No Country for Old Men has one major thing going against it, and one major thing going for it. Both of those things are Cormac McCarthy. His prose is so unique it brings immediate gravitas to all of his works. Once I start reading one of his books there's a cadence to his words that is almost hypnotic; he is truly a gifted writer, and a filmmaker can work character motivations, dialogue, and general descriptions of scenery into a movie, but the language chosen for the overall narrative...that's a color that doesn't exist on a director's palette.
Fortunately for the Cohen Brothers, who directed No Country for Old Men, McCarthy's original intent for this was a screenplay, and with his mastery of language he wrote a book that is almost exactly like watching a movie. The resulting film is one of the best book-to-movie translations I've ever seen. I watched the movie first, and when I read the book it was like watching the movie all over again.
McCarthy's The Road is perhaps my favorite book, and that movie isn't bad, but it's no match for the book. The Harry Potter movies are good, especially from a visual standpoint, but they had to cut so many things out and re-arrange the story that it's hard to watch those movies while the books are fresh in my mind (I finished reading the series about two months ago). Perhaps time will dim the memory of the books and the films will serve as kind reminders of the main story lines. I've only seen the movies through The Goblet of Fire (number 4) so we'll see.
Honorable mentions for adaptations go to:
- Stand By Me. This movie, made from Stephen king's novella The Body, quite possibly ties for best adaptation.
- LOTR. Even though I have my opinions on the change to the primary climax of the three books / movies, overall Peter Jackson did a better job than anyone else could have. Of that I'm certain. He took some major risks, not the least of which was shooting all three movies at once. The things that work in these films far outweigh the flaws. I own them all on DVD, have watched them repeatedly, and will watch them all again.
- The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. This is a special mention because I think both film versions (the original Swedish and the recent David Fincher "American" version) are better than the book. This is a rare case where the novel had a great story, but it was weighed down by hundreds of pages of needless backstory, which the movies cut out and effectively cleaned up the plot by doing so.
- The Sum of All Fears. This is the worst book-to-movie adaptation I have ever seen. Harrison Ford would not return to play Jack Ryan again, so they replace him with... Ben Affleck? Nothing personal against Ben, he's a good actor, but they had to change the character from an older guy with decades of experience (that directly related to the plot of this book, a la his relationship with the Russian president) to a young analyst who just happened to write a paper on the guy so he knows exactly how he think s and how he will react when faced with the prospect of global nuclear war...I'm calling bullshit. Clancy's books have a sense of verisimilitude that makes them great, and when you strip that away you have nothing but a stinking Hollywood cheeseball. I'm just sayin...