A Heroic Journey in True Grit by by Charles Portis Essay
1278 Words6 Pages
“The journey of the hero is about the courage to seek the depths; the image of creative rebirth; the eternal cycle of change within us…The hero journey is a symbol that binds …. (Phil Cousineau).” Mattie Ross learns this in True Grit, by Charles Portis, when she experiences the death of her father. She says, ”…Tom Chaney shot my father down in Fort Smith, Arkansas and robbed him of his life and his horses and $150 in cash money plus two California gold pieces that he carried in his trouser band(11)”. Frank Ross, Matties’ father, who was shot to death, by a man named, Tom Chaney. Mattie Ross is just 14 years old in the 1870’s, she states, “Nothing is free in this world except the grace of god, you must pay for everything.(pg?)” Personal…show more content…
“The journey of the hero is about the courage to seek the depths; the image of creative rebirth; the eternal cycle of change within us…The hero journey is a symbol that binds …. (Phil Cousineau).” Mattie Ross learns this in True Grit, by Charles Portis, when she experiences the death of her father. She says, ”…Tom Chaney shot my father down in Fort Smith, Arkansas and robbed him of his life and his horses and $150 in cash money plus two California gold pieces that he carried in his trouser band(11)”. Frank Ross, Matties’ father, who was shot to death, by a man named, Tom Chaney. Mattie Ross is just 14 years old in the 1870’s, she states, “Nothing is free in this world except the grace of god, you must pay for everything.(pg?)” Personal growth often comes at a great expense. She is in beginning of the separation stage in a hero’s journey, which consists of the call and threshold. Harris and Thompson define the call as, “…invites the initiate into the adventure, offers her the opportunity to face the unknown, an imbalance or injustice in her life”(50). Her father getting killed and Mattie getting vengeance, is her invite. This is followed by, the threshold, known as the jumping off point. She states, “We hit the river running…we came out some little ways down the river.”(107) She has now made it into the Choctaw Nation to assist in the pursuit, in the unknown world, “a different world full of dangers and challenges (Harris and Thompson 50)”. Next, is the initiation and
According to Donna Tartt's introduction to True Grit, the book had all but disappeared from public view before 2010. She blames this on "the John Wayne film, which is good enough, but which doesn't do the book justice". When people thought of True Grit, they thought of the Duke instead of Portis, and a so-so film instead of a masterpiece.
There's probably something in that – although, ironically enough, it was the 2010 film remake from the Coen brothers that helped bring True Grit back into print and push it back onto the public conscience. Would we be reading True Grit this month without the Coens? Possibly. But it would have been harder to get hold of copies - and probably harder to generate interest.
So should we thank the Coens' film and curse Wayne? Even as I frame the question, I know it's absurd and unfair. But I don't think it's entirely daft to suggest that one film may have boosted a book while another overshadowed it.
The trouble with the earlier film – at least if you're a Portis fan – is that even though it sticks pretty close to the plot of the book, and borrows lots of dialogue, it's really only about one thing: John Wayne. While the hero and star of the novel (and the later film) is Mattie Ross, in the 1960s film the focus is all on Rooster Cogburn. Or rather Wayne, since as JayJennings put it in our webchat, he wasn't really playing the marshal; "Wayne was mostly playing Wayne." And as Reading Group contributor NoddieBankie says, that can cause trouble: "I just could not put John Wayne out of my head which probably detracted from my reading of this book. I can cope with on–screen adaptations of novels I have read, but find it difficult the other way round." Once the Duke is in your head, it's pretty hard to get him out.
I wouldn't necessarily put that down as a criticism of the film. While plenty of people have suggested that Wayne only won an Oscar for this role because the Academy wanted to recognise his long career, few would deny that he's compelling viewing. Occasionally the veteran's acting is as stiff as his horse-weary back, but when he turns it on, he's a mighty presence. His cry of "Fill your hands you sons of bitches" before riding into the climactic battle has to be one of the most uplifting moments in cinema.
There are other pleasures in the 1969 version too. Plenty of the dialogue (lifted direct from the book) is wonderful, the plot is gripping and there are also some fine Technicolor panoramas of Colorado mountains and Californian countryside. But sadly, just about everything else stinks. Or rather, doesn't stink enough. Most of the film's budget appears to have been spent on laundry powder, hair oil, and starch. It's distractingly clean and bright; absurd for a film supposedly set on the wild frontier. I've seen this weird fetishisation of neatly-ironed shirts defended on the grounds that it was contemporary fashion – but let's not forget that The Good, the Bad and the Ugly was made in 1966.
On the subject of "bad", meanwhile, every other actor aside from Wayne is appalling. In our recent webchat, Jay Jennings told us that Portis "mentioned in one letter that he thought the actors in the John Wayne version had some trouble with the intentionally stilted language". That's putting it mildly. They have trouble walking and breathing in a realistic manner. Even Dennis Hopper and Robert Duvall turn in bad performances, while Glen Campbell is Razzie standard as LeBouef.
It's tempting to say that Kim Darby is even worse as Mattie Ross, but I think part of my problem with her over-emotional, weak-kneed and weepy performance is that it doesn't seem true to the book. Perhaps if I'd seen the film before falling in love with the Portis character I'd think differently – but even so, I'd still be sure that Hailee Steinfield does a better job in the 2010 incarnation. She's steadier, calmer and yet, somehow, angrier. A 14-year-old trying to play someone older than her years works far better than a 20-something trying to act 14.
Plenty of the rest of the Coen brothers film is preferable too. Jeff Bridges is no John Wayne - but he is Jeff Bridges, which is even better. Not least because he's prepared to subsume himself to the needs of the character and the rest of the film. He might not dominate the screen in the same way, but he's a more convincing drunk marshal. The other actors are also better. Matt Damon makes a fine Texas ranger, the outlaws are suitably ugly and evil, the townsfolk likewise. Meanwhile, the film looks, well, grittier. It's beautiful – astonishingly so, thanks to genius cinematographer Roger Deakins – but that beauty is earthy. There's dirt and gore and dental trouble. When people hang, you see them twitch. When they're shot, they bleed instead of just falling over. Mattie gets beaten with a real switch rather than something that looks a like a flower.
So, the world of this 2010 film is every bit as brutal as the one Portis describes, and does more to suggest that the book may be worth seeking out. It's therefore not surprising that many people think this version is more faithful to the original text, although in truth, it probably borrows less dialogue and has more deviations. As Jay Jennings pointed out:
I'd argue that the Coen Bros version is not as 'verbatim' as it first appears. What they did do, as opposed to the John Wayne version, is stay truer to the rhythms of the language. They did, however, take great liberties with the plot and the order of the scenes. As you mention, there's one scene that seems more Coen than Portis, the one where the bearskin clad 'dentist' comes upon them, carrying the dead body they'd earlier cut from a tree. I really don't see what it adds to the story, other than injecting a bit of Coen gruesomeness and weirdness into the proceedings. Other strange deviations include LeBouef's departure and reappearance at the hideout carved into the mountain and his subsequent tongue injury; in the book, he remains with them all the time and is undamaged in the mouth. And Rooster's assertion near the end of the film, 'I bow out' is also a Coen change.
Another thing that struck me is that the Coen brothers (and this is a spoiler, so look away if need be) allow Mattie to personally enact her revenge. One of the delicious ambiguities of the book is that she never quite gets her Old Testament eye-for-an-eye.
Similarly, both films are far gentler when it comes to Mattie's later days. In the book, Rooster never tries to contact her, leaving open the possibility that the most important event in her life meant nothing to him. The Coens make Rooster write her a nice letter. In 1969 he comes and visits before riding into a romantic sunset. Perhaps Hollywood shouldn't be blamed for being more sentimental (not least because, as Jay Jennings told us, Portis wrote the final scene in the John Wayne film) – but the loss of ambiguity does make the films less satisfying.
Crucially too, in spite of valiant attempts, and in spite of lifting plenty of the text, the films lose Mattie's voice. They take the book's bones – the fine adventure and the sparkling dialogue – but they are unable to animate the magic. We lose the sense of an old woman remembering a lost age. We lose the wry humour and the fun of seeing what Mattie is unable to see. We lose her observations about "trash". We lose the deadpan delivery: "At the city police station we found two officers but they were having a fight and were not available for enquiries." In short, the films lose the novel's greatest glory. And that's why, although its popularity may ebb and flow, the text will almost certainly beat both adaptations in the battle for eternity.