Bloomsbury £7.99 (215pp) from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030
True Grit, By Charles Portis
Friday 04 February 2011
If the Oscar for best actor depends largely on the character portrayed, I'd be voting for an over-the-hill, drunken, one-eyed US deputy marshal rather than a stuttering king. John Wayne won his only Oscar for his bravura portrayal of Reuben "Rooster" Cogburn and the same role has put Jeff Bridges in the running this year. Yet the murderous lawman is not the central figure in True Grit. Mattie Ross, the 14-year-old farm girl who hires Cogburn to bring in her father's killer, is both protagonist and narrator of the yarn.
Charles Portis's fertile novel from 1968 has been compared to Mark Twain and Daisy Ashford. Praise could come no higher. In every detail of time, place and action, it is a convincing depiction of 1870s Arkansas as recalled from a distance of 40 years by a resolute, eye-for-an-eye Presbyterian. Filled to the brim with the Old Testament, Mattie is fearless and ferocious. Humour is not his strong suit but she faithfully records it in others. Her fierce determination is first made evident when she forces a dealer to take back horses he sold to her father. "You will find a buyer for the ponies," she says after recovering $325. The dealer replies: "I have a tentative offer of ten dollars per head from the Pfitzer Soap Works of Little Rock." The courtly language of the characters is precise, vivid and articulate like very few Westerns but like many Victorian novels.
Their deadpan exchanges explain why the Coen brothers, professional prospectors for black humour, chose to re-make True Grit. The story is undeniably gripping with violence erupting from nowhere, as it often does in life. The lives of the characters may be nasty, brutish and short, but Cogburn achieves reluctant redemption as he honours his contract with the girl. He is still a considerable distance from being a saint. Cogburn's plan for trapping a gang shocks a fellow bounty hunter. "I will kill the last one to go in." "You will shoot him in the back?" "It will give them to know our intentions is serious."
By contrast, the murderer of Mattie's father expresses misgivings. "I regret that shooting. Mr Ross was decent to me but he ought not to have meddled in my affairs." Though the Coens' film is said to stick very closely to the book, here it reverses the original to sharpen our desire for revenge: "I do not regret killing your father." The productive and brilliant Coens will know what they're doing, but it is a step away from the blurry morality of Portis's slender, hugely enjoyable masterpiece. CH
TV reviewBroadcasting House was preparing for a visit from Prince Charles spoiler alert
Glastonbury Michael Eavis reveals final headline act 'most likely' British pair
Film Ewan McGregor joins star-studded Beauty and the Beast cast as Lumiere
TVThe Island with Bear Grylls under fire after male contestants kill and eat rare crocodile
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 The scientist who takes 100 drugs a day so he can live to 150
- 2 The Visit: Trailer for M Night Shyamalan's latest horror film is terrifying
- 3 Company breaks open Apple Watch to discover what it says is 'planned obsolescence'
- 4 The confessions of men who ordered mail-order brides
- 5 General Election 2015: Stephen Hawking says he will vote Labour
Fast & Furious 7 overtakes Frozen to become 5th highest grossing movie of all time
Poldark, series 1 finale, review: How a costume drama became a Sunday night swoon-fest
Al Pacino admits he was nearly fired from The Godfather and it's still his most 'difficult role'
The Visit: Trailer for M Night Shyamalan's latest horror film is terrifying
Game of Thrones season 5 episode 3, review: Sansa and manhood-lopping torturer Ramsay Bolton - really?
General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
The sickening truth about food banks that the Tories don't want you to know
Aaron and Melissa Klein: Oregon anti-gay bakers ordered to pay $135,000 after refusing to make cake for same-sex wedding
Andrew Lloyd Webber: Phantom of the Opera writer mocked after issuing a warning about Ed Miliband and Nicola Sturgeon
General election 2015: Labour will toughen hate crimes legislation surrounding Islamophobia
EU exit would hit UK economy much harder than neighbouring countries, study finds