Spangler’s From Sentence to Screen: True Grit

The novel True Grit (1968) by Charles Portis is a highly regarded western, which has been adapted to film twice. The more recent of the two adaptations was released in 2010 by the Coen brothers and starred Hailee Steinfeld as Mattie Ross, Jeff Bridges as Deputy U.S. Marshal Reuben J. “Rooster” Cogburn, Matt Damon as the Texas Ranger LaBoeuf, and Josh Brolin as Tom Chaney. The film starts with narration from 14-year-old Mattie Ross, telling the viewer how her father was killed. It then cuts to her on the train, going to see her father’s body and have it sent home to her mother. When Mattie talks with the town sheriff about arresting the man, Tom Chaney, responsible, he informs her that there was nothing he could do because the killer fled into Native American territory. Not happy with this answer, she asks the sheriff if she could hire a U.S. Marshal to arrest Chaney, and he points her in the direction of Rooster Cogburn. After much convincing, Rooster eventually takes Mattie’s deal and agrees to track down Chaney for her. It turns out that Chaney is also a wanted man in Texas, and a Texas Ranger, LaBoeuf, is attempting to arrest him for his crimes in the other state. Mattie doesn’t like that if LaBoeuf catches Chaney, he will not be held accountable for her father’s murder. The two men decide that they don’t want a young girl to get in the way of their search for Chaney and attempt to leave her behind. Mattie is determined, though, to see justice for her father, so eventually, Cogburn and LaBoeuf give in and allow her to come with to catch Chaney. In this blog, I will be looking at how fidelity, the essence of the medium, and story elements contribute to the effectiveness of this adaptation. 

When looking at film adaptations, one of the first ideas that must be considered is how faithful the new version sticks to the original, or what is called fidelity. Throughout the movie, it is clear just how closely the filmmakers referenced the book. In many scenes, the dialogue and character actions are almost exactly the same as in the novel. The first time this becomes apparent is in the narration at the beginning of the film when an older Mattie introduces the viewer to the time, place, and what happened to set the story in motion. This introduction is word-for-word, the same as in the opening of Portis’s novel. The way the novel’s speaker, Mattie, opens the story is important as it lets the reader know the events are a recollection of memories from her childhood. Next, there is a scene between Mattie and Colonel Stonehill, the man who Mattie’s father bought horses from before his murder, where they are unable to decide how much he is willing to give her to take the horses back. The dialogue and setting of the exchange are the same from in the novel, but there is an added level of tension the cinematography brings to this scene. The camera starts from over-the-shoulder shots and gradually switches to single shots that almost function as point of view; so whenever one character makes a counter-offer, the viewer sees it from the other character’s perspective. This creates tension because the viewer doesn’t see the characters in the same shot again until they make a tentative agreement. Besides the two instances mentioned above, several other scenes in True Grit show the filmmakers’ perusal of fidelity for this adaption while also enhancing the story when possible through filmmaking techniques.

With adapting a story into a new medium comes techniques of storytelling specific to that medium, in this case, film. Film is a multitrack medium, which means the ideas already presented in a written form can be enhanced and expanded upon in new ways like sound, CGI, cinematography, etc. The Coen brothers decided to keep the story’s format, such as the memory or recounting of events by Mattie in True Grit. When Mattie’s narration starts the picture is completely black, but as more information is given, warm candlelight fades in and begins to show the scene, though it is blurry. Slowly the scene comes into focus, and the viewer sees a snowy night and a dead man in front of a house, then a man on horseback rides into the shot only to ride out again without the camera following his movement. Though the story is about the pursuit of the man on horseback, the reason for this opening is the dead man is Mattie’s father. Keeping the camera in place serves two functions, the first being that it lets the viewer know what is really important to Mattie, that being her dead father. The next is the fact she wasn’t actually there to witness the murder, and it’s only Mattie’s imagination of what happened. In the book, we get the narration of what happened through  Mattie who tells us that it was what was told to her. In the movie, the viewer also knows this to be the case of the cinematography used. The slow fade-in of light and focusing of the image represents the formation of the image in Mattie’s mind that came when she was told her father was killed. The filmmaker’s choice to show that this story, like in the novel, is from Mattie’s perspective is an important detail that affects how Maddie is seen. Whether that perspective stays constant within the story, is what makes the distinction between a loose adaptation or an intermediate one in this case. 

The last factors of film adaptation to examine are the characters and overall plot. In True Grit, the plot stays the same with characters starting in relatively the same place, physically and mentally, as in the book, and the same is true with the ending. For time’s sake, several scenes are cut out of the film, but most are referenced, whether that means combining them with another scene or using some bits of the dialogue meant for the one cut. Like when Mattie rides from her house to the river and meets up with Rooster and LaBoeuf on the other side, eventually convincing them to let her come with them to hunt Tom Chaney. The book makes these two different events taking place within several hours of each other, but making them one scene makes sense when deciding how to cut down on time. When looking at the plot, some events or conversations happen in a different order as well, when there was character information that needed to be expressed earlier for the viewer’s understanding. The book often has Mattie interjecting information at certain parts even if she didn’t know those things at that point in the story, but it was necessary for the reader to understand. Changing the order of some events in the movie is effectively what the Coen brothers were trying to do in order to give that needed information, since the older Mattie only gave narration at the very beginning and end of the film.             

Character personalities and motivations were clearly translated when adapted to the 2010 film. Even if something was not explicitly stated, the Coen brothers made sure to reference certain parts of the characters’ personalities that affected how they interacted with each other. With Mattie, this is easier to see because of her role as the book’s narrator; those moments can be pointed out almost immediately. In an interview, Joel Coen talked about this in relation to Mattie’s obsession with money, how thrifty she is, and that she owns the town bank at the end of the book. Instead, the film gives us moments where the viewer can see Mattie negotiating finance matters with people and mentioning that her mother isn’t good at math, insinuating that she is the one who deals with those matters. Then later, Tom Chaney calls her “Mattie the bookkeeper,” subtly confirming the idea of her obsession with money and her responsibilities in the family business. Information about Rooster and LaBoeuf is revealed when they are fighting or talking to Mattie, similar to how it is in Portis’s novel. The biggest difference that I found when it came to the characters and plot was when LaBoeuf left Mattie and Rooster, which at first seems like a major change, but once you look at the character’s personality and previous reactions to his traveling companions, this change starts to make sense. LaBoeuf is a very prideful man and doesn’t like being talked back to by those he thinks are lesser than him, like Mattie, which prompts him to spank her. In the film, when Rooster insults him and the Texas Rangers, his response to leave makes sense for his character. Both in the movie’s portrayal and the novel’s, even though in the original story he stays with the other characters the whole time. Even given these differences, the characters, story, and overall tone remained the same between the two mediums.

When adapting a story for film or television, several important details must be considered and affect how an audience familiar with the original product views the new medium. Whether or not these things are followed determines if the film is labeled as loose, intermediate, or a point of departure adaption. Given these definitions, True Grit can be considered an intermediate adaptation when looking at the ideas of fidelity, essence of the medium, plot, and characters. The filmmakers went into the adaptation process with the intention of making their film as faithful to the original novel as possible, looking to enhance the story through cinematography and other techniques. Like any adaptation, some things have to be edited for time constraints or because the information doesn’t translate well from book to screen. The Coen brothers’ use of artistic license was used sparingly and only meant to make the story logical while keeping it as entertaining for the viewer as possible.

— Jo Spangler, Film blogger.

Jo’s bio:

Jo Spangler
Jo Spangler

Jo Spangler is a junior at Lewis University, majoring in English Literature and Language with a minor in Creative Writing. She is a writing tutor in the Lewis Writing Center and a Youth Enrichment Aide for the YMCA. In her free time, Jo enjoys reading, writing, listening to music, and watching movies. She has been to 10 countries outside the United States, including England, Italy, Turkey, and Austria. One of Jo’s favorite book series is The All Souls Trilogy, by Deborah Harkness, because of how she mixes the supernatural with history and the focus on character development. In the future, she hopes to go into the publishing industry to help find new and exciting books for people to read.

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