Like film geek predecessors such as Jean-Luc Godard or Quentin Tarantino, Joel and Ethan Coen’s success as filmmakers stems from their love of the form. And yet, the Coen Brothers’ films are also marked by complex allusions and literary references, profound narrative insights that are often plumbed from a different medium entirely. Some movies such as No Country for Old Men, O Brother, Where Art Thou?, and their latest True Grit are direct screen adaptations of classic stories, but there’s plenty of between-the-lines literary references in their other work. With this bookish background in mind, here’s a guide to authors whose influence can be seen throughout the Coen Brothers’ oeuvre.
Author and screenwriter Jim Thompson’s highly cinematic crime fiction books capture the mood that Coen Brothers hyperbole is made for. Although novels like The Killer Inside Me and Savage Night feature distinctive plots, they present genre conventions established by Thompson and peers like James M. Cain (whose influence pops up in Blood Simple, and inescapably in The Man Who Wasn’t There), which the Coen Brothers parody in their debut film Blood Simple. Raising Arizona, on the other hand, loosely draws from Thompson’s plotlines and Burn After Reading flirts with his use of unreliable narrators.
Flannery O’Connor’s talent for balancing violence and comedy is an obvious influence on the Coen Brothers’ similar obsession. Her detached social commentaries, black humor (think: A Good Man is Hard to Find), and Biblical leanings resonate in movies like A Serious Man (itself also based on “The Book of Job”), while her sense of Southern psychology is essential to Raising Arizona and her short story “The Enduring Chill” is explicitly referenced in Barton Fink (the titular character’s fixation on a ceiling stain in his hotel room recalls a similar obsession in the story).
Fate versus freewill is a crucial conflict in many Coen Brothers films. This theme has obviously been present in literature since Homer’s day, but the particularities of its contemporary nuances are most perfectly captured in Cormac McCarthy’s novels. Although No Country For Old Men is based on McCarthy’s book of the same name, the novel’s influence actually emerges in earlier films like Fargo, while other McCarthy classics like Blood Meridian contribute to the austerity and violence of the former. McCarthy’s grounding in Western conventions — both explicit and subtle — also permeates movies like Fargo and Blood Simple, and he’s clearly influenced by preeminent Western writers like Charles Portis, who wrote the novel on which True Grit is based.
Although Preston Sturges 1941 film Sullivan’s Travels is a consistent touchstone for Coen Brothers movies, it, and all other adventure stories, ultimately stem from Homer’s Odyssey. Madcap journeys and unexpected odysseys are staple Coen structure devices, even in their loosest interpretations — from absurdist iterations like The Big Lebowski to pained sagas like No Country for Old Men — but they most explicitly honored this influential writer with O Brother, Where Art Thou?, which features plotlines and favorite characters from the Greek myth itself.
The brothers’ Prohibition Era Miller’s Crossing was heavily inspired by Dashiell Hammett’s The Glass Key in its setup, story, and dialogue, and his earlier novel Red Harvest serves as another, albeit somewhat more tangential influence via Akira Kurosawa and Sergio Leone’s own cinematic interpretations. Hammett’s noirish impact also surfaces in everything from Fargo to Blood Simple, while his subtle irony permeates comedies like Raising Arizona and even The Big Lebowski (which is more often associated with another Coen Brothers favorite, Raymond Chandler).
William Faulkner’s bleak social landscapes have been mirrored in Coen Brothers films across multiple geographic settings. The desperation and alienation in films like Fargo and Barton Fink (the latter of which actually models one of its primary characters on Faulkner himself) is lifted straight from the psychological plights of the Southern Gothic author’s most iconic characters. Seminal titles like The Sound and the Fury convey the dark witted irony so characteristic to Coen Brothers stories, while lesser-read novels like The Reivers present chaotic plotlines that similarly resonate in their idiosyncratic stories.