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The Truest Grit

Jeff Bridges and Hailee Steinfeld in the 2010 Version of True Grit

It is generally considered a truism that a film remake is nowhere near as good as the original. Most of the time, that’s true. One case where it is not is the 2010 version of True Grit directed by Joel and Ethan Coen. I liked the John Wayne version with Kim Darby well enough, though I did not like Kim Darby near so much as I liked Hailee Steinfeld as the redoubtable Mattie Ross.

So today I decided to read Charles Portis’s 1968 novel. Earlier this year, I had read Dog of the South and Gringos and found in Portis a novelist very much to my liking. True Grit was even better. So good that I read straight through it, reveling in its language, which reminded me of the best of Mark Twain.

Novelist Charles Portis (1933-2020) with John Wayne as Rooster Cogburn in the Background

One of the things that struck me about Portis was how true he was to the idiom and the culture of his native Arkansas, even when he was setting his fiction in Mexico. Portis was not only authentic, but he was often funny and wildly entertaining. The ides of a 14-year-old-girl hiring a U.S. marshal to go after the killer of her father is by itself promising, but Portis made Mattie Ross into one of the most beloved girl characters in all of American fiction—all just by being fanatically true to her place and time.