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True Grit: a Study in Loyalty

51RnJyW2OeL._SL160_At the invitation of The New York Review of Books Blog to discuss the Coen brothers’ latest incarnation of True Grit, authors Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana read the original novel by Charles Portis and viewed Henry Hathaway’s 1969 film featuring John Wayne, along with screening the latest movie starring Jeff Bridges. After reviewing all the material, McMurtry and Ossana agreed that the main theme of True Grit in all its incarnations, is loyalty. Set in 1880′s Arkansas, Rooster Cogburn, a curmudgeonly bounty hunter, is pestered by 14-year-old Mattie Ross into helping her avenge her father’s death. As they venture into dangerous Indian Territory on their search for the killer, Tom Chaney, they find an ally in La Boeuf, a Texas Ranger. This story shows that loyalty “doesn’t prevent disagreement, or out-and-out fights, but it is often the coat love wears—a tattered and ragged coat, as in this fine movie—but maybe, just maybe, the best thing we have.”

Despite the cowboy hats, horses and arid landscape, the Coen brothers have said in interviews that they don’t necessarily see True Grit as a western, and on this point McMurtry and Ossana agree.

McMurtry: “[T]hey [the Coen brothers] likened it more to Alice in Wonderland. I think they’re right. Mattie goes across the river, to a place she’s never been before, where she sees all these things…I think Donna Tartt, the critic who contributed the afterword to the paperback, was right to mention that it owes more to The Wizard of Oz than to Huck Finn

Ossana: “… because of the relentlessness of the young heroine. Dorothy wants to get back home to Kansas; Mattie wants to avenge the murder of her father at the hands of Tom Chaney. The language might feel similar to Twain’s, though Portis’s dialogue is more formal. I loved reading Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn growing up, and in fact that’s where my belief that boys have more fun than girls originated. I enjoyed True Grit the novel because a girl was having the adventures for a change.”

But on the issue of redemption for main character Rooster Cogburn, the writers disagree.

McMurtry: “I think what Scott Rudin [producer on latest film] said—that the story was about the redemption of Rooster Cogburn as the protagonist—isn’t true. I don’t think Rooster was redeemed. I know he saved Mattie’s life, but then he goes on to kill several people and to fight on the wrong side in the Johnson County War.”

Ossana: “But we don’t find out about Rooster’s future misdeeds in True Grit. The film is a different animal from the novel, a statement you’ve made yourself several times about your own adaptations. So … maybe, just maybe, saving Mattie’s life is enough redemption for Rooster in the Coen brothers’ version of the story. He rode with the scoundrel Quantrill, but that was before Mattie.”

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