Portis vs Coen. Who did it Better?

Imagine you are 14 years old, and just received news that your father was killed in cold blood. What would your first reaction be?  Would you leave your home and avenge your father’s death, tracking down his killer and bringing that person to justice? Or would you mourn your father’s death and start planning his funeral? An average person would most likely opt for option number two. Yes, you will someday want your father’s killer brought to justice, but it undoubtedly would be after the funeral. This, however, was not the path Mattie Ross, a teenage girl, chose in Charles Portis’ novel entitled True Grit, which was adapted into a movie for the second time in 2010. The original movie was a classic John Wayne western made in 1969 with the same title.

As the main character, Mattie exhibits traditional masculine strength through violence and guns, but the movie shifts the perspective from Mattie to the men in the film. Although the movie is primarily based on Portis’ novel, there are elements in the film not found within the book

This novel follows a non-gender conforming, tenacious girl named Mattie Ross on a wild west adventure to avenge her father’s death. She travels 70 miles to Fort Smith to find someone to help her track down Tom Chaney, her father’s killer. In Fort Smith she finds Rooster Cogburn, “a pitiless…double-tough, and fear don’t enter his thinking” US Marshall. She persuades him to help her find father’s killer and bring him back to hang. Before embarking on her adventure to find Tom Chaney, she settles her father’s affairs. She is seen going to the undertaker and handling her father’s transport back to her town. She also goes back to the man who sold her father some useless ponies. With quick wit and a savvy business mind, she negotiates a contract where the seller takes the ponies back and pays for her father’s stolen horse. After all of her affairs are in order she, the Marshall, and a high-strung Texas Ranger–who is also looking for Chaney–depart on a wild adventure through the great unknown.

True Grit is told only from Mattie’s perspective. As readers, we never truly know what Cogburn or LaBoeuf are thinking. One can believe this was intended by Portis because he did not want to shift the focus from Mattie. James Warris, who did a review on True Grit, believes that Portis wanted this to be solely her story. In the 2010 movie, however, the focus doesn’t seem to be on Mattie (Warris). She does not drive the story along. This shift can be seen in a scene where Cogburn and LaBoeuf are arguing about how honorable it is to be a Texas Rangers. Rooster states “How long have you boys been mounted on sheep down there?” and LaBoeuf responds with “My Appaloosa will be galloping when that big American stud of yours is winded and collapsed. Now make another joke about it” (Coen). This scene was over the top and outrageously overdramatized. This was just one of several instances where the focus seems to be on Cogburn or LaBoeuf instead of Mattie.

While the movie was a cinematic masterpiece, the Coen brothers seemingly lost the true essence of what Portis wanted this book to be about. It is understandable that the movie could not keep every single detail from the book. However, the movie cuts out a lot of vivid dialogue and insights into Mattie’s personality. In the novel, we see Mattie’s deep religious faith as a moral compass. It guides her and gives meaning to her quest to bring Tom Chaney to justice. Although the movie does include quotes from the Bible, it does not give the impression that faith is a moral compass for Mattie. This causes Mattie to fall flat in the movie.

It is also interesting to look at the film poster for the movie.

(L-R) Hailee Steinfeld (Mattie), Jeff Bridges (Rooster Cogburn), Matt Damon (LaBoeuf), and Josh Brolin (Tom Chaney) stand ready for retribution on the Theatrical Poster for True Grit.

According to Rebecca Keegan, a writer at PopMatters.com, “Though the PG-13 film is built squarely around Seinfeld’s performance, its marketing emphasized its male stars, and “True Grit” has brought in more than $100 million at the box office so far on the shoulders of mostly male moviegoers.” It is surprising that a story about a girl was mostly marketed towards men instead of women and girls. On the poster, it lists Jeff Bridges, Matt Damon, and Josh Brolin as starring actors, but it has no mention of Hailee Steinfeld (Mattie). This poster constructs an idea that the movie is about Jeff Bridges and Matt Damon fighting each other. It is also worth mentioning that Mattie is in the background, and she is the only person in the photo without a weapon. This undermines the idea that Mattie can take care of herself, and she does not need a man to rescue her, as displayed countless times in the novel.

Although the Coen Brothers did a fantastic job staying true to the book and recreating this beloved story it still does not compare to reading the actual book.






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