A Three Course Meal of True Grit

I have a wickedly dark sense of humor. Also, I love the western genre of film. Generally these have little, if anything, to do with each other. However, in November I saw the first teaser trailer for the Coen Brothers’ adaptation of the Charles Portis novel, True Grit. I was ecstatic! Finally my morbid sense of humor would be coupled with the old west. Initially I believed that the Coens were simply remaking the 1969  Film. It wasn’t until I did a little digging that I learned the original subject matter was a book published just 2 years before John Wayne dawned the role of Rooster Cogburn; a portrayal that won him his Oscar. Rather than a remake, the Coen Brothers went back to the original source material to do greater justice to the story.

I immediately went to Barnes and Noble and purchased the novel (Seriously, the night I learned there was a book, I went out and got a copy). I read it over the next two nights. Then I rented the 1969 film through Amazon.com. Finally, on December 22nd, opening night, I saw Joel and Ethan Coen’s adaptation of True Grit. Now, having experienced this fantastic story in three forms, I thought it would be fun to do a brief review comparing the different versions.

True Grit by Charles Portis

Like most great novels, True Grit’s plot is very simple. 14 year-old Mattie Ross hires a U.S. Marshall, Rooster Cogburn, to avenge the murder of her father by Tom Chaney. A Texas Ranger named LaBoeuf, who has been tracking Chaney for some time,  ends up tagging along. The strength of the story lies in its voice. It is told in the first-person from Mattie’s point-of-view and she shares her pious opinions every chance she gets. While the reader understands that she is completely ignorant, Mattie goes out of her way to convince otherwise.

Hilariously dark, the narrator steers the reader through the gritty saga from the eyes of a child. Because of this, many have compared True Grit to Huckleberry Finn. It has been too long since I have read Mark Twain’s masterpiece so I can’t really agree or disagree. The comparison that first comes to my mind is Tolkien’s The Hobbit, also an extremely dark tale told through the eyes of innocence. The difference, other than the obvious genre clash, is that Mattie Ross is no where near as innocent as Bilbo Baggins.

This book is entertaining, thought provoking, and most importantly, extremely accessible. True Grit can, and should, be read by 12 year-olds and adults alike. The biggest compliment I can give any book is to read it again. I will be reading True Grit many times.

True Grit – The 1969 Film Adaptation Starring John Wayne

Here I must first explain the impossibility of properly critiquing a movie some 40 years after its making. I tried very hard to view it as intended, but this film was made in a different era and not intended for the likes of me. It is a perfect example of the old Technicolor westerns where the sky is always blue, indians are always drunk and black characters are played by strangely painted caucasians. I said above that I love westerns. By that I meant that I love good westerns and those are few and far between. I can count the ones that I consider good on one hand and probably still have some fingers to spare.

This adaptation is also a good example of how not to bring a novel to the big screen. It seemed as though the screenwriters simply took the dialogue of the book and pasted it into script form. Although the story was there nearly perfectly, the spirit was not. Also, the few times they did deviate from original text changed the meaning of the entire story.

Having said all of that, I was still entertained. The characters from the novel are strong enough to shine though the worst of renditions and  I suppose John Wayne’s performance was oscar worthy (for the time).

True Grit – The 2010 Film Adaptation Starring Jeff Bridges and Hailee Steinfeld Directed by Joel and Ethan Coen

The Coens did exactly what screenwriters are supposed to do when adapting literature for film. Rather than simply transferring the story straight across, they examined the themes and meaning of the novel and gave their interpretation. They changed or rearranged many aspects of the original text and I am glad that they did. Literature and film are different medium, both with strengths and weaknesses that need to be solved for. By changing certain aspects of the story, the Coen’s were able to provide great pacing and build the suspense the prior film was lacking. Most importantly, they were able to stay true to the spirit of Charles Portis’s original text. There were a few changes that I didn’t quite understand, but they didn’t take away from the story or the entertainment value so I won’t complain. I will listen to the directors’ commentary to hear their reasoning though.

The novel’s dark irony is completely intact, along with the humor. A great cast and amazing dialogue, which is written and delivered in an almost Shakespearian manner, help this film transcend most other films in the genre while still being extremely fun to watch. Also like the book, this film is very accessible. Anyone could view it and gain something no matter what age. The one downside of this is that they toned down some of the gritty violence of the book, most likely to keep the  PG-13 rating.

Aside from being based on a great book, this was easily one of my favorite films of 2010. Although I will hold final judgement until a second viewing, it will probably sit in my top 3 westerns as well.

My Recommendation

I would love to tell everybody to go out and read the book before they see the either of the movies. Sadly, I know that very few people would take that recommendation and if they did, they would probably miss out on seeing the newest rendition in the theater, which would be sad. Some films are meant to be seen in the theater and this is definitely one of them.

Realistically, I would recommend you purchase your tickets for the Coen Brother’s True Grit right now! See it tonight and, if you enjoy it, read the book (hell, I will loan you my copy). The book and film are different enough to not be redundant and both are poignant and entertaining. Once you have done that, watch the 1969 version and let me know what you think.


4 thoughts on “A Three Course Meal of True Grit

  1. Excellent reviews …

    I was pleasantly surprised at the retstraint that the Coen brothers were able to show regarding volence. After “Fargo” and “Burn After Reading”, etc.

    I was a little apprehensive as to what they would do with the opportunity to remake a western which obviously offered plenty of chances to spatter blood and sever limbs etc. Kudos to them for resisting the temptation.

    When I saw the original in theaters many years ago, I was struck by the curious, stilted pacing of the dialog. The new version retains the device and I am glad. It lends strength to the story.

    Matt Damon is a quantum improvement over Glenn Campbell, and while I found myself wanting to smack Kim Darby frequently, all I wanted to do with Hailee Steinfled was give her a big hug.

    — Judson.

    • Judson, thanks for the comment. I have to agree with you an all accounts especially at how well Steinfeld did in this role. Truly amazing! I did not want them to “spatter blood and sever limbs” either. However I feel that the book benefited from Mattie’s stoic reaction to the violence around her, but I think that they were correct in keeping the movie PG-13 so violence would not overshadow the pacing, characters, or themes.

  2. Thanks for this article,

    I was just wondering whether or not to read the book before buying the true grit blu ray on Amazon – this has helped make up my mind. The book it is.

    I’ll let you know what I think Philip,


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