 2007, the movie was released in the United States, grossing over $1,200,000 through the opening weekend, becoming the highest-grossing Coen Brothers movie of the time. 

The movie would be nominated for eight Academy Awards for Best Sound Mixing, Best Sound Editing, Best Film Editing, Best Cinematography, and winning Best Adapted ScreenPlay, Best Actor in a Supporting Role for Javier Bardem, Best Directors, and most incredibly, Best Picture, beating out Atonement, Juno, Michael Clayton, and their western rival, There Will Be Blood. 

No Country for Old Men is a movie I think about often. It was released in my final years as an inspiration-seeking teenager and I watched it in a theatre that no longer exists. Like the character of Sheriff Bell, who reminisces about a simpler time, I too think back fondly of that experience — I remember sitting on the edge of my seat in that empty theatre on a Saturday afternoon. I have failed to recreate the experience ever since. That’s a great lesson in life, and perhaps the most pertinent theme of the story, regardless of chance or free will, we can only have this moment and whether we choose or not, this life will happen, so if nothing more, we should brace for it. 

If the Coen Brothers were to adapt another novel, what would you like to see? Let me know in the comments below.

For more in the series of adaptations, please check out this YouTube playlist here.

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