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.