Cormac McCarthy’s "No Country for Old Men": Narrative Elements in Film and Novel

Master's Thesis, 2013

96 Pages, Grade: 10




1 Literature review
1.1 Cormac McCarthy and the Coen brothers
1.2 Screen adaptation
1.3 Narratalogy: overview
1.4 Relationship of film and literary narrative
1.5 Time–space narrative
1.6 The western genre in text and film

2 Film adaptation – re-imagining a literary narrative
2.1 Intertextuality
2.2 Fidelity of film adaptation

3 Literary and film narrative as a macrostructure
3.1 Narration and a narrator
3.1.1 Narration in literature
3.1.2 Narration in film

4 Narrative perspective
4.1 Focalization in literary narrative
4.2 Focalization in film narrative

5 Time-space narrative in literature and cinema
5.1 Visual regime and narrative rhythm
5.2 On the frontiers of mise-en-scène

6 History and conventions of the western genre
6.1 Iconographic elements of the western
6.2 Gender roles in the western genre

7 Adaptation of the film No Country for Old Men
7.1 Transfer of the intertexts
7.2 Fidelity to the source text

8 Narrative construction in No Country for Old Men – the novel and the film
8.1 The narration and the narrators
8.2 The narrative perspective and the characters

9 The instance of focalization in No Country for Old Men
9.1 Focalization in the novel 6
9.2 Focalization in the film

10 Narrative time and space in No Country for Old Men
10.1 Mise-en-scène at work
10.2 Visual regime in the film

11 Genre and gender in No Country for Old Men
11.1 The iconographic elements of the genre
11.2 Gender roles in the genre




Appendix The shots of the film No Country for Old Men


The present master thesis, entitled ‘Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men – Narative Elements in Film and Novel’, focuses on the comparison of a literary narrative and its adaptation into a cinematic narrative. In recent years theorists have made important contributions to the analysis of film and literary narrative. Many narrative theorists argue about certain distinctions and similarities in the adaptation of a literary work into a film. Since both media produce narratives, the purpose of the thesis is to discuss and compare the narrative mechanisms and means they employ. The comparative analysis of the novel by Cormac McCarthy No Country for Old Men and its screen adaptation by the Coen brothers is made with reference to a variety of contemporary narrative theories.

The goal of the present thesis is to explore the distinctions and similarities between the literary narrative in Cormac McCarthy’s novel No Country for Old Men and the Coen’s film narrative. The analysis focuses on the aspects of literary narrative and film, how its elements and conventions are created with the help of literary tools, and how they are transposed or transformed through the use of cinematic tools. In addressing the film and literature narrative studies and focusing narrowly on the issue of adaptation from one medium to the other, the paper examines the confluence and the divergence of the two media forms – textual and visual. In order to discuss the novel-film affinity and distinctiveness, the thesis draws attention to various aspects of literary narrative and its fidelity to the film medium. Thus, the narrative structure, the narrators, narrative time-space, the western genre and its gender dimension in both texts are compared, observing which of the narrative elements the film directors have chosen to transfer and which other visual ways and formats are employed instead.

To attain the above-mentioned goal, the following enabling objectives have been set:

1. To study theories on film and literary narrative;
2. To examine differences and similarities between a film and a literary narrative;
3. To interpret the narrative in Cormac McCarthy’s novel and the Coens’ film No Country For Old Men following the theoretical guidelines;
4. To compare the elements of the film narrative with the elements of the literary narrative;
5. To argue about No Country For Old Men as the western novel and as the western film;
6. To draw conclusions from the textual and film analysis.

Since literary and film texts have similar and different narrative elements, the research question is as follows: What are the principal similarities and distinctions between the narrative in the novel and in the film No Country for Old Men ? The expected outcome of the research is a statement of the main distinctions and similarities that the narratives of the novel and the film No Country for Old Men bear. As both works consist of two different narrative forms, the hypothesis of the thesis is as follows: the literary narrative significantly differs from the film narrative in inventiveness and the style of rendering the story.

In order to prove the hypothesis and achieve the goal of the research that has been set, the following methods of the research have been chosen:

1. Methods of analysis applied in text and film narratology;
2. Comprehensive textual and cultural analysis of literary and film theory interpreting post-modern literary narrative and film narrative;
3. Comparative and descriptive analysis of the film narrative and the literary narrative in No Country for Old Men, making juxtapositions and drawing conclusions.

The theoretical part covers a number of aspects that play a significant role in the relationship between film and literary fiction narratives. The concepts of narrative and its structure are scrutinized with their manifestation in cinematic and literary texts. The practical part offers narrative analysis in the novel by Cormac McCarthy No Country for Old Men and in the film by the Coen brothers with the same title.

The first chapter provides the literature review that establishes a theoretical and methodological framework for the area of the study, defining key terms and positioning the gap that the research intends to fill. The second chapter explores the issue of adaptation and fidelity in the film and in the literary fiction. The third chapter presents various theoretical aspects of literary and film narrative and narration. The fourth chapter takes up the question of narrative perspective and focalization in literary works and film media. The fifth chapter deals with the issue of time and space and visual regime, while the sixth chapter observes the issue of the western genre and its roles in a literary and a film narrative. The seventh chapter presents an analysis of adaptation in the literary and the film narrative in No Country for Old Men. The eighth chapter explores the issue of narrative construction in No Country for Old Men. The chapter nine explores focalization in the novel and the film No Country for Old Men. The tenth chapter observes narrative time and space in both media and the eleventh chapter takes up the issue of the western genre and the gender roles found in No Country for Old Men. The final part of the paper is devoted to conclusions that have been made in the course of the literary and the film text analysis according to the literary and film theories.


The present literature review provides a theoretical framework of the thesis. The review of the theoretical approaches towards narrative is of hallmark concern in order to organize a framework for the research of the narrative in the novel and film No Country for Old Men. The current literature review establishes the context and rationale for the study, and delineates the methodological ways, in which the formulated research question will be approached: What are the principal distinctions and similarities between the narrative in the novel and in the film No Country for Old Men ?

Many theories have been proposed that explain in what ways a literary narrative differs from a film narrative, when it has been transferred to the film medium. This question is addressed in a number of theoretical approaches, and this review will focus on the major issues of this research area. As film and literary theories present different themes in a variety of contexts, the paper primarily will focus on seven themes, namely, a literary narrative adaptation into a film narrative, narratalogy as the core study of narrative, the relation of a film and a literary narrative, time-space narrative, point-of view in films and literary texts. As both works clearly belong to the Western genre, they have been chosen for the study, observing the construction and the gender roles. Notwithstanding the importance of the theoretical background of various elements of film and literary narrative, the beginning of the literature review will be devoted to the writer of the novel No Country for Old Men - Cormac McCarthy and the film directors, the Coen brothers, that have adapted the novel into the film.

1.1 Cormac McCarthy and the Coen brothers

The author of ten novels, two plays, and three screenplays, Cormac McCarthy was born in Providence, Rhode Island, in 1933. Literary critics who have expressed much interest about McCarthy’s biography have acknowledged that his reclusive lifestyle has ensured that little is known about the novelist beyond some bare biographical facts about him, although Richard Woodward in his 1992 interview with McCarthy, published in the New York Times Book Review, states that “for such an obstinate loner, McCarthy is an engaging figure, a world-class talker, funny, opinionated, quick to laugh” (New York Times, 1992:29). The interview is much referred to by many scholars, who write on McCarthy’s corpus, since except the 1992 interview, there is not so much McCarthy commenting on himself or about his work, as it is in Woodward’s redacted overview. Thirteen years later, in August 2005, McCarthy granted Woodward a second interview for Vanity Fair, but again, McCarthy quoted little of himself or his works in his own words.

McCarthy’s oeuvre has demonstrated abiding fictional potential. George Brosi (2011) in the literary magazine Appalachian Heritage suggests that Cormac McCarthy’s life and his literary career can be divided into three distinct periods. The first era covers the period from 1933 to 1965, when his first novel The Orchard Keeper was published, the second covers the ten-year period from 1965 to 1976 that he spent in Knoxville, where he completed two novels – Outer Dark, Child of God and continued to write Suttree, his most autobiographical novel. The third period of his life and literary career can be considered from 1976 up to the present, when McCarthy influenced by Faulkner, published six novels that introduced his distinctive perspective on the American West. The novels of the third period include Blood Meridian (1985), All the Pretty Horses (1992), The Crossing (1994), Cities of the Plain (1998), No Country for Old Men (2005) and Road (2006).

Any attempt to explore the body of work as rich and varied as McCarthy’s is problematic, but it is important to review several literary critics’ references in McCarthy’s literary corpus to observe the themes that McCarthy’s novels treat. Scott Esposito (2009) in his article Cormac McCarthy’s Paradox of Choice writes that McCarthy not only concentrates on the exposition of violence in his novels, but he also carves out “the themes of the search for identity, or physical place, and of spiritual position within an existential realm of conflicting value systems” (Scott, 2009). In exploring physical places and borders, McCarthy has overseen the decline of a traditional way of life in American South and reframed the rise and fall of the American West in his novels.

The novel No Country for Old Men (2005) not only explores boundaries, landscapes and violence, it also embraces a vast array of other themes that will be explored in the present thesis. The novel was adapted by four-time Academy Award winning filmmakers Joel and Ethan Coen, and it was selected as the best film of the year 2007. The film adaptation No Country for Old Men (2007) brought exceptional success to the Coens, with eight Academy Award nominations. The next subchapter provides an insight in the theoretical framework of screen adaptation.

1.2 Screen adaptation

Adaptations of a literary narrative into a film narrative are often criticized, but the complex nature of the relationship between the literary and the cinematographic texts has to be explored in detail in order to see how one narrative is transferred into another. The field of adaptation has grown immensely, and changes in the study have not been left unnoticed. Linda Hutcheon states that “a considerable change in the study has been noticed since 2006, when debates of fidelity were still going on” (Hutcheon, 2012:26). Due to the growth of the issue of adaptation, new collections of essays have broadened the range of the theory and practice of adaptation.

Many theorists have contemplated on the issue of adaptation in various essays, the most recent essays can be found in Translation, Adaption and Transformation by Laurence Raw (2012) and in Pockets of Change: Adaption and Cultural Transition by Tricia Hopton (2011) and Adam Atkinson (2011). Besides newly appearing film adaptation critics, it is worth taking into account other remarkable theorists, among them Brian McFarlane (1996) and the well-known semiotician Robert Stam (2006). McFarlane (1996) has thoroughly explored the issue of adaptation and admits a gap in the process of adapting literary works to films, suggesting that there has been a long-running discourse on the nature of the connection between film and literature, and it is surprising for the theorist how little attention has been given to the processes of adaptation. McFarlane acknowledges that “central importance in the phenomenon of adaptation of the novel into film has to be devoted to narrative” (McFarlane, 1996:11). Narrative is undeniably not only the main factor that novels and films have in common, but it is the chief transferable element. The next subchapter will give an overview of narratalogy.

1.3 Narratalogy:overview

Several significant introductory works to narratalogy appeared in the sixties that can be assumed as a cornerstone of classical narratalogy and served as a precursor and inspiration for other narratalogists. The studies of the classical narratalogy of the French School by Seymour Chatman (1980), Tzvetan Todorov (1981), and Gerard Genette (1988) concentrated on the novel as the prototypical form of literary narrative. These studies have not lost their actuality in modern narratalogy debates, and they serve as a fertile ground for many other theorists up to the present day.

In recent years many other influential works have emerged by prominent narratalogists as Porter Abbott (2002), Mieke Bal (2009), James Monaco (2009), Marie Laure-Rhyan (2006), David Herman (2011), Monika Fludernik (2012), and literary and film narratalogist Edward Branigan (2006). These postclassical approaches encompass frameworks for narrative research that are built on the classical tradition, but supplemented with the concepts and the methods that were not available in the classical narratalogy studies. The postclassical narratalogy studies have experienced a ground-breaking development in recent years. Narratalogist Monika Fludernik (2012) in her most recent book affirms a veritable growth in the study, acknowledging that at the moment the research in narratalogy acquires new dimensions and evokes more interest in literary and cinematic circles. Her works certainly play an important role in encouraging literary and film theorists to take part in the investigation of narratalogy and in challenging the well-established theoretical concepts. Thus, in the twenty-first century narratology as the study of narrative and its structure is not only alive, but it is even flourishing. The next subchapter offers a theoretical framework of the relationship of film and literary narrative.

1.4 Relationship of film and literary narrative

Film and literary narrative differ in various elements, but they also share some principal similarities, therefore it is important to look at the crux of both narratives in relation. Narratalogists Seymour Chatman (1980), Mieke Bal (1997), Edward Branigan (1992) not only investigated the issue of a literary narrative, but also offered a starting point for a film narrative, viewing it as a binary opposition of a literary narrative. Chatman (1980) was one of the first critics to analyse film as a narrative genre. He initiated a line of inquiry into film as a narrative that complemented key studies by Edward Branigan (1992), David Bordwell (1985), and other theorists.

After narratalogy had experienced a veritable growth, narratalogists started investigating film and literary narrative in relation, observing translatability of narrative from one medium into another. Narralogists have given various accounts of a literary and a film narrative in relation, and many of them have testified significant distinctions, while some have acknowledged that both media share similarities. Seymour Chatman sees a noticeable difference of a literary and a film narrative, while he acknowledges that they also bear a parallel value of other experiences. Consequently, a literary narrative has a different emphasis of a film narrative; nonetheless, both mediums share certain similar experiences. Thus, transposing a narrative from one medium to another, each medium bears a distinct nature, while particular facets of narrative resemble each other.

Scholar Peter Verstraten has also observed Chatman’s opinion on the distinction of film and literary narrative in some other aspects, and he stresses the importance to realize that literary devices fundamentally diverge from cinematic devices. In Film Narratology Verstraten (2009) notes various unexplored and essentially different narrative effects that film can produce with mise-en-scène and one of its facets - continuing editing.

However, several theorists have a different opinion on whether a film narrative should be looked at as based on a new and individual work or as an adaptation of the particular literary narrative. For instance, Edward Branigan (1992) sees a direct relation of a film narrative and a literary narrative, as both narratives express temporal relationships, and they are mental constructions. Film theorist James Monaco (2009) supports Branigan’s opinion that film and novel stand close to each other, as they share the same narrative capacities.

Uncertainty about the role that film and literary narrative play makes the issue of hallmark concern for narratalogy theorists. Hence, there exists a gap for exploring the various differences and similarities between a film and a literary narrative. In order to evaluate how and to which extent the filmmakers preserve the literary narrative elements in the film adaptation, McFarlane (1996) suggests to compare the novel’s narrative and literary techniques with the film maker’s decision to display the narrative elements, taking into account the capacities and possible techniques of the screen work.

Besides the various techniques that are vital for the analysis of narrative, intrinsic nature of time and space plays an equal role in the understanding of narrative in both media.

1.5. Time-space narrative

Many literary and film theorists, when analysing the narrative structure in novel and film, have paid significant attention to the issue of temporality and space. David Herman (2007) has closely investigated both dimensions, and he stresses the importance of temporality and spatiality in a literary narrative, as time and space are more than background elements in the narrative, and they affect the readers’ basic understanding of a narrative text and of the protocols of different narrative genres. Herman acknowledges the fact that temporality and space profoundly influence the way, in which readers build mental images of what they read. He sets in opposition space and time in literature, perceiving both dimensions as completely different perspectives, while the Russian literary critic Mikhail Bakhtin does not agree with the idea. According to Nele Bemong (2010), Bakhtin created a special term to affirm that space and time are two interconnected perspectives.

Not only literary theorists dwell upon the issue of time and space in a literary narrative, but several film theorists have also debated over space and time in a film narrative. Film theorists, such as Gérard Genette (1990), David Bordwell (2008) and Kristin Thompson (2008), have developed their own concepts of time and space in a film narrative. Thus, the issue of narrative time and space is no exception in the film narrative analysis. Theorist Jakob Lothe (2000) claims that space and time operate on two axes in film, “on the one hand, film presupposes space, a film displays in rapid succession a series of images, and each image is a spatial print, on the other hand, the film has a temporal vector upon the spatial dimension of the image” (Lothe, 2000:26). Lothe stresses that film complicates and changes the image’s stable space by setting it in motion, adding sound and by introducing a sequence of images and combinations of events

When observing time and space in film narrative, it is useful to introduce the concept of mise-en-scène that signifies the control that a film director has in staging a scene for the framing of shots. It includes such elements as setting, costume, sound, lighting, and overall movement within the frame. Susan Hayward (2006) suggests that mise-en-scène is an important factor for the consideration of space in film, as it serves to explain the compositional motivation through the choices that a film director makes, and functions to establish a cause of impending actions, so that the story can proceed. Timothy Corrigan (2012) has not only paid attention to the concept of mise-en-scène, but also to continuity editing as a significant element of mise-en-scène. Corrigan states that “filmmakers rely on continuity editing, also termed a system of editing, which uses cuts and other transitions to establish credibility and to tell stories efficiently, where each shot has a causal relationship to the next shot, and the strategy of mise-en-scène, in order to ensure narrative continuity” (Corrigan, 2012:125).Thus, mise-en-scène and the continuity editing affect the experience of time and place, constructing a coherence of space and maintaining continuity of time. The next subchapter provides an insight into the issue of the western genre.

1.6 The western genre in text and film

Genre critics and theorists have laid increasing importance on the facet of genre in literature and film; they suggest that one clear generic identity cannot be attributed to any film or literary work. Barry Langford, one of the genre critics concerned with generic categories, echoing on Jacques Derrida, observes that the law of genre dictates that every text belongs to a genre, besides it also dictates that texts do not belong wholly to any one genre” (Langford, 2006:29). Linda Costanzo supports Langford’s contemplation on the generic impurity of any text, especially filmic genre, claiming that “within cinema, genre is a fairly problematic concept because films are rarely generically pure” (Costanzo, 2006:164). Inability of previous scholars to find an appropriate method of genre categorization has been the focus of the recent essays by Gunning, Knee and Rick Altman. Gunning in his essay urges the scholars to take a rigid stance in the classification of genres. It follows that genre boundaries have not been fixed up to the present, and theorists have to deal with the generic hybridity more specifically.

Many theorists have given their accounts of various types of genres, paying a significant attention to the western genre and crediting it as one of the most fascinating genres. Jennifer McMahon in her book The Philosophy of the Western has collected various essays on the genre, especially on the American Western. She acknowledges that there are few genres that capture the hearts of their audience like western, “though many westerns have simple plots and stock characters, they also have an unwavering appeal” (McMahon, 2010:2). Many theorists agree on the appeal of the western genre and also claim that the genre is as vast as the West itself, bearing different elements. Barry Keith Grant has not only reviewed the complicated issue of genre purity, but she has also taken a look at a variable combination of elements within the western genre, observing the concepts of the terms West and frontier in relation to the genre. Grant suggests that “if West is seen as a potential Eden, the garden of the world, it can also be seen as the wilderness, the great American desert” (Grant, 2012: 244). Thus, the opposition of garden and desert is at the heart of the ideas of the West. Nonetheless, westerns not only share these specific elements, they also shed light on various aspects of American culture and values. Therefore, it is crucial to observe various cultural codes that inhabit the cultural environment in films and literary works, and their relation to specific symbols. Symbolic and cultural codes are visual signs and images, which help to represent a certain genre. The iconography, namely, appearance of people, landscape, means of transport, clothes, and even soundtrack, are what the audience uses to recognize the genre. Certain genres not only involve symbolic and cultural codes but they also entail specific gender systems and roles.


The present chapter looks into the history of adaptation and the issue of adaptation as seen by various theorists of film adaptation.

The history of critical writing on film and literature’s relationship can be traced back to the mid-twentieth century, when the Russian filmmaker Sergei Einstein wrote about the connection between the novels of Charles Dickens and the filmic narrative of D. W. Griffith in his book Film Form. The honour of the first major work on film adaptation was, however, attributed to George Bluestone (1957), who was considered as the first theorist to produce a full-length study of film adaptation. The main thrust of Bluestone’s argument in his book Novels into Film was that with determined specificities of novel and film, “they must be judged as separate entities” (Shaffer, 2011:127). His ideas have not lost their actuality in modern literary and film debates. Bluestone’s shadow has been present in countless works of literary and film critics since the beginning of 1960’s and up to nowadays. Postmodern film and literary theorists regularly refer to Bluestone and view him as an honourable pioneer in cinema studies.

A literary text is, and continues to be, a primary source for narrative material in films, and the circle of adaptation theorists and critics, who inquire the issue of adaptation, has been significantly expanded lately. Linda Hutcheon (2012) in her recent book A Theory of Adaptation praises the fact that “adaptation as a field of study has been expanding its scope in recent years” (Hutcheon, 2012:16). Owing to the great expansion of the study, it has given way to new sources of debates. Most of the debates, however, are in negative terms of loss, namely, a reduction of scope of novel in the length and detail in the adapted works. Controversies around the issue of adaptation have not abated up to the present day. However, several literary theorists have taken a diplomatic stance on the issue, as for example, Linda Costanzo suggests that “the length of a novel in relationship to the length of a feature film necessitates that the filmmakers make choices what to include in the film” (Costanzo, 2006:101). Therefore, in the process of adaptation, as Linda Costanzo suggests, characters and events may be omitted and narrative gaps may be filled with different scenes and new characters.

The most negative image of film adaptation comes from the filmmaker Alain Resnais. Kathleen Brown (2009) in her book Teaching Literary Theory Using Film Adaptations points to Resnais’s critical attitude in trying to express the relationship between the source text and its adaptation. For Alain Resnais, adapting a novel for one of his own films would be “a little like re-heating an adaptation” (Kathleen, 2009:147). Notwithstanding the bulk of the negative views on the paradigm of adaptation, many theorists still view the issue of adaptation in the light of positivism. One of the most successful critical monographs of film adaptations is that of Kamilla Elliott (2003) Rethinking the Novel/Film Debate, where she extends her consideration of the relationship of narrative forms, and explores disciplinary boundaries in the relationship between film and novel. Just as Kamilla Elliott sees the importance of studying film adaptation, Robert Stam (2005), whose earlier works revised the writings of the Russian literary critic Mikhail Bakhtin, also takes the privilege to reinscribe hierarchies of film and literature value. Stam regarding the issue of film adaptation proposes to concentrate on narratalogy, and to draw attention to the issue of narrative, narrators and focalization in film and literary text to explore the specificities of adapted texts.

Many theorists have dealt with the issue of adaptation, but only several theorists have looked into adaptation concerning narrative and its units. Film adaptation inevitably loses and changes something from the source text, in its count narrative units. John Irving, who wrote the screenplay for the film The Cider House Rules based on his novel, has claimed that even if you do not have to lose much in an adaptation from book to screen, you always lose something, “you cannot be too literary wedded to the novel but you have to take advantage of what a film can do” (Irving, 2005:11). Thus, according to Irving, narrative of novel and film may differ in their storytelling. This also leads to remembering Seymour Chatman’s well-known statement - “what novels can do that film cannot” (Chatman, 1980:117) and makes to think of the differences in the modes of representation in both media. Monika Fulton (2005) stresses that the differences in the modes of representation produce two different texts, undermining the hierarchy of original literary text and secondary film text, or what Imelda Whelehan calls unconscious prioritising of the fictional origin over the resulting film” (Whelehan 1999: 3).


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Cormac McCarthy’s "No Country for Old Men": Narrative Elements in Film and Novel
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