Warning: There are some plot spoilers in this essay.
True Grit contains two plot structures, one framing the other. There is a plot of action, featuring pursuit and shootouts, and there is a plot of growth, narrated by an adult Mattie Ross about her quest for justice as a fourteen-year-old.
Not surprisingly, Hollywood went for the plot of action first, viewing True Grit as a Western adventure. Both major film adaptations of the novel—in 1969 and 2010—were recognizable as genre vehicles, their differences more a matter of changed expectations of Western films than essential content.
In the first version, an aging John Wayne played a similarly aging gun fighter seemingly doomed to go down doing the right thing to the end of his days. In a familiar irony, he kills and is almost killed in a beautifully visualized mountain-West setting. The second reflects the sparse visual style and brutal directness of Westerns after Clint Eastwood’s The Unforgiven (1992) and the earlier stylistic transformations of Directors Sergio Leone and Sam Peckinpah. Gray winter woods, barren rock ridges, an unheroic Jeff Bridges, a supporting cast of generally unsympathetic characters, vengeance as justice, and laconic dialogue distinguish the Coen Brothers’ film from its predecessor.
1969 marked the end of a decade in which the “spaghetti” westerns of Sergio Leone and others had simultaneously rescued the Western from death-by-television- overexposure and reversed many of its revered values. True Grit had an air of nostalgia about it. It was directed by Henry Hathaway, known for his scenic, epic tendencies in such films as North to Alaska, How The West Was Won, Sons of Katie Elder, and Nevada Smith. The lush soundtrack by Elmer Bernstein and the glowing color were matched by the warmth of the characters toward one another. The outlaw background of Rooster Cogburn—told to Mattie as they wait to ambush the gang—was humorously smoothed over in favor of allowing the star, John Wayne, to carry his reputation as a Western code hero. Granted he was an aging, sometimes inebriated protagonist, not quite the physically commanding presence in the John Ford Westerns. But his size, movement, and voice certainly brought elements of that presence into the film.
Hathaway’s True Grit could be considered another end-of-the-West (or end-of-the-Western-hero) Western, in the train of Ride the High Country (Randolph Scott), Lonely Are the Brave (Kirk Douglas), High Noon (Gary Cooper), The Wild Bunch (William Holden), and Once Upon A Time in the West (Henry Fonda). In all of these, an aging Classic Western hero-actor realizes his days are numbered and is often killed attempting one more feat. Wayne’s gun battle, solo against the gang, has the fatal air of similar one-or-two against the odds in The Wild Bunch, Lonely Are the Brave, and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Wayne comes out of it scathed, but alive, but he would go on to suffer honorable death in The Cowboys and famously in his last film, The Shootist.
The Coen Brothers are probably the leading directors from what one critic called “the film generation.” Stepped in film history, adept scriptwriters, and masters of camera and sound technology, they tend to build on and reference—often humorously—traditional genres: Noir (Blood Simple, No Country For Old Men), Screwball Comedy (Raising Arizona, O Brother Where Art Thou), Crime (Fargo, Miller’s Crossing, The Big Lebowski,) Jeff Bridges as Rooster carries little of the traditional Western hero into his role; he continues his career persona as a more vulnerable character, doing the best he can. The Coens’ True Grit was largely filmed in the winter-drab Hill Country of Texas rather than the Spring-green woods and meadows of Colorado and California. It is a West with less of the “optimistic” open spaces, where interpersonal suspicion abounds and community is not assured—in short, it is a Western in which the frontier is ending, with the advent of the railroad and, shortly, the coming of statehood.
What makes the Coen film seem more “faithful,” if we have to distinguish, is its foregrounding of Mattie, through voiceover narration and a more forceful actress in Hailee Steinfeld. It also includes the book’s conclusion where the adult Mattie memorializes Rooster after his death.
Readers who come to the novel after seeing the earlier film are probably surprised to find that almost half of it consists of Mattie’s encounters with various doubting adults, before she, Rooster and Le Boeuf set out to catch Tom Chaney. She confronts, usually outwits, and certainly out-talks one and all, from Col. Stonehill to Rooster and LaBoeuf. The conversations are wonderfully humorous, and the Coen version captures much of this, though—to my taste—Wayne’s humorous bravado has more of the spirit of the novel than Bridges’ swagger.
It’s not quite a fair comparison, however, because we have seen the Wayne persona perform in many earlier Westerns, so it’s more believable that an aging Wayne/Rooster would attempt something so courageous and foolhardy as charge four outlaws. Wayne’s lone acting Oscar came for his nuanced performance, as the fat, less adept cowboy who still has the instincts of the younger hero.
It’s interesting that while the Coen film had more scenes in the woodlands typical of Eastern Oklahoma, it too had to use the wide-open spaces typical of the generic Western. And it’s the Coen version that takes more liberties with the plot. You won’t find any more explanation of the man hanging high in a tree because the event doesn’t exist in the book. The ambush scene is quite changed too, where LaBoeuf becomes into a hapless victim rather than one of the ambushers. However, the tension between LaBoeuf and Rooster that caused a split in the party in the Coen film leads to a second separation that actually makes it more convincing that he be able to sneak up on Tom Chaney as he is getting ready to kill Mattie. I always wondered how, in the book and the Hathaway film, Rooster and LeBoeuf could ride over a distant ridge and LaBoeuf have time to circle around and arrive just as the outlaws have ridden off the hill and entered the meadow that leads to the distant ridge.
If that’s being picky, I can balance it with a criticism of the Coen film. When Rooster mounts double with Mattie, to take her to a doctor, he rides her horse to death because, in the book, the rest of the horses are dead or have run off. But when they race through the meadow in the Coen film, they ride right by Ned Turner’s horse, standing stock still. Rooster does not stop to get this much-needed second horse. The sacrificial death of Mattie’s beloved Blackie, thus, was not so necessary!
I like the novel and each of the films for different reasons. The novel is a classic story of growth, in the tradition of Huckleberry Finn, To Kill A Mockingbird, and Shane. The narrator tells the story of his or her own growth, through sometimes dangerous encounters with adults, learning the good and the bad of the adult world. The 1969 film is all-Western, with an actor at the end of his career reflecting, however loosely, the values of the Classic Westerns of the ‘40s and ‘50s. The Coen version is post-Western, with an anti-hero doing what he has to do in a drab setting, up against lowlife white trash. In a sense, it more strongly countenances vengeance as justice. The foregrounding of Mattie also makes it more of a film about her growth. She is a harder, more judgmental adult as a result of her experiences.
My view is that adaptations tend to create different texts, rather than being merely dramatic imitations. The differences often reflect the mood of the times in which they were created.
While discriminations should and will be made between a source text and a film, final judgment should be based on the aesthetic unity and qualities of the final product. So I can end up valuing each of the embodiments of True Grit. I suggest you read and view all three of them.
Retired Professor of English
Oklahoma Baptist University