Reading True Grit

If the difficulty I had finding a copy of Charles Portis’ True Grit in a bookstore is any indication, I’m not the only person inspired by the Coen Brothers’s new adaptation to take a look at the source. I always find it interesting to see what strategies filmmakers used to adapt a book into a movie. First person narratives like True Grit seem particularly difficult, in part because of the difficulty of transforming literary voice into a cinematic style, and in part because written narrative seems more amenable to creating the illusion that we are truly sharing a character’s perspective. The transition from first person may have been easier with True Grit, as Maggie is a narrator who is intent on observing and describing the world around her. Rather than providing the subjective experience of Rooster Cogburn’s testimony at the Wharton trial, she provides us with a transcript, stepping completely aside from her place in the narrative to let the words of Cogburn and the lawyer Barlow carry the story. Rather astonishingly, the exchange from the novel plays out almost verbatim on screen—it’s rare when dialogue written to be read works as effectively on the page as it does on the screen.

However, one of the pleasures of the book is Maggie’s narration, especially when she goes onto the kind of tangents that tend to get cut out of film—there’s more space for leisurely telling in a novel. I particularly like those moments when she speaks directly to the reader, or even to specific groups of readers:

I will go further and say all cats are wicked, though often useful. Who has not seen Satan in their sly faces? Some preachers will say, well, that is superstitious “clap-trap.” My answer is this: Preacher, go to your Bible and read Luke 8: 26-33.

Some people might say, well, what business was it of Frank Ross to meddle? My answer is this: he was trying to the short devil a good turn. Chaney was his tenant and Papa felt responsibility. He was his brother’s keeper. Does that answer your question?

I also like the way she puts quotation marks around words like “clap-trap,” and “stunt,” and, well, some dozens of other words that she uses.

The Coen Brothers’ version of True Grit follows the novel so closely, that it makes those moments of departure all the more interesting. Although the Coens, in interviews, have said they weren’t interested in remaking the earlier film (and, if I’m recalling correctly, even stated that they didn’t re-watch it), there seems to be an homage here and there to the John Wayne film. For example, in the book, Mattie does not at any point take Cogburn’s tobacco away and roll his cigarette for him, but she does so in both film versions of True Grit.

Another significant departure from the novel is when LaBoeuf gets angry at Cogburn’s continued disparagement of the Texas Rangers and goes off on his own, leaving Mattie and Rooster to travel together without him.  In part, this seems to create an opportunity to include Mattie in more of the action (she’s the one to climb on the roof of the cabin to drape a jacket over the chimney; she’s the one that must climb a tree and cut down the body of the hanged man).

And that entire sequence of Mattie cutting down the body, not to mention the discovery of the body itself, is not part of the novel. The character listed in the credits as “Bear Man” is a new character, and his appearance wearing a bear skin (complete with head) is one of the film’s most bizarre moments—as is the revelation that he’s a kind of frontier dentist (who should, by the way, pay a visit to Lucky Ed Peppers, whose extravagantly unattractive rotting set of choppers gets my nomination for this year’s Academy Award for prosthetic teeth design).  The appearance of Bear Man was one of the more memorable moments in the film, but I’m still not quite sure what to make of it.

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4 Responses to “Reading True Grit”

  1. Ron Scheer Says:

    Thanks for your observations on the film vs novel. I, too, am looking for a copy of the novel to read after having seen the movie. First-person narratives are difficult in fiction because people telling their own stories are often not good storytellers. As for the Coen brothers, can you really believe anything they say about anything? Ha.

  2. Michael K. Johnson Says:

    Yep, good point about the Coen brothers!

  3. Ben Quick Says:

    I know the Coen brothers are all the rage these days, but I must admit to finding pretty much all their movies as little more than attempts to be clever and/or hyper-violent as conscious decisions to exploit kitsch and shock value rather than undertake the harder choice to aspire toward emotionally rich art. It’s hard for me to see them as much more than a cinematic version of Elizabeth Gilbert–Eat, Pray, Love. Then again, Jeff Bridges is a hell of a lot better at the acting craft than Julia Roberts. :)

  4. Ella Says:

    She does roll tobacco for Rooster in the book the very first time she meets him on the steps of the courthouse.


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