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True Grit

True Grit by Charles Portis
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

It was nice to confirm that both versions of the True Grit movie stayed close to Charles Portis’ book.
Each movie picked a slightly different thread to highlight:

  • John Wayne’s movie highlighted honor and integrity in a somewhat lawless world.
  • The Coen brothers’ adaptation highlights the shadows one’s honor casts as time rewrites one’s history. (Read my movie review of Coen’s True Grit.)

Portis manages to get all of this into his novel while telling a compelling and action-packed Western.

I was thrilled that most of the iconic lines associated with the “True Grit” movies came straight out of the book, such as:

Rooster Cogburn: I mean to kill you in one minute, Ned. Or see you hanged in Fort Smith at Judge Parker’s convenience. Which will you have?
Lucky Ned Pepper: I call that bold talk for a one-eyed fat man!
Rooster Cogburn: Fill your hand you son-of-a-bitch!

There was one striking difference between the movies and their source that I found surprising. While both movies gave Mattie a rich and educated vocabulary to match her intelligent and determined character, Portis gives Mattie an opinionated yet stoic conversational tone. While the movies encourage you to forget almost that Mattie is telling the story in retrospect, Portis’ novel never does. The wisdom of age always comes through in Mattie and the rich vocabulary would have only been a distraction in Portis’ world.

In fact as I turned the final pages of the True Grit novel, I found myself wondering if Mattie had not turned into a female version of Rooster Cogburn. Between the time of 14 year old Mattie’s adventure and when the mature grown woman Mattie tells us this story, she has lived her own personal war as an independent woman in the post-Civil War West. Mattie is thought strange by her contemporaries and lived her life as a single woman pretty much in her own personal silence. Not unlike the silence that a U.S. Marshall would experience when staking out a fugitive in the badlands haunted like the wind by the justice he has doled out.

This is a fast read. If you are familiar with the movies, you can’t help but read faster as the climax gets closer and closer. But when the gun battle is over and the dust settles, the true emotion and grit of this classic western is revealed. It’s only a truly heartless reader who doesn’t rub moisture from their eyes as Rooster, Blackie and Mattie make that journey home from the badlands on that long, lonely, starry night. Its nights like that which proves a man’s (and a woman’s) true grit.

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