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true grit

10 october 2023

True Grit was filmed almost immediately after Charles Portis published the novel, in the late 1960s. I can't remember if I saw the film then, or only years later, on VHS tape. Maybe both. I saw the Coen Brothers' remake in the theater on its first release in 2010. I only got around to reading the book last week.

True Grit is a great tour de force of a narrative. I am not the hundred-thousandth person to say that. Portis has gone from cult status to a celebrated writer's writer, recently with his own (posthumous) Library of America collected edition of his five novels. The other four appear to be picaresque farces, which are not quite my thing. True Grit has some picaresque elements (it's a road story with a quest) and a lot of grim humor, but it is keenly plot-driven and it's a Western, so naturally I liked it very much.

The unfilmable thing about True Grit is the voice of the narrator, Mattie Ross. She is 64 when she tells the story in 1928, and it takes place when she was 14. Mattie is exact about facts, scrupulous about word choice, and though she uses a lot of clichés, she is careful to put them in scare quotes. She is a great creation.

Mattie's unfilmability didn't stop filmmakers from making the two celebrated adaptations, both of which became vehicles for the actors (John Wayne, Jeff Bridges) playing Rooster Cogburn. On the page, the 14-year-old Mattie is a match for the alcoholic 40-something marshal (who added 20 years in each of his film incarnations). On screen, the rules of Hollywood dictate that a marshal who is going to win a climactic shootout cannot be upstaged by a 14-year-old girl, even as strong a young actor as Hailee Steinfeld.

Part of the effect on the page is of course that Mattie is no longer 14. She is utterly in charge of the storytelling, and she tells it so that she was utterly in charge of the action, fifty years earlier. Let's say you can't quite buy the idea of a 14-year-old girl as Western heroine. Still, you can buy that a 64-year-old woman might cast herself as that heroine.

True Grit is consistently exciting even when you know what's going to happen, and it repays close and leisurely reading with its perfectly-wrought language. It's one of the great Westerns.

Portis, Charles. True Grit. 1968. New York: Overlook, 2004. PS 3566 .O663T78

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