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

Big Movies, small films

‘Big’ and ‘small’ are relative terms.

According to Box Office Mojo, the production budgets for this year’s Oscar Best Picture nominees are as follows (in million of dollars):

Toy Story 3:  200

Inception:  160

The Social Network:  40

True Grit:  38

The Fighter:  25

127 Hours:  18

The King’s Speech:  15

The Black Swan:   13

The Kids Are All Right:  4

Winter’s Bone:  2

Strange that we call some motion pictures ‘movies’, and others ‘films’.  Other than the generic meaning which is used interchangeably, they sometimes denote certain inherent differences. The money that goes into making them just might be a factor: The higher the cost, the more likely it’s a movie… the lower, a film.  A movie is likely a Hollywood studio production, with better-known stars, big budget marketing, and aims at popularity among a wider spectrum of viewers.  A film is more or less associated with indie, art-house, and caters to a much smaller range of audience.

Such was the dichotomy between last year’s Oscars’ David and Goliath scenario: Avatar and The Hurt Locker.  And I was glad to see the little guy win.

But this year is a bit different.  Many of the Best Picture nominees are small budget productions.  They draw big buzz because of the pictures themselves, the quality of their productions, their subject matter, and the characters that drive the story.  They all depict little persons achieving big, however reluctantly.

Here’s a small glimpse of what’s big in some of these stories:

127 Hours:  The real life, harrowing ordeal of Aron Ralston, who is caught in a small crack of a big boulder and how he used a penknife to cut his arm off to free himself.  James Franco nominated for Best Actor.

True Grit:  A small, 14 year-old girl by sheer guts and determination, ventures out in the big, wild West to seek justice for her father’s death. Newcomer Hailee Steinfeld nominated for Best Supporting Actress.

Winter’s Bone: A teenaged Ozark Mountain girl trying to keep her family intact in utter poverty, and save the shack they call home by finding her father who has fled bail for drug dealing, an act that threatens the big crystal meth economy of the area. 20 year-old Jennifer Lawrence nominated for Best Actress.

The Fighter:  A down and out boxer with a small name like Micky Ward from a dysfunctional home in a drug-infested neighbourhood bounces back to win the WBU champion.

The Social Network:  A college student called Mark Zuckerberg in his little dorm room launching a big business by changing the way people in the whole wide world connect and socialize. Jesse Eisenberg nominated for Best Actor.

The King’s Speech:  A big role of a king being filled by a small, shy man hampered by a debilitating stammer big as cancer.  It could be all psychological, sure, that’s why it’s insurmountable… and overcoming it takes big courage.  Colin Firth nominated for Best Actor.

A small person overcoming big obstacles one small step at a time always makes a good story. It is so with the little character, true also with the little film.

Oscar Nominations 2011

Here are the ten movies you might like to watch before the 83rd Academy Awards on Feb. 27:

Best Picture Nominees:

  • Black Swan
  • The Fighter
  • Inception
  • The Kids Are All Right
  • The King’s Speech
  • 127 Hours
  • The Social Network
  • Toy Story 3
  • True Grit
  • Winter’s Bone

For a complete list of nominees and to watch the announcement from this morning in case you missed it at 5:30 am (PT) or 8:30 am (ET), CLICK HERE.

The nominations count are as follows: King’s Speech = 12, True Grit = 10, Social Network = 8, Inception = 8, The Fighter = 7, 127 Hours = 6

The King leads the pack.  A royal flush they say, hope that’s the hand on Oscar night.  Colin Firth, Helena Bonham Carter, Geoffrey Rush, and director Tom Hooper all get nods. Other categories include Art Direction, Cinematography, Costume Design, Editing, Original Score, Sound Mixing, Screenplay.  To read my review of The King’s Speech, CLICK HERE.

The surprise here is True Grit.  The Coen brothers’ film got snubbed at the Golden Globes and comes back with a vengeance.  Two years in a row they get the nod for Best Picture, after last year’s A Serious Man (my review here).   True Grit is a remake of the 1969 Western for which John Wayne got his Oscar.  Here we have a distinct Coen style film with smart dialogues and great acting.  “Nothing is free except the grace of God,” the beginning voice-over says, matched with the tune of the old hymn ‘Leaning on the Ever Lasting Arms’… I was amused to see how these two notions echo at the end of the film. At 13, Hailee Steinfeld beat out 15,000 other girls in the audition to get the role of tough and articulate Mattie Ross, seeking justice for her daddy’s death.  Now one year later, she has landed at the Oscars. Amazing. Also, Jeff Bridges gets the nom again, after snatching the Best Actor Oscar from Colin Firth last year.  It’s interesting to note that, while Colin Firth can act with half a voice, Jeff Bridges here shows us he can act with just one eye.

I’m excited to see Mike Leigh finally getting recognition for his poignant original screenplay for Another Year.  Unfortunately, the film does not get any more Oscar nods.  Veteran British actors Jim Broadbent, Ruth Sheen, and Lesley Manville give a performance of deep resonance.  Lesley Manville is no less deserving than anyone on the list of Best Actress nominees.  This is one of the most neglected movies of 2010.  I saw it at the Calgary Film Festivals last year.  I know some cities are just showing it now. Don’t miss it.  CLICK HERE to read my review.

Toy Story 3.  The animated feature that gets into the major league, following the only two other animations ever to be nominated in a Best Motion Picture category, Up (2009) and Beauty and the Beast (1991).  The theme of growing up and parting with your beloved and familiar finds its way into a touching animation that may well appeal to parents more than kids.  The idea of a child leaving home for college has been used in several movies in recent years, most notably, The Blind Side (2009) and The Kids Are All Right (2010).  I’ve watched all of this year’s ten Best Picture nominees. But, don’t laugh, Toy Story 3 was the only time I’d shed a few tears.

For Best Documentary Feature, I’m glad to see our notorious graffiti artist Banksy’s film Exit Through the Gift Shop has not evaded the Academy.  To read my review CLICK HERE.

The Academy Awards will take place on Sunday, Feb. 27.  This time Anne Hathaway and James Franco (a Best Actor nominee himself for 127 Hours), the youngest of Oscar hosts, are set to offer a fresh new look.  Hathaway had proven her versatility dancing and singing with Hugh Jackman two Oscars ago, and Franco has been hailed as the new Renaissance Man…  Just hope they will live up to expectations.