Charles Portis, True Grit
In most cases, “Movie or book?” comparisons are a matter of apples and oranges. It’s hard to enter that conversation without a chip on your shoulder — either you read the book first and expect the movie not to measure up, or you saw the movie and expect what a filmmaker has twisted or finessed from the original. All this talk of comparisons, of course, because it’s likely that if you’re thinking of listening to Charles Portis’s True Grit audiobook, it’s because you’ve seen the recent Coen Brothers’ film adaptation. Well, dear listeners, set your shoulder-chips gently down: this is one of the most gratifying movie/book relationships I’ve encountered.
Why? Because the Coen Brothers took not just the plot, but the style and the spirit of Portis’s novel and made it visual. Quick recap: It’s the 1870s and 14-year-old Mattie Ross’s father is killed by an employee named Tom Cheney. Mattie travels to Fort Smith, Arkansas, where the murder took place, and discovers that Cheney has escaped to Indian Territory, and that the Law’s not doing much to catch up with him. She hires a U.S. Marshall — a trigger-happy, one-eyed drunk named Rooster Cogburn — to track Cheney down.
Turns out, a young Texas Ranger named LeBouef is on Cheney’s trail too. So Cogburn and LeBouef take off in pursuit of Cheney — not without a good deal of grumbling about there being 14-year-old Mattie along on the ride. As for Portis’s writing style, it’s smart and deadpan; the writing is compact and assured, avoiding the trappings of melodrama that its generic conceit might attract. Mattie narrates the story, and she speaks with all the naivete and bravado of an adolescent; she’s overconfident, which brings both humor and pathos to the story. As in the movie, the characters speak without the use of contractions, and the formality of their speech clashes beautifully with the violence and bluster of their actions.
True Grit is read by author Donna Tartt, who reveals in her afterword that she’s been a lifelong fan of the book; she reads clearly and compellingly, doing total justice to Portis’s compactly powerful text. Kudos to the Coens for bringing a wider audience to this important American writer.