in Books, Movies

True Grit

When I was a boy, VCRs did not exist. You couldn’t watch old movies in the comfort of your living room. (Well, you could, but to do so was prohibitively expensive.)

Instead, there was a thriving industry of second-run movie theaters. And not just second-run theaters (which still exist today), but theaters that only showed old movies. Old movies were a going concern.

I can remember my parents taking us to a handful of these theaters to watch old movies, such as The Wizard of Oz and The Incredible Shrinking Man (which may be the source of my brother Jeff’s fear of spiders, actually) — and westerns like The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly and True Grit.

I don’t actually recall much about the John Wayne version of True Grit. I remember John Wayne with the patch over one eye, and I remember the girl who wouldn’t be bossed around, but that’s about it. The film was released in 1969, and I must have seen it in 1975 or 1976. Still, I have fond memories of the movie.

So, when it came time to decide which movie we were going to see this year on Christmas Day, there was no doubt in my mind: We were going to see the new version of True Grit.

Note: I’m not sure when Kris and I started our annual tradition of seeing movies on Thanksgiving and Christmas — Schindler’s List in 1993? — but it’s deeply entrenched now. Lately, Tiffany (Kris’ sister) and Paul have been joining us. And in the evening, we gorge ourselves on Chinese food at Sungari downtown. It’s a fine, fine day.

For those unfamiliar, True Grit was a 1968 novel from Charles Portis. It tells the story of Mattie Ross, a 14-year-old girl from Yell County, Arkansas. Her father has been shot down in cold blood by a farmhand named Tom Chaney, and Mattie wants revenge. She travels to nearby Forth Smith (on the edge of the Oklahoma Territory, which is Indian country) to settle her father’s affairs and to prod the law to bring Chaney to justice.

The law is reluctant to help. There are plenty of outlaws that need hanging, and Chaney is but one more. Mattie takes matters into her own hands, hiring a drunk and violent U.S. Marshal called Rooster Cogburn. Together — and with the help of a Texas Ranger — they pursue Chaney and the gang he’s fallen in with.

True Grit is one of those remarkable novels featuring a clarity of voice and vision that makes every page a joy to read. Portis, of whom I’d never heard before last weekend, carves the characters through their speech and actions. And every little scene is a delight in some way.

I knew before we saw the new True Grit on Saturday that I would love it. And I did. It’s one of the best films I’ve seen in many years. Written and directed by Joel and Ethan Coen, you might rightly be concerned the film would be quirky and ironic. It’s not. Instead, as Kris said when the film was finished, it’s a good old-fashioned film, the sort they don’t make anymore.

Note: Before the movie, we sat through eight previews, each one stupider than the last. Transformers on the moon! Boxing robots! Johnny Depp as an animated lizard! Yet another Pirates of the Caribbean film! (Because the last two weren’t bad enough.) This menu of monstrosities is a clear example of how low Hollywood filmmaking has sunk. It’s all a bunch of sound and fury signifying nothing. So, to then be treated to a good, old-fashioned movie like True Grit was a pleasant surprise.

I enjoyed the Coen’s True Grit that yesterday I watched the 1969 version. Much to my surprise, it holds up well. I prefer the modern version, but John Wayne and his cohorts do a great job of telling this wonderful story. In fact, I was so impressed, that I immediately downloaded the audio book. I listened to it for an hour before bed last night, and then again an hour this morning.

True Grit is a fantastic book.

Here’s the first paragraph. This alone should tell you whether the book would interest you, and should tell you immediately why the films are so good:

People do not give it credence that a fourteen-year-old girl could leave home and go off in the wintertime to avenge her father’s blood but it did not seem so strange then, although I will say it did not happen every day. I was just fourteen years of age when a coward going by the name of Tom Chaney shot my father down in Fort Smith, Arkansas, and robbed him of his life and his horse and $150 in cash money plus two California gold pieces that he carried in his trouser band.

Why are both versions of the movie so good? Because the book is so good. Through the first quarter of the story (up until Mattie rolls Cogburn’s cigarette outside the courtroom), both films are remarkably true to the book. Both films pick and choose things to include or leave out, but neither takes gross liberties.

I’m dying to know now: Are there other overlooked books like this that I ought to know about? I’d especially like to discover books that served as the basis for well-respected films. I have Cool Hand Luke and To Kill a Mockingbird, and these are exactly the sorts of books I’m after. If you know of any, please let me know. I want to find other books with sand.

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  1. If you haven’t already seen it, I have fond memories of “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre” with Humphrey Bogart. The book, by B. Traven, is excellent. A nice traditional Western, in a weird, left-wing extremist kind of way.

  2. If you like true stories then try Nando Parrado’s Miracle in the Andes. Not for the obvious reasons but because it is the most amazing story of love and perserverance. It is just brilliant, read the first chapter and I bet you won’t be able to put it down.

  3. Thanks for posting the first paragraph. That first sentence would make a really good clue for Jeopardy when they run that category.

  4. Ya for True Grit! I loved it! My husband and I saw it on 12/26 his birthday. I am not one for westerns but it was wonderful! We then had lunch and saw Black Swan…I thought it was terrible.

  5. Give Cormac McCarthy’s The Road a try if you can stomach something that’s really dark. It’s a wonderful book and it was also pretty well adapted. It’s a father/son story that will give you a whole new appreciation for how trivial our daily struggles really are.

    I also loved Jose Saramago’s Blindness as a book but the movie was sorely lacking. It too has a very dark theme and Saramago’s writing style is a love/hate thing (minimal punctuation) but the story is brilliant.

    To avoid sounding too morose, I’ll also suggest Justin Halpern’s Sh*t My Dad Says. I read the first chapter to test out my new nook on the day after Christmas and had finished it within 24 hours. It’s the funniest thing I’ve seen/read/heard in years. That’s saying quite a bit given that I started reading it with the expectation that it would be bring new meaning to the word lame. I’ve not seen the show adapted from that book but given its language, I see no need to watch a CBS bleep-laden (or worse yet, profanity-free) version. It would just be too disappointing after so many good laughs from the book.

    Hope one of those sparks your interest.


  6. Lots of people’s comments have included westerns so I’m not sure what genre you are interested in but the book The Time Traveler’s Wife was such an excellent read. I’ve read it probably a dozen times because the way it’s written is so beautiful. The movie didn’t do it any kind of justice. They turned a reflective love story into a sad chick flick. If you do read it I’d love to hear what you think of it.

    • Jenetta, I have read The Time Traveler’s Wife, and I think it’s fabulous. There are parts that are a little slow or off-putting (I seem to remember some clubbing scenes that I didn’t like), but mostly I thought the novel was, well, novel, and quite effective. I listened to the audiobook, and then suggested Kris read it. She liked it, too.

  7. I haven’t read the book, but Breakfast at Tiffany’s was just on the other night, and I realized it was based on a Truman Capote book. I was crazy for In Cold Blood, so I may give Capote’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s a try.