In the half-century since Charles Portis first conceived the ruffian tale of a young girl and a brazen, drunken US Marshal joining forces, there have been two film adaptations of True Grit – but how exactly do these versions of the story differentiate and coincide with the novelist’s original book? The first movie, directed by Henry Hathaway and written by Marguerite Roberts, came out in 1969, only one year after the novel first hit shelves.
Starring Kim Darby, country singer Glen Campbell, and a young Robert Duvall, the film was also the only Academy Award winning performance delivered by the great “Duke,” John Wayne. The role would later become the host for another Oscar nomination when Jeff Bridges embodied the character in the Coen Brothers’ appropriately grittier adaptation of the novel. The Fargo directors’ version of True Grit starred Bridges alongside Hailee Steinfeld, Matt Damon, Josh Brolin, and Barry Pepper.
In all three cases, the story is launched by the brutal murder of honest man Frank Ross by the cowardly, thieving Tom Chaney. After the news ventures back to Yell County, Arkansas, Ross’ persistent daughter Mattie, opts to travel to Fort Smith and scrounge out what is happening in terms of an investigation.
Whilst there, she learns that Chaney is believed to have fled into the Indian Territory with a gang of outlaws, out of the jurisdiction of the local sheriffs and officers. So, after inquiring about a US Marshal who commands a sense of “true grit,” she is led to the gruff door of Rooster Cogburn, who reluctantly takes her and an ambitious Texas Ranger named LaBeouf across the water and into the Indian Nation.
The story itself, catapulted by two feature adaptations as well as a John Wayne spinoff sequel (Rooster Cogburn), has become an integral fable of the Wild West – in literature and in film. Here’s how the fabric of True Grit matches and differs across each of its treasured mediums.
2010 Film Vs. Charles Portis’ Book : When Joel and Ethan Coen set out to make their version of True Grit, they did so with the intention not of remaking the John Wayne/Henry Hathaway classic, but of creating a more faithful adaptation to Charles Portis’ novel. Starting out on the wisdom of a Bible verse, Proverbs 28:1, they set the tone of their film: “The wicked flee when one pursueth.” While this may seem like the perfect prelude to the story, one whose villain initiates the plot by fleeing into the Indian nation, interestingly, that is only one half to the verse, coyly disguising the wrecking that is to come of him: “but the righteous are as bold as a lion.”
Though the 2010 movie was criticized by some for its typical revenge narrative, this biblical gentility allowed the Coen Brothers to tonally preserve Portis’ simple, quiet approach to dialogue. It’s fair to say that in the West, where literacy and education were not of the highest priority or quality (see John Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance), imposing straightforward dialogue between the threesome of disjointed and disinterested colleagues is to be expected.
But what the Coen Brothers and Portis are both doing is establishing a setting where words are minced, but thoughts are rampant. As Cogburn, Mattie, and LaBeouf embark on this journey together, the audience receives Mattie’s wonderings and observations through the narration – but at the same time, the sense of responsibility and protection manifesting themselves in both the US Marshal and the Texas Ranger are palpable, even if neither say it.
In terms of events, again, the Coen Brothers’ True Grit is more directly suited to staying accurate with the book. That being said, they did impart some of their quintessential and defining strangeness onto the film. For instance, that “Bear Man” scene was a Coen original. Also, during the triple hanging sequence, the Coens impart a bit of racial humor and horror. One of the men that is to be executed is an Indian; though all three are given the opportunity to offer some final words (the order of which is swapped, but the content is generally the same), the Indian’s final words are cut off by the dismissive executioner. In the book, all three men are given the opportunity to talk in full, but the Coen Brothers’ sense of dark comedy and social awareness comes through in this scene.