In an age when twittering conversation is limited to 140 characters, where children become chubby couch potatoes changing channels with a remote control or playing war games moving fantasy soldiers around on a screen, Mattie Ross is an authentic heroine -- lean, mean, articulate and downright inspirational at the toughened age of 14.
Old codgers who loved the 1969 movie for the character of Rooster Cogburn as portrayed by John Wayne will be disappointed by Jeff Bridges as Rooster. He plays the raspy drunk with too much spillover from his role in "Crazy Heart" -- but the character of Mattie is much improved. This time, we get to hear Mattie's voice as the older woman, a spinster recalling the great adventure of her youth. The cadences and perceptions in her speech are richer and more mature because they're often lifted word for word from the novel.
The Coen brothers made the movie first of all because it suited their sensibility of a Western unusual in its mix of ruthlessness with rectitude, irony with sentiment, satire with dead seriousness, and all in the service of delineating the black, white and gray coloring of good and evil. They wanted kids to like it, too. Unlike most of their graphically violent other movies, "True Grit" got a PG-13 rating.
The novel reads like a memoir. Charles Portis' crisp Southern idiom, poetic cadences, sense of place and specificity of detail lends verisimilitude in a tale from the vanishing American frontier. The novel was once required reading in American literature classes, taught along with "Huckleberry Finn" and "Tom Sawyer," where it belongs. Mattie, however, is made of sterner stuff than Mark Twain's creative children. She has been described as "Ahab's little sister" for her unrelenting pursuit of her father's killer. Tom Chaney, "a short man with cruel features," is her Moby Dick.
Mattie's character draws everyone in close with the opening of her story as remembered a half-century on:
"People do not give it credence that a 14-year-old girl could leave home and go off in the wintertime to avenge her father's blood, but it did not seem so strange then, although I will say it did not happen every day. I was just 14 years of age when a coward going by the name of Tom Chaney shot my father down in Fort Smith, Arkansas, and robbed him of his life and his horse and $150 in cash money, plus two California gold pieces that he carried in his trouser band."
The novel got lost somewhere in the past two decades as America moved into the post-literate age, reduced to a period piece. Readers lost an appreciation for Mattie's voice and her deadpan perceptions that are rife with comic understatement and ripe with universal insight. The moving prose (and the moving picture) show how Mattie's Presbyterian primness combined with Rooster's ruthlessness inevitably prevail. Duty and discipline ultimately fence in disorder by imposing justice, one way or another. "True grit" is the stuff of courage, preserving a fertile seedbed for the next generation as the Wild West is diminished to a rodeo spectator sport.
In the theater where I watched this latest version of "True Grit," I was struck by the sight of families there to watch it together -- children, parents, grandparents and friends of different generations. The adventure story has that kind of sweeping appeal, and the story is even more exciting in the written word. Americans once grew up on literature like this.
Rooster Cogburn is politically incorrect and revels in it, a "one-eyed fat man" who takes pride in his Confederate service and in having ridden with William Clarke Quantrill, the notorious border guerrilla. Rooster loves to pull a cork and rides into battle with reins between his teeth, blasting away with both guns. Spiderman he is not.
Mattie Ross grows up to be a one-armed spinster and a small-town banker in "Dardanelle, Yell County, Arkansas," who would sneer at the suggestion that she is "physically challenged." She is instead "a woman with brains and a frank tongue," but "feminist" doesn't apply either. She loves her church and her bank, expresses Scripture and platitudes of Presbyterian piety with black humor, and triumphs as a woman we can all admire. The new movie should revive the literary attention the book deserves.