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Friday, 17 December 2010

True Grit from page to screen

John Wayne's 1969 True Grit is a surprisingly faithful telling of the original Charles Portis novel - sure there are many changes, not least of which is the climax of the movie which differs considerably from the novel but the characters particularly Mattie and Rooster are mostly in synch in both film and movie.

This surprised me since I've seen the film at least a dozen times but until last week had never read the novel and the many articles that I had read led me to believe that the film bore only a passing resemblance to the source material. That's not so, even if the tone of the novel is somewhat darker. Many people have said Wayne dominated this movie and was presented as the central character when in the book it is Mattie who leads the narrative, indeed it is a first person narrative with Mattie being the narrator but the film almost follows the book scene for scene and much of the dialogue is ported across to the screenplay, particularly the words spoken by Mattie.

Now the chief difference between between book and film is with the character of Rooster himself - the film presented him as the ageing John Wayne but in the book the fat, one eyed Marshall is somewhere around his mid-forties with a walrus moustache. He is malarial and spends much of the book drunk and is a veteran of the Confederate Army and rode with Quantrill's border gang.

"People do not give it credence that a fourteen year old girl could leave home and go off in 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 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."

Mattie is such a strong character and it is clear that after her father's murder it is she and not her mother who becomes head of the family. She is fearless and threatens anyone who goes against her will with the almost mythical sounding Lawyer Daggett. The lawyer's name is used to great comedic affect early in the book when Matti is trying to secure a deal on her father's horses - this scene was carried over to the movie and is almost identical to that written in the book.

True Grit, the 1969 movie, then is certainly not the massive departure from the book that many people claim and in fact watching the film straight after reading the book I am of the opinion that the film doesn't suffer from Wayne's casting, that the character of Rooster in the film does not dominate at the expense of Mattie. In both book and film we see Rooster through Mattie's eyes and whenever the character takes centre stage Mattie's and thus our full attention is one him.

And soon there will be another movie version of True Grit out there, this time with Jeff Bridges as the one eyed lawman and from what I've read it will become fashionable to say Wayne didn't do it right but that's simply not true. Wayne was such a big star that maybe it is the viewer's fault and not the movie that he tends to overshadow the character of Mattie. For if any actor could be considered to represent the entire western genre then it is John Wayne.

In the introduction to the 2005, Bloomsbury edition of True Grit, Donna Tartt wrote that there is something of the Huckleberry Finn in Mattie Ross and that author, Charles Portis should enjoy a similar reputation to that other giant of American writing, Mark Twain and on the strength of this book she could be right.

So by all means go and see the new True Grit but if you ignore the original movie you will be doing yourself a disservice, just as you will by not reading the original novel from which the whole thing started.

John Wayne - yep, he certainly had True Grit.

1 comment:

Joanne Walpole said...

I notice True Grit is showing on Ch4 on Thursday 30 November at 1.40pm