14
Sep
13

Movies > Books: True Grit

True Grit novel, reprinted edition.

Charles Portis probably never thought his book True Grit would be transformed into not one but two Hollywood films. The book was published in 1968 as a sort-of satire/sort-of realistic version of the Old West. Even more surprising is that two movie sequels emerged several years later, further chronicling the exploits of Marshal Rooster Cogburn.

The first movie was the 1969 film True Grit starring John Wayne and directed by Henry Hathaway. The first sequel was titled Rooster Cogburn, produced in 1975, and featured Wayne reprising the role that won him a Best Actor Academy Award. The second sequel, True Grit: A Further Adventure, was made for television in 1978 and starred Warren Oates. Made for TV movies aren’t necessarily bad, but they usually aren’t the highest quality. Not being a fan of unnecessary sequels, I never bothered with either of these. True Grit tells a stand-alone story, with everything wrapping up nicely at the end. There was no need for more. Sadly, Hollywood feels the need to sequelize everything just because the first one was popular.

True Grit, first edition.

And so, Rooster Cogburn lay dormant for the next 32 years, only to be resurrected by the Coen brothers in 2010. Their planned remake would be “much closer to the source material” than the 1969 movie, according to Ethan Coen. Closer? That’s hard to imagine, since the 1969 version is a damn near carbon copy of the book. Scene after scene was taken right off the page and projected onto the screen. Full lines of dialog remained completely intact. Even throw-away “characters” like General Sterling Price (Rooster’s cat) made it to the film. So, it was hard to imagine how the 2010 movie could be “much closer to the source material.”

Unfortunately, a number of news sources ran with this idea, heralding the new film as being more faithful to the novel than the first movie. For example, in 2009, in anticipation of the upcoming film, IGN wrote, “The 1969 original was loosely based on the novel by Charles Portis and revolved around a young girl hiring Cogburn to track down the man who killed her father.” Loosely based? I’m sorry, but clearly they never read the book or watched the original movie. If they had they would know it was anything but “loosely based.”

1969 True Grit movie poster.

But that’s not to say there weren’t a few changes. A lot of Mattie Ross’ prolonged hanging around town was excised in order to speed the pacing of the movie along. They cut out the scene in which Rooster, LaBoeuf, and another guy have a “corn dodgers” shooting contest. Rooster and LaBoeuf spend a lot more time trying to get rid of Mattie Ross even when they are well into their adventure. LaBoeuf died. They also completely changed the ending. In this version, Mattie does not lose her arm, she takes Rooster back to her home and tells him he can be buried some day on the family plot like he is one of their own. He, of course, is delighted by this. It may seem as if there were a lot of changes, but really there were very few.

In fact, I’d say the first movie follows the book more closely than the remake, at least in terms of filming almost every scene. But after reading the book and watching both movies, I can understand what Coen meant by saying the 2010 version would be “much closer to the original.” What he meant was that the tone of the film would skew much closer to the tone of the book. It’s darker, more satirical, and certainly more realistic.

2010 True Grit movie poster.

The thing that really stands out about the book is that it is funny. The humor comes from Mattie Ross’ narration and her often hilarious asides, as well as from the insanely ridiculous, razor-sharp dialog.

The great thing about the 2010 version is that huge swaths of dialog remain completely intact. Plus, the actors give the funny lines the levity they deserve. The 1969 version also leaves large parts of dialog intact, but the actors play it straight. Ridiculous lines are delivered seriously, which can be a detriment to the movie.

Portis’ dialog was meant to be satirical of the way people spoke to one another in the Old West, and especially amongst Southerners. Certainly the speech was a bit more eloquent, but not to the ludicrous degree as they are portrayed in the book. In that respect, the 2010 version nailed the intended, farcical tone of the dialog.

Mattie Ross and Rooster Cogburn.

Juxtaposing the humor, the book carries a dark and realistic vibe. When the character aren’t spouting funny lines, they are involved in a man-hunt across the Choctaw Indian Nation. Some of those scenes depict the difficult wilderness conditions, as well as the brutality of human violence. The gunfights are quick and deadly, as they would be in real life. Rooster and LaBoeuf are well versed in killing, and their detached disposition toward the dead seems to be handled in a realistic manner. For the most part, the man-hunt, which is the core of the story, is taken seriously.

The 2010 film deftly retains the seriousness of the man-hunt, while expertly fitting in the funniness of the dialog. Mattie’s charming asides are lost in both film versions, but only because neither has any narration running throughout. This version is less faithful to the book in terms of showing us all the scenes. LaBoeuf meets Mattie in her bedroom like some kind of creepy pedophile stalker instead of in the boarding house dining room. The meeting between Mattie, LaBoeuf, and Rooster prior to departure was removed. General Sterling Price and the card game with Chen Lee were removed. LaBoeuf and Rooster argue much more and split up twice. The shootout outside the dugout with the Lucky Ned Pepper gang was changed slightly. Two new scenes were added (cutting down the hanged man and meeting the dentist), although those scenes used dialog from the book. This was done to keep the pacing better, instead of having Rooster sit with Mattie and regale her with stories for hours on end. The hilarious “corn dodgers” shooting contest was left in, although shortened for pacing purposes.

The True Grit trio.

The ending of the 2010 version follows the ending of the book more closely than the 1969 version. LaBoeuf doesn’t die (why they killed him in the 1969 version is anyone’s guess). Mattie does lose her arm. Mattie loses contact with Rooster over the next 25 years, and eventually tracks him down to Cole and Younger’s Wild West Show. And Mattie moves Rooster’s grave to her family plot.

The style and tone of the 1969 version is hokier. The scene that really encapsulated it all was after the man-hunt was over: Rooster was back in Fort Smith playing cards with Chen Lee. A guy in a suit walks in and says, “I’m lawyer Dagget!” with his arms wide open. Rooster cheers like he is meeting an old friend. Dagget is the lawyer Mattie had been referencing throughout the story. In the book he does meet Rooster but it is glossed over in a summary, and he did so in order to apologize for accusing Rooster of dragging Mattie along on such a dangerous journey. The movie version doesn’t have him insulting Rooster. He just shows up out of the blue for the hell of it. It was a corny scene, and kind of sums up the overall cheesy tone of the film. It’s amazing that they could play all of the roles seriously, remove the intended humor from the novel, yet still make the movie cheesy. I guess that’s just the way they made Westerns then.

Jeff Bridges and John Wayne as Rooster Cogburn

In both versions, the acting is pretty good. John Wayne did a surprisingly good job as Rooster Cogburn, and certainly earned his Academy Award. Jeff Bridges’ portrayal of Cogburn is also quite good, although his marble-mouth can make him difficult to understand at times. In terms of believability in acting, Bridges wins out. In terms of charisma and screen presence, Wayne has the edge.

Kim Darby and Hailee Steinfeld as Mattie Ross.

Mattie Ross was portrayed by 21 year old Kim Darby in the 1969 version, and her acting was decent, but certainly nothing to write home about. Not to mention the fact she looks too old to play a 14 year old. The 2010 version featured Heilee Steinfeld, a 14 year old girl playing a 14 year old girl. Not only is she the right age, but she turned in a powerhouse performance. Each line of dialog, every facial expression, even her general attitude in both comedic and serious scenes is exactly how the character was portrayed in the novel. She not only held her own against the other actors in the movie, she bested each and every one of them. She is without a doubt the highlight of the 2010 film.

Matt Damon and Glen Campbell as LaBoeuf.

Other notes about the actors: Matt Damon (2010) was much funnier and turned in a much better performance as LaBoeuf than did Glen Campbell (1969). Robert Duvall (1969) owns the role of Lucky Ned Pepper, and was far better than Barry Pepper (2010). Tom Chaney is kind of a wash in both movies. He is a 25 year old character played by 55 year old Jeff Corey in the 1969 version, and 42 year old Jeff Brolin in the 2010 version. Neither one is even close in age, but I suppose that doesn’t matter much because Rooster is supposed to be in his 40s and in both movie versions he is played by a man in his 60s. The only age that really matters is that of Mattie. But back to Tom Chaney. Brolin gives a better performance, but Corey plays the character more like the sad sack he was in the book. Like I said, it’s a wash.

Josh Brolin and Jeff Corey as Tom Chaney.

Both movie versions have their own merits. Fans of the Western genre should have no trouble enjoying either. In terms of movies vs. books, however, there is a winner. The 2010 version of True Grit is the best. It maintains the style and tone of the book to the letter, but also manages to cut out the material that didn’t work, such as the scene where Mattie signs checks for Lucky Ned Pepper. For reasons of pacing alone, this movie just barely edges out the book. The book is indeed excellent, and I recommend everyone read it, but the 2010 movie tops it. The 1969 version falls to the bottom. While it is quite good, and Wayne is great in the role of Rooster, it sort of misses the point of the satire and wasn’t as realistic as it should have been.

Reading the book or watching either film, you can’t go wrong. In all three versions, you’ll learn that Mattie Ross was the one who had “true grit” all along.

Verdicts:

2010 Movie: Awesome (1st place)

The Book: Awesome (2nd place)

1969 Movie: Good (3rd place)

Lego True Grit? Yes, please.

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10 Responses to “Movies > Books: True Grit”


  1. September 14, 2013 at 9:25 am

    When I was a little girl I fell in love with this book. We lived not far from Fort Smith and I was quite the Tomboy. 🙂 I’m pretty partial to John Wayne but the new one is very enjoyable! Thanks for a great review!


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