Now that True Grit is finally out on DVD (VHS if you live in a former Soviet Bloc country… or Arkansas), I felt like it was probably a good time to do a little review on the original novel by Charles Portis. Just to clarify for those who are unaware, the book actually came out in 1968–a full year before the so-called “classic” with John Wayne debuted. I say so-called “classic” because, even though I love the Duke, acting really wasn’t his strong point. Please watch The Conqueror starring John Wayne as Genghis Khan if you disagree with me (if you’re wondering whether or not he had the famous Khan mustache, don’t worry, the Duke never disappoints).
So anyway, I digress. The novel came out a full year before the John Wayne flick, which means [insert drum roll here] the movie was not an original. Shocking to know that even the oh-so-awesome baby boomer generation was susceptible to being unimaginative, right? Totally shook me up.
If you’ve seen either movie you should be familiar with the plot: little Mattie Ross leaves home to avenge her poor father (who was gunned down by the no-good Tom Chaney), and she enlists the aid of the one-eyed Marshal Rooster Cogburn to help her track down–and kill–her quarry. The story is unique in that it captures the essence of the West: sometimes good folks have to go above and beyond the law to get the job done.
Mattie is an unusual character in the truest sense of the word; even though she is only fourteen-years-old, she speaks and acts like she’s an adult, and we’re only reminded of her actual age from time to time. She is independent, rebellious, and carries more than enough grit for a teenage girl in the Old West. She’s honestly very admirable, and a very likable character.
Portis did a wonderful job with his creation of Cogburn, who is a man of questionable moral character to say the least. You find out from his back-story that he was a former criminal, and because of that, you tend to doubt his sincerity as a marshal. But Portis had a wonderful understanding of the Old West, because characters like Cogburn did exist. If you doubt me, look at the great Wyatt Earp, one of the most famous sheriffs of the Old West. Despite his actions in the name of the law, Earp was a former horse thief, and was wanted for his equine-related crimes in several states. He also married a prostitute… but that’s a different kind of story.
The language and the setting are rural and straight to the point, and the plot is classically Western: austere setting, gritty narrative, blurring of right and wrong, and above all, the importance of having grit (courage in the face of adversary). It’s a great story that reads surprisingly fast.
What I would suggest is to pick up this book, and then watch the two movies (hopefully not back to back) and decide which one is truest to the source material. Which film conveys the gritty nature of the book? Which one portrays Mattie as a strong young woman, or as a whimpering, bothersome adolescent? Which Cogburn is more believable? You be the judge.