Some authors have the remarkable gift of writing one great novel after another. Although an accomplished author with a definite satirical bent, today Charles Portis is remembered for only one novel: True Grit. And justly so, for while it portrays the rough life on the prairies of America, Portis often has his tongue firmly in his cheek. Perhaps no more so than in his lead character, Mattie Ross, a fourteen-year-old girl who sets out to have her vengeance and the law’s justice on the man who killed her father.
Although two men strive to be the foci of the story, it is indeed Mattie who has the true grit of the title. Although I shan’t invoke a spoiler alert and tell you how she fares, the conclusion is actually far less important than the story of her journey. Portis does a remarkable job of getting into the head and the heart of a young teenaged girl (the story is told in reflection by the elderly Mattie), and it’s upon this feat that the novel stands so tall.
I’d read True Grit (1968) years ago, much to my delight, and forgotten that I owned the trade paperback edition when, in an apparent fit of nostalgia, I bought the mass-market paperback to read the book once more. No mind, thought I, and as I began reading I continually saw John Wayne, with a patch over one eye, playing Marshal Rooster Cogburn. So it wasn’t a great leap to watch the movie again, also after many years had passed since seeing it for the first time.
Watching “True Grit” (1969) I was looking for fidelity to the story, because so much hinged on seeing events through Mattie’s eyes. John Wayne was excellent, but Kim Darby as Mattie? Not so much. She was, at 22, way too old to be playing a 14-year-old. She wore her hair in a 1960s-stylish, sculpted bob, unbefitting a rough-and-tumble cowgirl. And she just didn’t have grit.
This led to my watching the remake, “True Grit” (2010). This version was much more satisfying in its fidelity to the novel and it character portrayals, and had three assets in its favor: one, the Coen Brothers directed; two, Jeff Bridges played Cogburn, beating Wayne out by a nose, and three, then just- seventeen Haylee Steinfeld as Mattie. The Coens brought to the screen Portis’s wry humor; Bridges had an existential ennui that Wayne didn’t (or couldn’t); and Steinfeld just plain stole the movie with her spot-on portrayal of a rough-around-the-edges frontiers . . . ah, young woman.
If you’re going to read it, try to find the Overlook Press edition with Donna Tartt’s Introduction. It’s worth a read.
Oh, and after all this I was intrigued to read more of Charles Portis’s works, so I found a copy of Masters of Atlantis (1985). Alas, it didn’t hold a candle, lit or otherwise, to True Grit. You can hear/feel/see Portis trying to get to that ironic level of storytelling, but it just isn’t there. As they might say in his home state of Arkansas, it has an interesting premise but is about as dull as a box of rocks.