Considered by some critics to be an overlooked gem of contemporary American literature, Charles Portis’s 1968 novel True Grit has twice been adapted for the screen – in 1969 and 2010. Will the publicity around this latest film version encourage young readers to seek out the book? Geoff Fox discusses.
‘People do not give it credence that a 14-year-old girl could leave home and go off in the wintertime to avenge her father’s blood but it did not seem so strange then, although I will say it did not happen every day.’ Here, in the novel’s opening sentence, is the voice of Mattie Ross, looking back 25 years to the adventure of her life; precise and measured, no casual contractions, not given to exaggeration or embellishment. The Coen brothers wisely preserve that opening in their 2010 film, voiced over a shot of a dark corpse huddled in the night-time snow as a rider – the killer, we guess – flashes across the screen to a dull thunder of hooves. The next sentence notes the cowardice of the murdering Tom Chaney, and also the theft of Papa’s ‘horse, and $150 in cash money plus two California gold pieces that he carried in his trouser band.’ Young Mattie already kept a close eye on the family accounts.
Mattie’s voice is at the core of the novel and she is rarely off-screen in the films of 1969 and 2010. She hires US Marshal Rooster Cogburn to hunt down Chaney, on the assurance of the sheriff of Fort Smith that Rooster ‘is a pitiless man, double-tough, and fear don’t enter into his thinking. He loves to pull a cork.’ With her Presbyterian values, her pragmatism and her courage, Mattie is really the one with the ‘true grit’ she looks for in Rooster. Only the Oscar industry could deflect the novel’s focus on Mattie towards John Wayne, who won the award for his Rooster Cogburn in the earlier film; and now to the mumbling performance of Jeff Bridges. Confused booziness works for only so long on screen and the dialogue of Charles Portis’s novel, on which both filmscripts draw, is too good to waste.
We are more aware than Mattie of her effect on those she meets and, in turn, their responses to her; the consequent comic irony of her narrative runs through every page. 25 years on, she seems to have changed not at all; or if she has, she is giving little away. She is now a successful banker; ‘It is true that I love my church and my bank’. She has never married; ‘I never had the time to get married but it is nobody’s business if I am married or not married… I would marry an ugly baboon if I wanted to and make him a cashier.’ In the closing pages, this defiant ‘old maid’ records her persistent efforts to keep track of Rooster’s downward spiral of a life – in the novel, he is only in his forties when they meet rather than the ruined old age of Wayne and Bridges. He dies a day or two before she finds him. She has the old gunslinger’s drink-sodden body disinterred and shipped by train to her home in Yell County, Dardanelle; ‘I got around paying the premium rate,’ she reports with satisfaction. But her affection, or maybe her love, is such that she lays out $65 for a headstone of Batesville marble.
A mythic Western yarn
The self-mockery of the ageing Wayne’s performance (I think the wryness was intended) stays closer to the novel than the Coens’ darker version for our own times. The later film certainly scores in casting Matt Damon as the vain Texas Ranger LaBoeuf (‘he called it LaBeef’), but then Glen Campbell doesn’t offer much of a contest. And they do well to retain Rooster’s tremendous journey carrying the snake-bitten Mattie through day and night to save her life. The ride makes for a climax which tops even LaBoeuf’s dead-eye shot over 600 yards to save Rooster (‘Hurrah for the man from Texas! Some bully shot!’), Mattie’s shooting of Tom Chaney, and our heroine trapped in a pit alongside a skeleton with waking rattlers squirming through its ribs.
Bloomsbury has reissued the book in the UK on the back of the new film – the cover reproduces the movie’s poster. In the States, the novel became one of those mythic Western yarns which say something new about their country to succeeding generations. True Grit has been read widely there as a school text and you can see why. It’s a cracking Western shoot ’em up, set in a harsh world where hangings are relished as public spectacles. There’s a strong heroine, complex relationships across generations and gender, witty dialogue, that attractive narrative voice, and two or three minor comic adults outwitted by the intrepid Mattie. There was also the cult classic film to interplay with the novel in the classroom. With Mr Gove’s insightful preference for Alexander Pope to set the classrooms of our nation ablaze, now is probably not the time for True Grit in the National Curriculum. But if you know the right readers – this could be one to put their way.
True Grit, Charles Portis, Bloomsbury, 978 1 4088 1400 0, £7.99 pbk
Geoff Fox has now retired as Co-Editor (UK) of Children’s Literature in Education, but continues to work on the board and as an occasional teller of traditional tales.