True Grit by Charles Portis–Book versus Movies

Word from the talk shows and on the web suggests that the new Coen Brothers’ film True Grit (2010) was not a remake of the classic John Wayne western True Grit (1969), but a new, more faithful interpretation of the original novel, True Grit (1968)  by Charles Portis.  As Mattie Ross might say, “That is a big story.”  This past week I read the original novel and then watched both movies.  In terms of following the book scene by scene I’d say the John Wayne film was more faithful to the book.  But the Jeff Bridges version follows the book’s ending much closer.  Both films used extensive amounts of dialog lifted directly from the novel.  But yes, the newer film was more grittier when it came to the violence and humor of the story.

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The motion picture stands at the pinnacle of all art forms in our culture – where millions will flock to see the latest blockbuster.  But what role does the novel play in creating this art form?  Movies are often created directly from screenplays, so it’s hard to measure their worth without the novel, but when one is made from a great novel, how do we judge its success?  As a standalone work of art, or as an interpretation of another work?  In my mind, neither the 1969 or 2010 film versions of True Grit came close to the power of the Charles Portis novel.  But as standalone works of art I think they are equally successful in their own ways.  The cinematic culture that made each film is very different, as well as the culture of their separate audiences.  They are like night and day, but then so is 1969 and 2010.

The 1969 film can be considered the clean version of the story, with all the actors wearing clean and colorful costumes, filmed in the gorgeous Colorado Rockies.  The 2010 film is far more realist and historically accurate, especially to the setting of the novel, Arkansas and the Oklahoma Indian territories – but filmed in Texas and closer to the look of the land in the book.  The 2010 film visually portrayed the wild west characters as if they had step through a time travel portal, looking dirty, hungry and uneducated.  But all modern film westerns do this, it’s the style of the time, so I don’t know if we can give credit to the Coen Brothers for being more faithful to the book.

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I can’t recommend reading the novel highly enough – both films fail to capture much of the story, although because it’s a short book with vivid dialog, both do follow it faithfully far better than Hollywood usually follows an original novel.  The novel is dense with fictional details that just don’t come out in the movies.  Also, the novel is all about the voice of Mattie Ross, and neither movie captures that.  Movie makers consider voice over narration the kiss of death, but I wish they could have put more of book Mattie’s thinking into movie Mattie’s performance.   And strangely Portis sense of the dramatic appears superior to each set of movie makers because when each film diverts from his plotting and scene setup they suffer.  Portis had a keen sense of plotting and drama that both films wisely copy fairly thoroughly. 

The oddest departure from the story is the casting of actors for Rooster Cogburn.  Jeff Bridges was 61 and John Wayne was around 62, whereas in the book Rooster is described as being in his forties.  Kim Darby was around 21 when cast as the 14 year old Mattie Ross, which gives Hailee Steinfield an edge since she was 13.  Too me Kim Darby in her film often looked younger than Hailee Steinfield because they were trying to make her look younger to play the part, while the Coen Brothers seemed to be trying to make Hailee look more stern and mature to be believable.  Overall the acting is superior in the newer film, but there are some good performances in the older one.  I actually prefer John Wayne’s performance because he’s more charming and likable, but Portis goes a long way to make Rooster unlikable letting us know that he abandoned his family, robbed banks, road with Quantrill’s terrorists, and even though he works for the law is seldom legal in his actions. 

And the book provides the extremely realistic coda that Rooster never tried to contact Mattie after their adventure was over ,implying that Mattie meant little to him, but to Mattie, Rooster was someone she remembered her whole life.  Rooster had few warm and fuzzy qualities, even though the movies lead us to feel he did.  And book Mattie was a cold character who ended up only loving her religion and bank and never marrying.  In the end, I think both movies lean closer to being sentimental where the book tries to warn us against that.

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Bookworms always protest how their favorite novels are made into bad films, and I’d have to say neither version of True Grit has come close to capturing the true beauty of the book.  True Grit (2010) runs 110 minutes and if they had pushed that time to even 140 minutes I think they could have come damn close.  True Grit (1969) ran 128 minutes and filmed more scenes from the book but captured less of the true grit of the story.

What’s needed is 5 minutes of Mattie opening the story from 1928, the vantage point of her narration, and another few minutes closing it.  I’m not fond of framing novels and movies with action outside of the story, but that’s how Charles Portis wrote it, and I think it’s needed to capture the voice of Mattie.  The older Mattie even intrudes within the story from time to time.  Also, the 2010 version should have followed all the scenes Portis wrote set in the Indian territories, and fixed La Beouf’s plotline.  Twice Matt Damon left their little posse for no real reason – did he have other commitments?

Ultimately both movies work hard to follow the book, but I think the people of 2010 are naturally more willing to accept the horror and grotesque of the American gothic of the story.  Are citizens of 2010 closer psychologically to their 1877 cousins?  What doesn’t come across in either film are the threads of religion that run through the book.  True Grit isn’t Christian but deeply Old Testament.  The world of True Grit missed the Enlightenment.  It is why it’s a great western.  Jane Tompkins makes a great case that the western is anti-Christian and anti-woman in her book West of Everything, and I think True Grit fits her thesis.  Mattie Ross is a Christian woman who leaves civilization and for a few days explores the heart of darkness of the old west.

JWH – 1/3/11

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