Review: True Grit

Posted: March 14, 2011 by in Books We Like (4/5 single_star) Meta: Charles Portis, Western, Books vs. Shows

I grew up a John Wayne fan; I readily and unashamedly admit it. For whatever reason I absolutely loved his movies–The Longest Day, McLintock! and El Dorado being among my favorites. My grandparents owned a video rental store, so when I wasn’t watching Transformers, Voltron or G.I. Joe, I was watching John Wayne movies. It was with mixed emotions that I first saw the trailer for the Coen Bros. remake of John Wayne’s True Grit. Honestly I originally planned on sitting this movie out. You just don’t remake John Wayne. Right?

Reviews started trickling in, nearly all of them positive. So what’s a guy to do? Simply put, I bought tickets to the Coen Bros. film, Netflixed (yes it’s a word…now) the John Wayne original and bought the original novel by Charles Portis (which I had not read previously). That’s right! I went for the whole experience!

The Remake
Let’s start with my impressions of the Coen Bros. remake. Overall, I felt it was fantastic. I feel that sticking to the PoV of Mattie Ross–played by the absolute revelation of Hailee Steinfeld–was a perfect choice. It gave different eyes to the whole experience of the film. Jeff Bridges playing Rooster Cogburn, surprisingly, didn’t bother me at all. In fact there were moments in the film where Bridges puts on an absolutely perfect expression of cold steel–or perhaps “true grit” is the phrase that should be used–that you can, in the words written by hundreds of novelists, feel the blood freeze in your veins. Then in the next moment Bridges will deliver a spot-on comical line that cuts the tension, keeping the film from posing as a remake of Unforgiven. Matt Damon as La Boeuf was a pleasant surprise. I have become more and more impressed by his acting skills as I watch his varied roles. For the limited screen-time Josh Brolin has as Tom Chaney, he did an amazing job capturing the false innocence, real malevolence and pathetic whining that essentially got Mattie’s father killed to start the movie.

Not everything is perfect. I am typically far less critical of movies than I am of novels, but there were still a few things that jumped out at me. The first was the liberal use of garbled mumbling that is forced upon all the main characters (excepting Mattie). There are moments where you can’t understand Bridges as he growls his way through his lines. Damon has an incident in the movie that forces a slurring on him. Brolin doesn’t escape it either. I get that the Coen Bros. wanted all these characters to be gruff, but it was a bit overboard.

But really that is all minor compared to the ending. To be blunt, it was handled poorly. A friend of mine mentioned that the ending took it from a 5-star film to a 4 or 4.5-star. I agree with him completely. From the scenes before the epilogue of the film (good, brief moments in a traveling montage that was just awful), to the epilogue itself, I was left with a bad taste of grit in my mouth (see what I did there!). In a way it reminds me of the ending to another Coen Bros. film, No Country for Old Men. Great movies that can’t keep it together for the full length of the feature (though to be fair, True Grit’s ending isn’t near as poor as No Country’s).

As a whole, I’d give True Grit 4.5 stars. It touched all the right notes for me even with the jarring ending/epilogue. And yes, Bridges takes the reins between his teeth without looking ridiculous. For that alone the True Grit will be a purchase for me when it goes on blu-ray.

The Novel
After watching the movie remake, I received my copy of Charles Portis’s TRUE GRIT (Amazon) in the mail. Like most westerns, the novel totaled a whole 230 pages (give or take), and I plowed through it in two short sittings.

A few things became readily apparent. First, for a novel written in 1968 TRUE GRIT has aged remarkably well. Secondly, my respect for the Coen Bros. actually increased for how close they stuck to the original material. They actually (minus the tacked-on ending) made Mattie an even stronger character in my opinion. I could literally hear Hailee Steinfeld voice in my mind like I was listening to her reading an audio book—something I think should actually be commissioned immediately.

I do feel, however, that the Coen Bros. missed an opportunity with Le Boeuf. The novel has Le Boeuf present for the entire hunt of Chaney, and it actually smooths out his increasing respect for Mattie. In fact the novel itself proceeds much smoother for the entire ride, up to and including the ending. Novels just have more room to explore character growth and motivations.

What else can I say other than “Read this book”? It is one of the rare cases where it actually serves as a solid companion piece to the movie. In fact it may even help you get over a little of the bad taste left in your mouth from that ending. Don’t get me wrong, it still feels tacked on. I just don’t like the ending of either. But at least it makes more sense now. Instead of Mattie becoming a grumpy hag for no apparent reason like she does in the remake, those last lines she utters actually have some significance in Portis’ novel. No, it still isn’t a perfect ending, but it is way easier to stomach.

Perhaps the main message that the novel and remake get across is that the title TRUE GRIT actually refers to Mattie rather than Rooster Cogburn. It is her “grit” that actually makes Cogburn have his own as the story progresses. It’s what makes the novel so enjoyable, and ultimately what makes the remake so successful. If you’ve ever read and enjoyed a western (Louis L’Amour anyone?) then Portis’ TRUE GRIT should be on your list of novels to read.

The Original
Seriously, the only reason this review took so long to put out was because Netflix couldn’t seem to get me a copy. My movie collecting friends? Nope, it was always that movie they were “thinking of adding to the collection” but never did. Good grief.

EBR compares the TRUE GRIT movies and the novels. But make sure you read the Charles Portis classic.

My main worry about rewatching the 1969 original for the sake of this review was that it wouldn’t age well. Turns out I was right. Hindsight being what it is, I wish I had started with the original film rather than saving it for last. As much as it pains me to go against the Duke, the original True Grit just can’t stand up when compared to the remake or the novel.

Watching the original movie has all but cemented my view that reading a book before watching the movie based on that same novel is a bad idea. The changes made in the original film were distracting, as were the writing and casting. These issues are even more glaring when one considers how well the Coen Bros. did adapting the novel into a script.

The original True Grit stars John Wayne, and like all John Wayne movies the focus is entirely on him. Honestly it was the only saving grace of the movie. Watch this movie again and tell me anyone else of importance does an even passable job. Nope. Won’t happen.

What strikes me as humorous is people’s faulty memory regarding this version of the film. Almost every single person I talked to about the original film mentioned how they thought that Mattie pretended to be a boy in the story. I myself had that exact recollection. We were all wrong. It never happens. Mattie is a female the entire time. However. Mattie in the original film is played by Kim Darby where she manages to completely destroy the role. Darby was 22 playing a 14 year-old. In an effort to hide her height and maturity, she slouches and hunches her shoulders the entire film. Everything she does in the film is annoying, and she completely demolishes any chance the viewer has of rooting for her. Remember, True Grit is supposed to be about her journey, not Rooster Cogburn’s. She simply couldn’t pull it off.

While the original film does the right thing by having Le Boeuf present the entire time, the actor portraying him–Country artist Glen Campbell–is just bad. He’s not quite at the Kim Darby level of horridness, but he comes close. Not to mention that his ending in the original movie is completely wrong and pointless.

What else? Changes to the dialogue. Changes to the setting and season. A completely ridiculous happy ending. While John Wayne is, well, John Wayne, these is no ruthlessness to his portrayal of Rooster Cogburn. And again, this original film goes completely against the spirit of what the novel seems to represent by removing Mattie from the focus of everything and putting Cogburn at the center of it all.

Then again, this movie would been even more amazingly awful had Darby been given any more screen time. Damned if you do, damned if you don’t.

It seems that the general consensus is that people always feel the original film is better than the remake. Just look at the train-wreck of Clash of the Titans to see why, or the remake of Charade. Regardless of how long it has been since viewing the original, people seem to have this set of blinders on. “Oh, how dare they remake the Duke! That movie was a masterpiece! Nothing will ever come close!” Guess what? The original True Grit film is, to use Mattie’s own words, “trash” compared to the new film. It just is. I’ve watched many a film from that time period, and I’ve seen far better. If it wasn’t for the Duke, that movie wouldn’t even warrant a second thought.

Forget about the original film. There are plenty of other John Wayne films that have maintained their appeal over the years, this just isn’t one of them. Watch the new Coen Bros. movie, and then read the original Charles Portis classic.


Note: Don’t expect these kinds of reviews from me often. They take a ton of time. I may do one or two a year. If you have a suggestion for my next movie vs novel smackdown, let me know via email!


  • sarah says:

    I haven't read or seen any of the movies or book. I heard they where all great from a co-worker at DISH. I'm excited to have to same experience you have i just bought the book and order the original movie. Every review that I have read has been good but compared all three of these things. So I'm hoping when I see the new movie on PPV in HD that I like it and it is no bore.

  • deebeee says:

    Book be damned, that ending does not speak for Mattie. This is a girl who would grow in character and emotion, not revert to some stilted bitter old hag. Sorry but even authors don't always get their characters right!!

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