The frankly brilliant conversion of this book to the silver screen is what introduced me to Cormac McCarthy in the first place. I did, however, manage to read The Road before seeing that book’s relatively lacklustre conversion.
The film understandably hangs itself on the pursuit of Llwellyn Moss by Chigurgh (with one of the most inspired castings since Mickey Rourke getting tapped to play the lead in The Wrestler). The book reveals a lot more depth to the character of Sheriff Bell, ably played in the cinematic version by Tommy Lee Jones. The problem with the cinematic version is that Sheriff Bell’s soliloquies don’t translate to the big screen very well. For sure, the final scene of the movie is about as good a translation as could be done, but the film itself would have suffered had it included all of Bell’s words. Having read the book, the film is revealed to be a slightly unbalanced adaptation. The Coen brothers did a good job of translating two of the three leads, and I think Tommy Lee Jones did a good job of filling out an unfinished adaptation. But the overriding theme that connects all three, that of old age and purpose, is somewhat hampered by the lack of a rounded Bell in the film adaptation.
What I like most about McCarthy’s later works (this and The Road) is the purpose that drives the characters. I’m not a fan of Blood Meridian, precisely because the wanderlust that drives the main character doesn’t seem to contain the same burning drive that defines the characters in No Country or The Road. I can understand Blood Meridian and All The Pretty Horses for what they are, road books that encapsulate that wandering spirit of the old west, but I much prefer the singular purpose that propels the characters in his later books.
As sexist as it might seem, I think the central question of the book is “What makes a man?” And it’s the way in which all three central characters, good and bad, answer this that makes the book so satisfying to read. Of course, there is Llewellyn, for whom tragedy strikes because he cannot let a man die of thirst in the desert. The kind of man for whom this is not an act of kindness, but what is right. As bad as Chigurh is, throughout the film he is a man of his word. And Bell, facing his old age and mortality, spends most of the book reflecting on his life and if he’s lived it well. I think McCarthy answers this central question with fidelity. No Country displays a relaxed amorality about the actions of the characters, except where they stray from their own standards.
On balance, I think it’s the best book that I’ve read by him.