True Grit: From book to film
To read K’s review, that I am responding to, see here
Well, I’m almost hesitant to respond to your beautiful analysis of this movie! Nevertheless, what I have to offer connects to your reflections in an interesting way. Usually I try to avoid going on at length about the differences between the book and the film (as we tried to avoid with our discussion of The Road). But I am struck by how some of the more poignant moments for you were precisely the moments that the Coen brothers played with and changed. And so I think a little reflection on the book/film differences might be warranted.
In press, the brothers have alluded to changes they made, but have done so in a necessary “no spoiler” type way – so, if you don’t want book spoilers (K and dear readers) stop reading at the end of this paragraph! As the brothers note, the whole stretch from the man hung in the tree who Mattie has to cut down to the Bear-man is added. This is interesting not only because of what it adds, but also what it takes away. This short stretch, for me, was the stretch in the film most reminiscent of the Coens – particularly of their Oh Brother, Where Art Thou style. Mattie climbing the tree to cut down the man feels like an initiation scene. The struggle of her climb almost mirrors the struggle of her initial river crossing – evoking milestones on the epic journey on which she has set out. (I also don’t recall Mattie needing to sleep in the funeral parlour in the book – and so what the brothers’ have added as well is much additional proximity to death – something I think they might do to hit the point even further home that this is a world in which death is much more present, and perhaps much less feared). Pair this “epic journey” motif with the Odyssey-like nature of the Bear-man – sort of creepy and mystical, animal-man hybrid – you really get elements of a great, vast journey as sort of quest to find oneself – like O Brother and The Odyssey on which it is based. It’s a theme that captivates the Coens, and one that I think brings out some of the more latent themes of the book in quite a lovely way. How intriguing that they needed to add material to bring this theme out, though!
Those are the changes I liked. But I’m still struggling with some other massive ones. First, Rooster is not such an ass in the book! I was shocked by these changes! The ass-ness, as you note, allows for more of a redemption story – still bittersweet, but redemptive nonetheless. But in the book, he never abandons Mattie as he does in the film. Mattie never has a moment in which she declares LeBoeuf to be the true hero! Indeed, Rooster and LeBoeuf do not part ways in the book nearly as much as they do in the film. In fact, they even save each other at various points (rather than LeBoeuf continually come to Rooster’s salvation), and hatch plans to save Mattie together. The two form an unlikely, but lovely friendship around their care for the girl, and if one stands out as more of a hero, it is Rooster for being the first to care for her (while LeBoeuf initially beats her – as we see in the film).
Perhaps such unyielding loyalty felt too simplistic for the Coens and that’s why they removed it? But it’s not that the book let Rooster be uncomplicated – his time as a confederate soldier feels as complex as some of his dodgy criminal activity prior to becoming a Marshall. The book leaves us thinking that Rooster might have often found himself on the wrong side of cultural debates, functioning sometimes outside the law, but it was quite unwavering in the idea that when it came to genuine human connection (particularly with Mattie), Rooster was good.
The effect in the film, I think, is to remove any last trace of sentimentality that might linger in the book’s character. This removal of sentimentality hit me especially with Little Blackie’s death. I experienced something so much like my experience of the book in this moment, that only the experience itself made me truly remember my initial feeling. Up until that point – in both book and film – I was enjoying it, but not necessarily loving it. And then as soon as Little Blackie dies (who is a much more pathetic little runt of a pony in the book), everything comes together. In the book you get the sense that there is no sentimentality. With the film, you get the sense that only we – the audience – are allowed to feel sentimental. Only a viewer really gets to feel the sadness of the horse’s death. Anyone actually invested in the moment – the characters of the scene – need to move on because it literally means life or death.
The only change I couldn’t forgive – and it’s a huge one – is the killing of Tom Chaney. I think this will surprise you, but in the book Mattie gets to wound him twice – once at the river, and once as she knocks herself into the pit – but it’s Rooster who gets to kill him. In fact, Tom taunts her as she lies in the pit facing almost certain death. Rooster then smashes Tom’s head and saves the day. The lesson – if there is one – about vengeance in the book is that we don’t get to enact our own. Pair that with the idea that only the grace of God is free (vengeance is mine, sayeth the Lord) and you have a view of providence that the movie somewhat lacks.
And while I could perhaps forgive Mattie’s killing – just as a change in and of itself – it’s this shift in the view of providence that ends up irking me. Not because I have some high view of God’s sovereignty, or anything so theologically involved. But rather, because we can’t forget that the whole narrative is not simple narrative, but rather is always tainted or molded by the power of memory. Mattie is telling this story from the perspective of old age. She’s telling it from the perspective of an old woman who believes in this providence. We feel this in the book. We realize or remember at the end that the reason Mattie seems a bit like an old lady all the way through is not because she’s an amazingly precocious young woman but, rather, because she’s the memory of a young woman from the old woman’s perspective. The weathered, sensible theology of this old woman is key to this device, and that felt disrupted to me by having Mattie enact her own vengeance.
That being said, I did thoroughly enjoy the film – and these changes actually made it more pleasurable for one who had read the book. Scenes that were utterly faithful lingered too long for me because I knew what was coming. But the jarring I experienced when something changed let me experience things anew. I think most folks will see this as a faithful performance of the book. I think its strength is that it is not. It looks and feels like the book, uses dialogue straight out of the book. On the surface, not much has changed. But these tiny little changes actually do a lot to the book’s deeper themes – and that’s what makes the film pretty great, in my view.
Because in the end, I’m satisfied that I’m left unable to forgive it. If Mattie’s vengeance journey teaches us anything, perhaps it’s that sometimes we shouldn’t forgive or, at least, sometimes we can’t. And that somewhere in the refusal to forgive, there’s a new story to be told.
Oops, this got way too long! Sorry for that.
Black Swan next? Or, maybe The King’s Speech – I’m pretty excited for both! I, for one, will be watching Californication and Shameless tonight to figure out if either is worth blogging this season…and I know we’re both on for Big Love’s return next week!