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Brief Book Reviews

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''No Country for Old Men'' by Cormac McCarthy; Vintage; 309 pages; $14.

''I sent one boy to the gas chamber at Huntsville. One and only one. My arrest and my testimony. I went up there and visited with him two or three times. Three times. The last time was the day of his execution. I didn't have to go but I did. I sure didn't want to.''

Those are the opening lines of Cormac McCarthy's novel "No Country for Old Men," and they're pretty much the opening lines of the Oscar-winning movie as well, intoned in narration by Sheriff Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones). The movie ends with the book's last lines, but not in narration, as McCarthy wrote it: Adapters Joel and Ethan Coen instead have Bell speak the haunting words - the recounting of a dream he'd had the night before - over the breakfast table, to his wife.

It was a minor but telling and effective change. McCarthy had room in the book to delineate the depth and power of the devotion Bell and his wife held for each other. There's not nearly enough time for that in the Coen's breakneck film, but this touching scene, in which the sad, retired and confused old sheriff relates the dream, in almost mystical drawl, becomes a special, shared moment that adds texture and relief to his character - and to the film as a whole.

The film falls, or rather, is flung by the Coens headlong into the "faithful adaptation" category. Readers familiar with the novel can not only cross off the scenes one by one, but mouth words along with the actors: The Coens know enough not to mess too much with killer dialogue.

Yet they had to cut a lot of stuff out; the book is 309 pages in its paperback edition. And they did so masterfully; the edits are swift, sure and seamless, the scars from the cuts invisible. Take, for example, the dialogue between the psychopath Chigurh and a befuddled, then increasingly terrified owner of a gas station/minimart. As far as I could tell - I don't have a copy of the script - it's taken word-for-word from the book. And then it's not: McCarthy ends it with Chigurh's one-paragraph lecture on fate and its instruments; the Coens saw it as extraneous to their purposes, and excised it. And the scene clicks, horribly. Good choice.

(I'd have excised it from the book as well, but that's another argument.)

In his brilliant film adaptation of Jim Thompson's "The Grifters," Donald Westlake eliminated one of the four main characters; what worked in the book would have gummed the movie up hopelessly. Likewise (almost), the Coens pared down the presence of the fourth person in the drug-money-chasing party - the folks whose frontman, played by Woody Harrelson, is after both Chigurh and the cash. Four's a crowd, apparently, on the big screen.

The greatest temptation, the fattest target, for the Coens was in all likelihood the violent death of one of the main characters. (No spoilers here.) For all the on-page slaughter in the rest of the book, McCarthy has it occur off the page; another character comes across the massacre a few minutes after it has taken place. There's a reason for that - it makes the death seem inevitable, a force of the nature of evil.

It would have made a hell of a shootout on screen, shocking and awful and likely unforgettable. But it never made it. A wise screenwriter knows when to leave great enough alone.

- Arthur Salm
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