True Grit – Comparatively

I’ve watched both movie versions of the western True Grit in the past few weeks. I have to say I like them both. I think the modern Coen brothers version is a better movie, but the visceral thrill of the original leads me to pick it as my favourite. That thrill comes mostly from the presence of John Wayne in the main role and the sheer joy and recklessness of the climax.

This post isn’t a review though. What stuck me most, watching the two versions, is how different they were without being different. That is really keen and makes me wish that there were more remakes of this type. I think the latter movie goes back to the book for its inspiration rather than being an adaptation of the first movie. I think that often it is the reverse that you see.

If you have never seen either version, the plot goes like so:

A plowhand kills a farmer while they are off selling ponies and flees into Indian Country. The farmer’s 14-year-old daughter, Mattie Ross, goes to town to retrieve the body for transept and burial. She decides to seek justice and retribution. She finished her father’s business in town and hires a Marshall, Roster (Reuben) Cogburn, to take her into the back country and bring the murderer back to town for justice and hanging.

The murderer, Tom Chaney, has join a gang of bandit led by Ned Pepper. He is also being chased by a texas Ranger, LaBoeuf, for previous crimes. Cogburn, LaBoeuf and Mattie band together against the Pepper gang and have a series of misadventures during their hunt.

A little research shows that the more recent movie is closer in its adaptation than the John Wayne original. But the plot is mostly note for note intact. What changes is the staging, tone, and pacing of the scenes.

Let’s give an example. In the Wayne movie, Mattie Ross calls upon the spectre of an attorney’s power many times during the movie. It is in doubt as to whether the lawyer actually exists or if he is just a fictional threat. In a scene bargaining for her father’s horses, she threatens the hostler with the lawyer. When she does so the hostler wilts and gives in. Mattie produces a signed writ from the attorney at the end of the scene made out, seemingly prophetically, for the exact amount of the bargain and terms of agreement. The attorney is played mostly for laughs including the final reveal at the end which show whether he does or doesn’t actually exist.

In the same scene in the Coen Bros. movie, the lawyer just seems to be a normal small town attorney. He is not really played for laughs although still used as an example of Mattie’s stubbornness and gumption. The hostler does not seem to be scared of the legal threat, but gives in more due to Mattie’s persistence. Mattie must wait for the delivery of the signed agreement rather than producing it on the spot.

Another example of difference is the portrayal of Rooster. The Jeff Bridge’s version is a much more pathetic drunk than the John Wayne version. The Coen Bros. include a new scene with Rooster getting so drunk he can’t sit his horse and then attempting to shoot corn bread out of the air like skeets and failing. While elements of the scene are funny, it exists more to show that Mattie may have picked the wrong man to serve as her instrument.

A final example is staging. In the first movie, when the three set out there are a series of three scenes where Rooster and LaBoeuf resist Mattie’s accompaniment. First on the town side of the ferry, next on the back-country side of the ferry landing and finally in the bush after a horse race. In the Coen Bros. there is only the one encounter. Both contain the same key details though – the two lawmen ride out without her, they tell the ferry owner she is a runaway, Mattie gets her horse to swim across the river, and LaBoeuf gives her a switching, which Rooster stops, as a final attempt to dissuade her.

The effect of both seemed very similar to me. The Coen Bros. version took less time I think. The Wayne version included a horse race which was cool. But otherwise it seems to just highlight the different choices that get made.

There are many more elements that are different between the two films. The relationship between Rooster and LaBoeuf is darker in the later movie as is the ending. While the humour is often black in both shows it seems a bit more sinister in the Coen Bros.

If you have the time, I’d encourage you to watch both. They are two excellent movies with the same plot that are quite different.

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