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In the opening scene of No Country For Old Men (2007), Tommy Lee Jones's character, Sheriff Bell, gives a voice over monologue in which he mentions sending a boy to the electric chair in Huntsville, TX.

I noticed that this line is almost exactly the same in the book except for one difference. In the book he sends the boy to the gas-chamber. It is also the opening lines of the book.

Ok so its different... big deal right? But I looked at several versions online that I could find of the original screenplay and in the Coen Brothers' original script it is the same as the book, referring to the gas chamber, not the electric chair.

So I did a little historical research about Huntsville, TX death row and the history of capital punishment in Texas and found the following facts:

  • Hanging was means of execution between 1819 and 1923.
  • The State of Texas authorized the use of the electric chair in 1923, and ordered all executions to be carried out by the State in Huntsville.
  • The State of Texas executed the last offender by electrocution on July 30, 1964.
  • Due to Supreme Court decision in 1972, execution was declared "cruel and unusual punishment" and death row was cleared by 1973.
  • The State of Texas adopted lethal injection as means of execution in 1977.
  • The State of Texas executed the first offender by lethal injection on December 7, 1982.
  • No executions apparently occurred between 1964 and 1982.

Given these facts, it seems historically unlikely for Bell to have been able to send anyone to the electric chair. For this to be true it would have to have occurred in 1964 or earlier. If Bell was 25 when he first became sheriff then that means he was born in 1939 or earlier and is at least 68 in 2007 (and almost 10 years older than Jones himself was at the time of shooting the film). Not saying it is impossible, but just seems very highly unlikely to me.

So my point is, why was the line changed which was spoken by Jones in the film?

Actual line from movie:

Bell: There's this boy I sent to the electric chair at Huntsville here a while back. My arrest and my testimony.

Excerpt from the book:

I SENT ONE BOY to the gaschamber at Huntsville. One and only one. My arrest and my testimony.

Version from original script:

BELL VOICE OVER: I always liked to hear about the old-timers. Never missed a chance to do so. Nigger Hoskins over in Bastrop County knowed everbody's phone number off by heart. You can't help but compare yourself against the old-timers. Can't help but wonder how they would've operated these times. There was this boy I sent to the gas chamber at Huntsville here a while back. My arrest and my testimony. He killed a fourteen-year-old girl. Papers said it was a crime of passion but he told me there wasn't any passion to it.

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    I think you mean "Why was this line changed"....there's no reason to assume that Jones would have changed it unilaterally. And it just might scan better in the dialogue. – Paulie_D Sep 14 '18 at 7:30
  • Either way at least the revised line is more historically accurate than gas chamber (dates aside) as there wasn't one. – Paulie_D Sep 14 '18 at 7:33
  • I'm not following the logic that because no executions took place in real life between 1964 and 1982, the (I'm assuming fictional) events mentioned in the voiceover must have occurred before 1964. – Anthony Grist Sep 14 '18 at 13:54
  • Paulie_D fair point, I'm simply attributing the change to Jones because he is the one that says the line and the only other evidence that I have shows it was supposed to be gas chamber. But that's actually what I trying to find out, why was it changed. Whether it was Jones or not is not particularly important. – sanpaco Sep 15 '18 at 1:53
  • Anthony Grist, the logic is that if its historically accurate, then that means Sheriff Bell can not be any younger than 68 years old in the movie and he doesn't seem to be that old to me nor is TLJ that old when the film was made. – sanpaco Sep 15 '18 at 1:54
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I have no proof here, just a sense of appropriateness.

"Gas chamber" is an obviously emotive term, one which most modern studios would wish to avoid as it's not palatable to movie audiences.

People are more used to hearing about prisoners being sent to the electric chair than being gassed, so it seems a reasonable substitution both in terms of audience expectation and sensitivities.

I'm guessing that if "gas chamber" was in the original script, someone must have said something, or there was a negative reaction raised and it was subsequently changed.

As noted in comments, it's unknown whether the actor, writers, directors, or the studio (or a combination of them) mandated that change to the script.

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    For some reason my brain was making gas chamber and lethal injection synonymous which they obviously are not so I hadn't even considered the fact that gas chamber is the only method which NEVER existed in Texas. – sanpaco Sep 15 '18 at 1:54
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Changing it to electric chair makes it more historically accurate; based on when the movie is set, Bell could have sent someone to the chair early in his career.

When Chiguhr makes the gas station attendant flip a coin for his life, he tells him the date on the coin is 1958 and says it has been traveling 22 years to get there, placing the events of the movie in 1980, not 2007. There are other clues that the movie occurs much earlier than its 2007 release date--the cars, the clothes, the fact that Brolin's character is a Vietnam veteran in his early 30s.

Bell is roughly in his mid-to-late 50s in the movie, which would mean he was born well before 1939 (remember, in the book he was a WWII veteran). The movie is set only 16 years after Texas did away with the electric chair (Bell would have been around 40 at that time), and Bell's birth date would have been around the early 1920s, so Texas was executing criminals with the electric chair from around the time of his birth until around the time he turned 40. Bell could have easily arrested a criminal early in his career who was sent to the electric chair.

Given that the time line and method of execution are accurate, they probably changed the line to make it more historically accurate. The gas chamber line was inaccurate since Texas apparently never used that method of execution.

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You pose an EXCELLENT question. The reason Sheriff Ed Bell tells a lie in the very first line of the novel is the author's way of letting you know that he's an "unreliable narrator", i.e., you can't believe everything that comes out of his mouth.

The Coen Brothers wanted Sheriff Bell to be a narrator that the audience could trust. Consequently, they rather adroitly changed the method of execution to the electric chair. As you correctly point out, the State of Texas executed the last offender by electrocution 1964.

Nevertheless, although the film was released in 2007, the book, and film actually take place in 1980. (At one point in the film, Anton Chigurh says that the coin he flips in the gas station was dated 1958 and "it's been traveling 22 years to get here").

Given these facts, it seems plausible that Bell's arrest and testimony could have helped send someone to the electric chair in 1964, or sometime before that.

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