Books to Films

I just finished reading Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men, *after* having seen the film earlier this month, in contrast to my experience with Ian McEwan’s Atonement last month, where I read the book first and then saw the film. My experiences could have been interchanged, however, with similar reactions — that I can’t remember seeing films so faithfully adapted from their literary sources. No Country, the book, reads — especially given McCarthy’s spare, stripped down prose — almost like a transcript of the film, except that of course some of the scenes *are* longer in the book, and there are more passages of philosophical monologues by the sheriff, Bell (Tommy Lee Jones in the film). The book ends even more elegaically than the film; it does work better, easing toward a contemplative conclusion that’s not quite so abrupt as the film’s ending, which apparently has been widely debated. (Of course, in the defenses of the film’s ending I’ve seen, no one mentions that it’s because the book ended that way. It’s not a reason, of course.)

I also spent two weeks reading Dan Simmons’ The Terror, not just because it’s long–nearly 800 pages–but because during the first of those weeks I had precious little time to read, for multitasking priority reasons. In any case, it’s an amazing books in many ways: gruelling, in its depiction of what mid-19th century explorers went through in their quest to find the Northwest Passage (living aboard a ship stuck in the ice for *three years*, for instance, under dark skies with ice cracking all around, hoping that maybe *next* summer the ice would melt and they could continue their voyage…), but impressive and overwhelming; the length of the book serves to impress you with the explorers’ trials in a way no shorter book would. It’s also fascinating in that you’re not entirely sure what kind of book it is until very nearly the end, i.e., to what extent the fantastic premise — focused on a some sort of monster attacking the ships’ survivors — is truly supernatural or not. [Note added later: not unlike, it occurs to me this week, Lost.] By the end, it all wraps up suitably, and though I can’t help but feel it would have been just as strong a novel as a straight historical adventure, Simmons does justice to his fantasy presumptions by drawing on the setting and culture of that time and place, to create an extraordinary feat of historical interpolation about the fate of the infamous expedition. It’s long, but it reads fast, and it’s worth the trip. And it would make a terrific film.

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