Voice is all in Charles Portis’ overlooked 1967 novel. If the story were told by an uninvolved narrator, we would have an interesting tale of adventure and revenge. With the voice of Mattie Ross, we have context, personality, human perspective, attitude, youth, naiveté, a sharply critical tongue, a dark sense of humor. Mattie is the central character. Rooster Cogburn may be the focus of much of her interest, but without the varying attitudes of surprise and consternation and anger and admiration she feels for him, he would just be another colorful figure in a book about the Old West.
I made the mistake of reading the novel, which I had not read before (despite the good advice of my friend Max Childers), just before I saw the Coen brothers’ 2010 adaptation. I don’t like to spend much time thinking about how a particular film measures up to its source text. In this case I couldn’t help myself. My first reaction was to find a certain lack of warmth in the film. It was good, I thought, but not as good as the novel. Maybe in the case of this story, no film could ever quite measure up to the source simply because the language of the written story, the psychological insights, the inner life, make up so much of the tale. But gradually I changed my mind about the film. The most important decisions the Coens made were to use the voice of Mattie Ross to tell the story, and to cast Hailee Steinfeld as Mattie. Steinfeld preserves much of the idiosyncratic nature and orneriness of the novel’s Mattie, yet she never seems limited by the role. She occupies it. Beau Bridges as Rooster is sometimes difficult to recognize as Beau Bridges. He is gruff and mean and not especially friendly. He embodies Rooster in a way that is barely softer, imperceptibly more endearing, that the novel’s Rooster.
A film must have its own character and identity. Too many adaptations of literature seem entranced by their source texts and never establish themselves as separate artistic works. True Grit does not have this problem. It takes its identity from the southwestern prairie, the small frontier town in Arkansas where Mattie’s father is shot, the fastidious horse trader whom Mattie outwits and out deals, the beautiful landscapes, the gothic and episodic plot (several episodes of which the film invents and embellishes, though there is more than enough of the source novel remaining).
Although the Coens do not give the novel their characteristic treatment of irony and sarcasm, and satire of local color characteristics, it’s clear from their approach that they are the Coens after all. The combination of crudeness, hard talking, and just plain oddness in Cogburn’s character is an example. Camera angles, the attention to realistic details of time and place, the formal, archaic speech of the characters, repeated images of violence and grotesqueness—all of these are Coen traits. Yet they’re perfectly fine for this adaptation of the Charles Portis novel.
True Grit is a border state film in several ways. Arkansas stands on the eastern border of the Mississippi River, at the entrance to the Great Plains and to Texas. It is, especially in this film, the state where the South gradually transitions into the West. In most ways this film is a Coen brothers take on the classic American western, and a parody, or response at least, to the first adaptation of the film in 1969 starring John Wayne and Glen Campbell (dir. Henry Hathaway). Wayne’s performance has been praised for its force and vigor, but Jeff Bridges’ Cogburn seems definitive for now.