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Tuesday, 5 January 2010

First Impressions: No Country For Old Men (Text)

As a general rule, if you enjoy a book, you should avoid any film adaptations of it, as they almost never cease to disappoint. Even small changes to the plot or characters that wouldn’t bother the average movie goer will enrage fans of the original books, sometimes a lot more so than you feel they really should. I recall the outrage expressed by fans of Watchmen when the movie reached its climax, and no giant alien squid appeared. In the book (or graphic novel, I should say), the squid was merely a plot device, not a significant character; it could have been anything else, or even not existed (as in the film), and would not have affected the story. Yet fans of the graphic novel went crazy over its exclusion. There’s probably even someone out there who stormed out of Lord of the Rings when he realized Tom Bombadil had been cut. People just can’t stand to see stories they love being butchered to make them more exciting from a cinematic perspective.
On many levels, this is true when it goes the other way, too. Almost everyone I know who read The Bourne Identity after having seen the film hated it, whilst those who read it before watching the movie loved it. The same is true for many other books, even Jurassic Park. If you enjoy a story in one medium, you probably won’t enjoy it in another, because the changes necessary to make a book into a film will almost certainly modify the story by a huge amount, possibly even beyond recognition.
It’s interesting, then, that a mere 40 pages into Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men, I feel as though I’ve just been reading an incredibly detailed movie synopsis someone’s printed off IMDB. All the elements I remember from the film, which I watched when it was first released, are there in vivid detail, and it’s incredibly easy to picture the scenes unfolding, much more so than with most other books of this type. However, there is another reason why I have likened it to a synopsis from the internet Movie Database, and that is that it’s incredibly difficult to read, despite the language being very simple.
Since the last couple of sentences may sound completely contradictory, I shall explain further. The descriptions of people and places are extremely detailed, but only where they need to be. Whilst Stephen King may spend a page or two explaining exactly what it feels like to smoke your first cigarette, McCarthy is more than happy to just give one word explanations. However, the detail contained within the few words that he uses is incredible. Rather than give a simple explanation of “The rifle was custom built, with a telescopic sight mounted on top”, McCarthy describes the weapon as “a heavybarreled .270 on a ’98 Mauser action with a laminated stock of maple and walnut”. This description tells us everything we need to know about the rifle, without spending an entire paragraph detailing the action on the Mauser ’98, or explaining the advantages of a .270 calibre to a .308 when hunting deer. It’s simple, but at the same time detailed. Whilst in sentences such as the one above, this style of writing is brilliant, keeping the story going along at a good and fast pace, while at the same time giving us a clear picture in our heads of how the scene would appear on film or in real life, it often makes reading sentences tedious. Unfortunately, in order to simplify descriptions of events, and to keep the story moving, McCarthy very rarely uses commas, and floods his sentences with the word “and”. The result of this is that you can’t pace the sentence naturally in your head, and I often found myself having to read long sentences 2 or 3 times just to make them sound right, and get the emphasis in the right places. This is a major distraction when reading, and I found it very often destroyed the images of the scenes I was picturing in my head whilst reading, instead replacing them with nothing but a train of thought on how I would go about saying certain sentences were I to attempt to read the book aloud.
To help put this into context, I shall now give you the same sentence in 4 different styles: the over-simplified, the normal, the over-complicated, and the Cormac McCarthy.

Over Simplified:
Jerry Seinfeld told a funny joke and the audience clapped.

Jerry Seinfeld finished telling the joke. As the applause grew, it became clear to those watching that this man was a one of a kind comedic genius, and that his brand of sarcastic humour was going to be incredibly popular.

The Over Complicated:
Jerry Seinfeld finished his joke. The facetious tone of the joke, although entertaining, was, in the end, erroneous, as the anecdote itself was more than enough to cause the audience to grow more vociferous than could be reasonably expected; the laughter and applause of the raucous crowd echoing throughout the grand concert hall, growing and growing, like a balloon of raw energy, encompassing all within earshot of the riotous comedian. Indubatively, It was clear to all present that this man would go on to do great things.

The Cormac McCarthy:
Jerry Seinfeld finished telling the joke and paused for effect. The audience began to laugh and applause and soon enough there was a standing ovation and the entire crowd cheered for Jerry. Seinfeld thanked the audience and waved goodbye and left the stage and the crowd kept on cheering. He was going to be huge.

All 4 styles have their benefits, and all convey the same event in a slightly different manner, but I just cannot get over the constant use of “and” which McCarthy employs. Look at that last sentence, and tell me that you would use that one if you intended to describe the scene depicted. Sure, if you changed it around to read “Seinfeld thanked the audience and waved goodbye. He left the stage, and the crowd kept on cheering”, I may well agree with the statement, but as far as I’m concerned, if you use “and” more than about twice in a sentence, it just doesn’t flow, and becomes annoying to read. Before you say I’m exaggerating, I would just like to quote a line from No Country for Old Men:

“Then [Chigurh] picked up his air-tank and the stungun and walked out the door and got into the deputy’s car and started the engine and backed around and pulled out and headed up the road” (McCarthy; No Country for Old Men: Page 7)

I distinctly remember a child in my class in year 2 writing a story much like that in Primary school, and being told by the teacher that he needed to break up his sentences more, otherwise no-one would be able to read it. When 7 year old kids know more about writing than a Pulitzer Prize winner, I find myself losing faith in humanity.

Oh yeah, and McCarthy doesn’t use speech marks, either.

Nevertheless, I find myself captivated and enthralled by the story itself, no matter how much I despise the writing style of the author at times, and will no doubt continue to read it, to see how the story and characters develop, and hopefully I will get to the point where the draw of the story is so intense that no number of uses of the word “and” could put me off reading it. Either that or I’ll just watch the film again.

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