Longtime readers of this blog may recall that several months ago I blogged about the movie True Grit. The original 1969 production starring The Duke, that is, although I had recently heard first word of the Coen Brothers remake and was excited for it.

Weird, I was just thinking how John Wayne only managed to be The Duke, whereas Elvis got to be The King. I guess Wayne didn’t really give a crap about where he stood in the royal ranks so long as Presley didn’t come by and throw his weight around (or those infamous hips).

Tangents: I has them. Anyhow, here we are in 2011 and I have not only seen the True Grit remake, but I decided on whim to check out the Charles Portis novel that started it all. Actually, my “whim” turned out to be me calling about 6 different bookstores until I finally found one that had a copy for sale, which caught me by surprise what with the Coen movie having just been released. Even Amazon had them backordered for at least two weeks. High demand? I’m not sure. It might be something weirder than that, since Amazon now says they’re not getting any more until the end of May. Helluva time to be “between printings”.

But I did get my paws on True Grit, and was immediately surprised to see how thin it was. Now I use the term “thin” in relative sense, since this edition is a bit larger in dimensions than your usual pocket-size paperback, but the approximately 230 pages fly by rather fast, especially if you find yourself in a page turning mood.

Which isn’t to say the tale in those pages has no merit. Quite the opposite, it has an economy and purity of vision unmarred by the presence of what the narrator might very well consider “foolish flights of fancy”. In this book, every word printed comes from the pen of the adult Mattie Ross, thinking back to her 14 year old self and the journey of vengeance she undertook in her father’s name. The first sentence of the novel, which the Coens (bless their twisted hearts) repeated word for word as the first sentence of their movie, runs thusly:

“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.”

Now if you’ve followed the Coen brothers’ filmography at all, you can see how a speech like that would be right up their alley. The puzzling thing about the movie for me, though, is that the book has several more quirky scenes and lines that would also seem ripe for Coen-land, and yet they were omitted. In some cases, their absence was replaced with scenes completely fabricated for the film whose presence I did not quite understand.

It’s still soon enough I probably shouldn’t go into any details for fear of spoilers, but let me tell you, experiencing three different helpings of grit in the past year makes for interesting digestion. Such a straightforward, uncomplicated tale, and yet changing some of the details makes for big differences.

A big reason for this might be because Mattie is a person thoroughly grounded in details, at least as they pertain to her quest. Also a person of very strong opinions, so much so that you can’t help but wonder if her account of affairs is accurate despite the assured, matter-of-fact way she presents it all. This more than anything is what makes the True Grit novel a fascinating read for me, because neither movie quite gets across the point that for all we know, everything that happens could be akin to watching only a single segment of Rashomon and taking that as gospel. Puts a different spin on the word “True” in the title, don’t it?

So on reflection I’m really not sure the Coen version lived up to my expectations, but then, my expectations were very, very high, and that’s always dangerous going in. I do wonder how long ago they might have read it, because I swear the strange “just left of reality” style of speech and circumstance the Coens specialize in just spills out of Portis’ book, not to mention a stubborn-as-a-gov’t-mule woman(girl) who obsesses on an objective, something we often see with Holly Hunter’s characters in Coen movies. Mattie is definitely the type who, like Penny in O Brother, Where Art Thou?, would have ended a dispute with the statement, “I have spoken my piece and counted to three.”

Maybe it was too close for comfort, and thus the odd divergences? Well, in any case, both films have their ups and downs, and both led me to the book, which I was also surprised to see had this recommendation in its jacket pages:

“True Grit is the best novel to come my way for a very long time. What book has given me greater pleasure in the last five years? Or in the last twenty? I do not know… What a writer!”

– Roald Dahl

If that name is not familiar to you, I’ll tell you straight up that Roald Dahl is neither a writer of Westerns, nor even an American. What he is, though, is one of my absolute favorite writers of all time, and to see his endorsement on True Grit was both totally unexpected and totally fantastic. Had I known I probably would have given Mr. Portis a whirl a good sight sooner than I did, but regardless, I have the book, I have read it, and it was a damn good yarn. Once it gets its new printing in late Spring, I reckon you could do a lot worse for yourself than giving it a look.

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