Sunday, January 9, 2011

True Grit: being a reader’s true-life history

At the onset I am forced to confess I was horrified when I learned that the famous Coen brothers were doing a remake of True Grit based upon the novel by Charles Portis. I am a fan of the Coen brothers but I am not a fan of Hollywood’s habit for remakes. I am, in fact, on record as stating that “remakes are for sissies.” This has not endeared me to certain Hollywood producers.

Let’s begin in 1968 when I first read the novel by Charles Portis. The newspapers and magazines back then were heavily promoting the film and there was talk of an Oscar nomination for Duke Wayne even before the film was released. I was a John Wayne fan, as were my father and uncles. I was fascinated by the fact that Duke was a star when my father was a child. Duke Wayne was larger-than-life and touched multiple generations. True Grit was released in paperback by Signet shortly before the film’s release. It included photographs on the inside front and back cover of John Wayne, Glen Campbell and Kim Darby. At the time, Glen Campbell was a huge music star and his song “Galveston” was a personal favorite. A film featuring two of my heroes filled me with excitement.

I read the book immediately and liked it although the melancholy tone (and particularly the ending) left me dry. Naturally I loved the film. I even enjoyed Glen Campbell’s schmaltzy title song. The role of Rooster Cogburn was John Wayne’s signature performance, and it still is. All the same, the Coen brothers have made an excellent film that in many ways is better than the original. Jeff Bridges is superb, as was John Wayne and, yes, as was Warren Oates in the seldom seen television film. Rooster Cogburn is a role that any capable actor should be able to play well. Cogburn is an eternally endearing character. But I believe that Hailee Steinfeld as Mattie Ross is the real treasure here. She shines in this movie, just as Kim Darby shined in the original. The current film’s only flaw – and this is nitpicking – is the exclusion of the novel’s final sentence from the voice narration. I won’t repeat that line here. Read the book.

The Charles Portis novel has been republished by the Overlook Press and is once again being hailed as a classic. This is fascinating given that True Grit only became a bestseller after news leaked that John Wayne would star in the film version. Yes, the book was critically acclaimed upon its release in hardcover (it was originally serialized in The Saturday Evening Post), but if not for John Wayne it would probably have languished in obscurity. Hal Wallis bought the film rights before the book was published and Paramount Studios were so intent on advance publicity they had staff purchase bulk orders around the country which helped make the book a bestseller in hardcover. These facts were recently recalled by Paramount producer Bob Rehme in a New York Times interview. None of this should detract from the fact that Charles Portis wrote a damn good book.

Today, it is a fact that various members of this-or-that western club or society have listed the book as a classic, but the truth is quite often anything that makes money and becomes popular is hailed by a certain group of good ole boys as a “classic.” God bless them. If this helps promote an interest in literacy then I am all for it.

I agree that True Grit is a great novel, and it certainly deserves its place among books labeled “westerns” as a pre-eminent book, but its not Portis’ best novel. That would be either Norwood or Gringos with my taste running toward Gringos. Neither are a western. Others will emphatically tell you that his best book is The Dog of the South or Masters of Atlantis. Maybe they’re right. Rooster Cogburn may become one of those characters like Robin Hood who gets a film treatment every few decades. Of course, I prefer Errol Flynn in the 1938 version, but the truth is Russell Crowe was pretty good, too. Meanwhile, I hope the film sparks an interest in the other wonderful books that Charles Portis has written. Each and every one of them is a real gem.

1: Front and back cover and interiors from the 1968 Signet paperback.
2: Current edition of True Grit from Overlook Press and Gringos, my favorite Charles Portis novel
3: Charles Portis and John Wayne during the filming of True Grit.


  1. Yes: the last sentence of the novel is one of the finest last sentences of any novel at any time. It is a fine sentence under any circumstances. But, like so many of Portis's sentences (and paragraphs), it is even finer because of its context. Read the novel straight through, and read it carefully. Then you can savor its last sentence.

  2. Let me add that I'm stuck on what is the best of Portis's novels. The answer typically depends on which one I've read most recently. I think that the answer is that they're all superb. Beyond that: de gustibus non est disputandam.

  3. Thanks for your comments Elmer. In my youth of course I never quite appreciated the intricacies and depth of that last line. Today I agree with you that it is one of the finest concluding lines in literature.


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