The first thing to know about Joel and Ethan Coen is that they are brilliantly bookish and intelligent. This erudite cinematic duo has a seemingly infinite knowledge of books, music, and film, drawing on all three mediums for every film they create. Furthermore, every time you try to pigeonhole these guys they turn around and do something completely different. While their overall directorial style is instantly recognizable, they continue to create esoteric works with precise writing, editing, and cinematography.
While the Coen Brothers have generally written original content, some of their more recent work have been adapted, and thereby become obvious picks for further reading. No Country for Old Men and True Grit are adapted from the novels by Cormac McCarthy and Charles Portis, respectively. Notably, in both of these cases, the Coen Brothers are extremely loyal to the books, making their productions as close to the literature as possible. Another easy pick is pairing The Odyssey with O Brother, Where Art Thou?, as the screenplay is loosely based off Homer’s epic poem.
Now, to dive into some deeper reading:
The Big Lebowski has developed a remarkable cult following, and if you are a true fan of this work, it is paramount you read The Big Sleep, by Raymond Chandler. (There’s a great 1946 film adaptation as well starring Humphrey Bogart.) Chandler’s protagonist, Philip Marlowe, is one of the most famous hard-boiled tecs (short for detective) of all time. The Dude, on the other hand, is a satirical take on this traditional noir hero, constantly baffled by the situation in which he becomes crucially involved. The Coen Brothers build this juxtaposition down to the minute details. Therefore, it is not a coincidence that The Dude drinks White Russians, while Philip Marlowe is partial to whiskey and brandy, or that Marlowe is usually composed in a suit and classic fedora, while The Dude is almost always in a bathrobe and t-shirt.
Other early Coen Bros films also have strong references to the genre of pulp fiction. Blood Simple and Miller’s Crossing both make strong allusions to Dashiell Hammett’s work, Red Harvest and The Glass Key. Dashiell Hammett is also the writer of the infamous work The Maltese Falcon, which is also worth a read. (And another Humphrey Bogart film to watch as well) If I had to take a guess, I think Joel and Ethan would be okay with me recommending Weegee’s collection of photos titled, Naked City, the works of Chester Himes, mainly Blind Man With a Pistol, and any issue of Black Mask, though the last may be hard to find.
In general, it’s probably also safe to say the Coen Brothers were influenced by William Faulkner. Direct examples of this being in Raising Arizona and Barton Fink, but this correlation is a bit vaguer, and can be described more so as artistic inspiration than anything else.
Their most recent work, Inside Llewyn Davis, is highly inspired by the work of musician Dave Van Ronk, specifically his album Inside Dave Van Ronk. The Coen Brothers utilized Van Ronk’s posthumous memoir, The Mayor Of MacDougal Street, as reference material while writing and filming.
However, all of this barely scratches the surface. When you watch a film created by Joel and Ethan Coen, you’re diving into a wealth of knowledge about classic literature, American music, cinematic history, fearless imagination, and much more. After all, even though the Coen Brothers utilize a vast amount of referential material, they are primarily creators, both as writers and filmmakers.
What’s your favorite Coen Brothers film? Do you have a recommended read to go along with it?