Monday, December 19, 2011

Will The Real True Grit Please Stand Up?

Originally  published on facebook on February 3rd, 2011, and then revised and re-published on my own blog.  I have edited and re-revised, and thrown in a few more parenthetical asides.

Okay, here's the deal.  This isn’t so much just a book review as it is a comparison of a novel, and it’s two excellent film adaptations.  Prior to the release of the Coen Brothers' version of "True Grit," I seem to remember hearing several comments like, "this is closer to the novel," or "it's not a remake so much as a retelling” (whatever that means).  Having always been a fan of the 1969 film, and John Wayne's portrayal of Rooster Cogburn, I was almost reluctant to see the new version.

And now here's a little personal background, for those of you who haven't known me as long as others.  When I was in high school I not only had a John Wayne t-shirt, but also a "God Bless John Wayne" bumper sticker on my 1970 Plymouth Valiant.

Anyway, I did go see True Grit and thoroughly enjoyed it.  Jeff Bridges could potentially become the second actor to receive the Academy Award for playing Deputy Marshall Cogburn.  Very strong cast throughout.  I’d have to give the nod to Matt Damon over Glenn Campbell as far as the portrayal of the Texas Ranger, LeBoeuf, but I’m sure there’s no surprise there.  Glenn can still sing the pants off pretty much anybody (and probably has on a number of occasions).

(Okay, so Jeff Bridges didn't win the Oscar. Shoot me)


I was a little surprised that the 2010 film was so very similar to the 1969 film.  Not disappointed, just surprised.  There were very few changes in the story, and if I'd been inclined, I could have recited dialogue along with the actors for large portions of the movie, particularly Cogburn's testimony and cross examination in Judge Parker's courtroom, and the fabulous scene when Mattie Ross and Col. Stonehill argue and dicker over the resale of the ponies.

So...I read the book.  What a concept, right?

Having never read Charles Portis's novel, I did so, to see what differences there might be.  Again, I was quite pleasantly surprised to find that both films follow the novel almost exactly.  There are almost no instances where Portis has large pieces of material that are not covered in BOTH films.  Actually, the Coen Brothers added a couple of details that were not in the book, such as much of the dialogue between Mattie and the mortician (actually both film versions include the mortician’s line, “if you would like to kiss him, it will be alright”), LeBoeuf having a run in with  Rooster and actually leaving them for a time being, and Mattie and Rooster happening upon a dead man hanging from a tree.  These scenes were enjoyable, but they don't appear anywhere in the book.

The novel is told in first person by Mattie Ross, who most of you know, is on her own quest for vengeance to bring her father’s murderer to justice.  Mattie, in the novel, is unabashedly Presbyterian, and there are few shades of gray as far as she is concerned.  In this respect, I will give the nod to the Coen Brothers’s film, for it is more focused on Mattie, than on Rooster (the 1969 film very much belongs to John Wayne’s one-eyed Marshall, and as I’ve alluded, that’s quite alright with me).  In both films and in the book, Mattie stands and speaks on the strength of her convictions.  Her perspective in the 2010 film is easier for the viewer to appreciate.

(There IS a little bit more detail in the Coen Brothers' version dealing with Mattie's bunkmate in the boarding house.  This is merely touched upon in the 69 film.  Also the Coen Brothers follow the book in respect to the end, when an adult, one-armed Mattie meets Cole Younger and Frank James, to learn that Cogburn recently died.  The 69 film ends with a reunion of Rooster and Mattie on the Ross homestead.)


Not sure why there would be such an emphasis on this "not being like the John Wayne version," unless they thought that 40 years later, audiences would shy away from a "remake of a John Wayne movie."

Both are excellent films.  I prefer some portions of each to the other, but probably couldn't pick an overall favorite between the two.

If you haven’t read “True Grit,” by Charles Portis, I highly recommend it.  Is it a “Western?”  Well, yes.  But it’s also this: a captivating story of a teenaged girl who is thrown into dire circumstances.  She quickly learns to rely not only on herself, but also on certain individuals with whom she would otherwise barely exchange a glance or a word.  At no point is she bitten, scratched, pursued or romanced by a vampire, werewolf, zombie or evil wizard.  After you’ve read it, take the time to rent (and watch) both film versions.  You will be treated to some wonderful performances by some of the most well-known actors of the last 50 years, including John Wayne, Jeff Bridges, Robert Duval, Barry Pepper, Matt Damon, Strother Martin and Josh Brolin.  By the way, Robert Duval and Barry Pepper both deliver excellent performances as the outlaw “Lucky” Ned Pepper.

As I mentioned at the beginning of this review, it’s more of a side-by-side-by-side comparison of three versions of a great story.  If you want to call it a book review, well all I can do is quote Ned Pepper: “I call that bold talk for a one-eyed fat man.”

-   Basso for Hire
    December, 2011

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