True Grit: A Cool Summer Read and Movie

14 year-old Mattie Ross has just got herself a place on my short list of favorite fictional heroines, alongside Elizabeth Bennet. Come to think of it, if Jane Austen were to write a Western novel, I’m sure she’d have created a character like Mattie Ross, determined, principled, curious, fearlessly independent, her heart sincere and her morals strong.

  

Kudos must go to author Charles Portis, who has described with succinct and flowing prose the captivating adventure of Mattie Ross. It’s a hero’s journey, but Mattie is no reluctant heroine. No more than a child, she hires the meanest of them all, Marshal Rooster Cogburn in Fort Smith, Arkansas, and goes with him, against his strong objection, to hunt down Tom Chaney, the killer of her father.

Portis’s storytelling is alluring and comedic, capturing my attention from the opening lines. The vision of 14 year-old Mattie is clear and crisp. Reminiscing as an adult now, her voice is vivid and affective. I’m won over soon by her articulate dealing in the adult world, protecting her own interest and yet still pouring out the heart of a child. Portis’s description is lucid, at times eloquent, and at times, deadpan humorous. His characters come alive with their vernacular dialogues of the American South after the Civil War. Many of the pages are script-ready for their cinematic effects.

I admit this is my first Western novel if my memory serves me correctly. My other one in the Western genre is Elmore Leonard’s short story “3:10 to Yuma” which I read after watching the movie. Here the reason is similar. I waited in a long line of holds from the public library for this book because of the fine movie adaptation I’d seen. The Coen brothers’ soulful rendition of True Grit (2010) got me curious… I just wonder how much of the movie is their creation, and how much is the author’s own.

I’m totally surprised to learn from reading the novel that the remake of “True Grit” is mostly a faithful adaptation of Portis’s novel. Not that I’m concerned it needs be accurately transposed, for I don’t expect movies to go the fidelity route anymore. But that’s exactly my surprise, that the Coen brothers have stayed with the plot and character development, and derived their scene sequences almost to the dot, unlike the 1969 John Wayne flick, which has changed the ending totally.

Not only that, under Joel and Ethan Coen’s direction, the movie is imbued with soul and heart. The Biblical quotes and allusions in Portis’s novel are eloquently woven into the narration and music of the film, something that’s missing in the 1969 version. The leitmotif of “Leaning On the Everlasting Arm” is deadpan ironic in the ending, albeit instilling meaning throughout. Without their leaning on each other they would not have overpowered Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin) and the bandits with whom he takes cover, and definitely would not have survived at the end.

In True Grit, characters make the movie. The film is spot-on in depicting the dynamics of the man-hunt trio, Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld), Federal Marshal Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges), and Texas Ranger LaBoeuf (Matt Damon). Hailee Steinfeld is a natural, and owns the role of tough and precocious Mattie, deservedly receiving a Best Actress Oscar nom at this year’s Academy Awards. At 13, Steinfeld beat out 15,000 other girls in the audition to get the role.  Just one year later, she has landed at the Oscars.

Portis’s intricate portrayal of the threesome in the novel is sensitively transposed visually on screen. The common goal in capturing a killer supersedes any rivalry between the two men in front of a 14 year-old girl, who has got both of them “pretty well figured”. One day when he has a sober minute to look back to his drunken, drifting life, Rooster would likely credit this episode of his journey with Mattie to capture the coward Tom Chaney as the most rewarding. The girl has gotten and drawn out the best of him.

First published in 1968, the book has since become a modern American classic. Some have compared it with Huckleberry Finn. But it has been neglected in subsequent years until the 2010 Coen brothers’ adaptation came out. It has garnered 10 Oscar noms earlier this year, including Best Picture, Best Director and Best Adapted Screenplay. Now we see the fresh reprints by The Overlook Press, New York. Thanks to the movie, the once overlooked book is back in print and on the new and popular shelves in bookstores, even now months after the Oscars.

Ah yes… books and movies, still the best summer treats.

True Grit by Charles Portis, published by The Overlook Press, NY. 2010, with Afterword by Donna Tartt, 235 pages.

Book and Movie:

~ ~ ~ 1/2 Ripples

Published by

Arti

If she’s not birding by the Pond, Arti’s likely watching a movie, reading, or writing a review. Bylines in Asian American Press, Vague Visages, Curator Magazine.

9 thoughts on “True Grit: A Cool Summer Read and Movie”

  1. This is a fine review of the book and film. I’m glad to hear the new Coen film is faithful to the book for some reason. We recently watched the John Wayne version with our son and his girlfriend, after they’d seen the new one, but I have not yet seen the new one.

    Thanks so much for your good interactions with my last two posts, which as you say, would be incomplete if one were without the other.

    .
    Ruth,

    The Coen brothers’ version is much more cinematic. The casting and performance is much better too I think, especially with the girl Mattie. I think you’ll enjoy it. Unless you’re a John Wayne fan (or Glen Campbell with his song True Grit), then the 1969 version would probably be more memorable.

    Arti

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  2. I haven’t seen either movie, much less read the book (some bias against Westerns on my part), but you make me realize how mistaken I have been. As I adore the Coen brothers and Jeff Bridges, the film is a must. But your review is sending me to the book first. Thanks, Arti!

    .
    ds,

    Yes, by all means, read the book first. It’s a breezy summer read to cool off your scorching temp. But if you’re a Jeff Bridges fan, you just might want to see it first. This is the second Oscar nom he got right after his win for Crazy Heart. He’s good as the one-eyed Rooster. You’ll also enjoy this piece by the Coen bros. if you like them… a much easier film to watch than No Country for Old Men. 😉

    Arti

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  3. I don’t think I’ve ever read a Western! And yet why shouldn’t they be as well-written as any other kind of novel? I’m intrigued by the sound of True Grit, but would probably pick up the book first – although I’m very glad to hear the film adaptation is good. So few really nail the original, so definitely kudos to the Coen brothers.

    .
    litlove,

    You’re totally right, good writing can be found in all genres. Summer just might be the best time to dive into all sorts of uncharted waters in our reading, and explore a bit more freely. I’m sure you’ll enjoy both book and film. However, consider what you’ve recently acquired, time may pose a little problem. 😉

    Arti

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  4. Somehow I never had much interest in watching the film, even though I’ve watched almost all of the oscar nominees this year. The whole western thing is never my thing. But your review changed my mind a bit. I think I’ll give it a go. Thanks!

    ps: I don’t think I’m gonna read a book since I haven’t been a good reader these days.

    .
    mee,

    It’s not your typical action driven Western, but the dynamics among the three main characters are interesting to watch. Do check it out.

    Arti

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  5. For some reason, I have always loved Westerns but have only read one, Shane, and that was many years ago – oh, unless you count Cormac McCarthy as I’ve read one of his but I tend not to think of him as “genre” western. I really enjoyed the film True Grit (must see the John Wayne version one day) and if I were going to read another western, this would be it I think, particularly since your excellent review.

    I had only one question about the Coens’ movie, and that is, why did they do it? It seemed a little too “straight” if you know what I mean for a Coen Bros movie and that kept mystifying me.

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    1. whisperinggums,

      Too ‘straight’ indeed. You’re absolutely right… like an interviewer said, instead of a curveball, this time they’d thrown a 99 MPH fastball. But then again, they’ve put in their signature soulful and quirky bits. I can’t help but think this way… if “A Serious Man” is the most Jewish of all the Coen brothers’ works as some critics have claimed, then “True Grit” could well be the most “Christian”. Under their crafting, there are much to appreciate. For me, characterization is the strongest asset here. Other than that, it’s the soulful and simple rendering of a hero’s journey, Western style. You might like to read what the brothers themselves have to say in this interview: http://www.vanityfair.com/online/oscars/2010/12/the-coen-brothers-talk-true-grit.html

      Arti

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  6. I loved the movie and would probably like the book, although with so many other good things to read, I’m not sure I’ll get there. My husband really liked the book a lot. I’m glad you enjoyed it, and maybe I’ll surprise myself and pick it up one day!

    .
    Dorothy,

    I know what you mean about so many books out there drawing our attention. I must say it’s the film/book connection that got me interested of reading it. BTW, it’s a fast read so it won’t take up too many hours for a fast reader like yourself.

    Arti

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  7. I’m really not a western fan. My husband likes them now and then and he watched the movie recently. He wasn’t expecting to like it because he likes the John Wayne version, but he was pleasantly surprised.

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    Stefanie,

    The Coen version is more cinematic and soulful… quite a difference from the JW flick. I think you’ll enjoy both book and film.

    Arti

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  8. I so enjoy your thoughtful reviews, Arti, whether for books, films, or both. I don’t see many films and appreciate your insights on what might be worth the time. I don’t normally gravitate to Westerns either, but the story line is intriguing. Maybe I’ll look for the book first.

    .
    nikkipolani,

    Thanks. Book or film, they’re enjoyable in their own way. But I always think, a movie only takes 2 hours. 😉

    Arti

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