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Tuesday, January 25, 2011

True Grit by Charles Portis

My father has this theory that the reason people so often prefer the book to the movie adaptation is because in the majority of cases that is the order in which they encountered them. According to him, when someone reads a book and then watches a movie they are preoccupied with the differences, which tend to involve simplification and cutting details, instead of just appreciating the movie. He further contends that if people read a book after seeing the film they would instead be impressed by how concisely the filmmakers told essentially the same story.

For reasons which could probably be called snobbish, I tend to read books before I see films or not read them at all, so I have had few opportunities to test this theory. Ironically, the test that most proved his theory was the Coen Brothers’ No Country for Old Men, which I enjoyed more than the book, which was also good. I put the theory to the test again recently with True Grit, which I finished reading last night. I have actually both movie versions of the story, but I’ll mostly refer to the Coens’ version here.

Portis’ novel tells the same story as the film. Narrating from chronological distance, Mattie Ross tells the tale of how she, at 14 years old, came to hire a one-eyed U.S. Marshal named Rooster Cogburn to track down and possibly kill the man who had shot her father dead and how she joined him on this mission, against his wishes.

The novel starts out strong. Mattie’s voice is a remarkable literary achievement. She is cold, strict, morally uptight, and absolutely unaware of how hilarious she sounds. It is incredible how much humor Portis is able to wring from this character. Cogburn’s introduction in the novel, as he’s being cross-examined on the stand and excoriated for his shoot-first method of law enforcement, is just as funny on page as it is on screen.

Unfortunately, the novel, in my opinion, stumbles in the middle section, after the group (Mattie and Rooster are joined by a Texas Ranger named LaBoeuf) lights out after the murderer, Tom Chaney. During this part the humor becomes sparser and less riotous, as the story basically calls for them to ride through the woods without much happening.

The last fifty pages, though, absolutely redeem the novel. Once Mattie comes into contact with Chaney, the writing and the absurd humor reach heights greater even than the novel’s opening sections. The ending is also quite satisfying, perhaps even slightly more so than that of the film.

So, which is better? As it stands today, I have to give the film credit for better distributing the humor throughout the film, and for making LaBoeuf a more interesting character. However, so many of the lines which stood out while I was watching the film are in fact taken directly from the novel, which is pretty telling. I would like to go back one day when the film is further from my mind and see if the book improves that way. If I say I like the film just a little bit better, does that mean that my dad is right, or just that the Coen Brothers are just great filmmakers?

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