The Coen Brothers exist in the rarefied realm where visionary brilliance shakes hands with widespread beloved acclaim, placing them firmly amidst cinema’s greatest ever auteurs… but that’s just like my opinion, man. The duo also happens to share the uncanny knack that a lot of great artists exhibit of welcoming you into the cultural oeuvre that inspires them. They don’t just produce brilliant pieces of pop culture within their own back catalogue; they also leave a trail of breadcrumbs that leads fans into a world of wonders beyond their own output. Take David Bowie, for instance, the Starman not only had a book club, but he also directed legions of his fans onto the work of Lou Reed, Iggy Pop, Prefab Sprout and even the actor Paul Whitehouse, to name but a few.
The benefits of this trait are myriad. Firstly, it places your output as an artist within a wider realm, strengthening it through the binding ties of shared creativity. Secondly, it also adds the simple bonus of serving as a repertoire of much-appreciated recommendations. However, perhaps most importantly, it imbues the work with a wealth of depth, and it is this factor that has singled the Coen’s out as a very singular presence in the world of cinema. Their refusal to abide by genre and insistence on colouring their work with a kaleidoscopic melee of inspiration means that they capture more of the wacky realism of modern human existence than just about any other directors.
They may well be true originals within the movie industry, but the prototypical pukka of their work is anything but the outcome of a Promethean idea. Isaac Newton may have said, “If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants,” about science, but the same can be said about the Coen Brothers when it comes to the arts. Each and every single one of their films has a firm foothold in the world of literature, and it the rich menagerie of influences, inspirations, and indelibly interwoven texts that we shall attempt to dissect.
The overriding literary influence seems to be the classic domain of hardboiled noir. However, the magnitude of noirs hold on the directors is weakened by the elevating input of classic philosophical fiction, Biblical overtones, classical Greek mythology and the crystalising of time and place encapsulated by pertinent works of non-fiction and the quick talking dialogue of Raymond Chandler.
Some of these influences are less perceptible than others. For instance, the title of Blood Simple, the Coen Brothers iconic debut outing, comes straight from the Dashiell Hammet novel Red Harvest — as the novel’s antihero makes the mid-killing spree utterance of “If I don’t get away soon, I’ll be going blood-simple.”. The influence of Hammet has been one that has abided throughout their career. However, on this particular occasion, they’re a whole host of other literary inspirations that helped to spawn the Texan-noir masterpiece. Likewise, Miller’s Crossing sees the duo take on Dashiell Hammet’s work and his classic mysterious lead character depictions. Certain scene and dialogue exchanges are even lifted right off the page.
Whereas on occasions, the connection to literature seems more nebulous. Such as in Raising Arizona, the duo turned the dark noir overtones into a slapstick joyride that seems to be more like an adult true crime version of Looney Tunes, rather than anything typically hardboiled for their second outing. However, hidden amidst the overarching cartoon capers of Tex Avery and Chuck Jones is a spiritual ending that juxtapositions complexity and poignancy with all the pratfalls that precede it. In some ways, this seems to be akin to wild and bloody thrill rides that permeate the profoundly religious works of Flannery O’Connor.
Whether they are direct or indirect, subtle or obvious, the weight of a bookshelf is often the crux of the Coen Brothers work. Thus, without further ado, let’s take a look at the great tomes of inspirations on a film by film basis below.
The books that inspired the Coen Brothers films:
- Red Harvest by Dashiel Hammet
- The Postman Always Rings Twice by James M. Cain (Essential Text)
- Double Indemnity by James M. Cain
- Revelations by Flannery O’Connor
- The Glass Key by Dashiell Hammet (Essential Text)
- City of Nets: A Portrait of Hollywood in the 1940s by Otto Friedrichs
- A Swell Looking Babe by Jim Thompson (Essential Text)
- Clifford Odets and American Political Theatre by Christopher J. Herr
- The Day of the Locust by Nathaneal West
- The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner
- The Big Knife by Clifford Odets
The Hudsucker Proxy
- Player Piano by Kurt Vonnegut
- The Bible
- The Comedy of Errors by William Shakespeare
- The Rum Punch by Elmore Leonard
The Big Lebowski
- The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler (Essential Text)
- The Long Goodbye by Raymond Chandler
- Cutter and Bone by Newton Thornburg
O Brother, Where Art Thou?
- The Odyssey by Homer
- Light in August by William Faulkner
The Man Who Wasn’t There
- The Outsider by Albert Camus
- Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov
- The Postman Always Rings Twice by James M. Cain
- Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut
No Country for Old Men
- No Country for Old Men by Cormac McCarthy
Burn After Reading
- Black Money by Ross Macdonald
- Catch-22 by Joseph Heller
- The Crying of Lot 49 by Thomas Pynchon
A Serious Man
- The Book of Job
- True Grit by Charles Portis
Inside Llewyn Davis
- Chronicles One by Bob Dylan
- The Mayor of MacDougal Street by Dave Van Ronk (Essential Text)
- On The Road by Jack Kerouac
- The Odyssey by Homer
- The Dog of the South by Charles Portis
- Das Kapital by Karl Marx
- The Galton Case by Ross Macdonald
The Ballad of Buster Scruggs
- All Gold Canyon by Jack London
- The Girl Who Got Rattled by Stewart Edward White