Sunday, January 2, 2011

A Truly Gritty Journey

If True Grit by Charles Portis were published today, it would show up on the shelves of the YA section at your local Borders bookstore. It has all the hallmarks of a modern YA novel: a young main character, a journey fraught with action and danger at every turn, life-changing experiences for the MC, tragedy and loss... It has also been turned into a blockbuster film not once, but twice in the last few decades. The current version stars Matt Damon, Jeff Bridges, and a bright new star – Hailee Steinfield as the determined and tough (and 14 year old) Mattie Ross.

In the interest of clarity, I haven’t actually read the novel. Nope. (Shame on me, I know. It will soon go on my reserve list at the library.) But I LOVED the original movie when I was a kid (John Wayne still ROCKS!) and I couldn’t wait to see Joel and Ethan Coen’s remake when it came out last week.

I want to hang with Mattie. (Hang in the current way…you know – drink lattes and talk about books… Not the wild west version of “hang”…) Mattie speaks like a Victorian novel on speed – all hopped up and rapid-fire, like she can’t stop herself from showing her smarts and her dogged determination even if she wanted to.

Mattie is no shrinking violet – no. She takes on the chase – experiences her own Hero’s Journey – and triumphs. She is far outside of any wild west stereotype of a girl or young woman. Endowed with the intelligence to outwit local businessmen, hire Rooster Cogburn because he is a man of “true grit” even if he’s drunk most of the time, and fight her way to accompany him on the journey into Indian territory…she absolutely proves her own grit. And her own truth.

As an example of the hero’s journey, you can’t get much better than this story. There are fantastic scenes reminiscent of Greek or Roman myths, and character archetypes we all know and love. If Mattie is our hero, then Rooster makes a fine Obi Wan – teaching Mattie about life and her own strengths and weaknesses (though they are few). LaBoef (Matt Damon) is a less rascally Han Solo. He is the handsome “helper” who shows up intermittently to help Mattie along on her journey, just as Han and Chewie helped Luke. Even Little Blackie fills a role as Mattie’s side kick. Watch out R2D2!

The mythology of the old west mingles with the classics. Mattie crosses a river not in Charon’s ferry, but on her little black horse. She and Rooster encounter a body hung high from a tree, two outlaws more willing to kill one another than reveal any truth, and the real murderer – only to discover he is only one arm of a larger “body” of evil.  Her journey is hard but Mattie is tough. Like Hercules, she knows her end goal and will complete any number of trials to see it through to the end.

I hope the novel depicts Mattie the same way the Coen brothers did in this movie. But until I can get my hands on the book, I’ll settle for keeping up my admiration for the movie version of this heroine. If you haven’t seen this film yet, I’d give it all the stars I could find. I’m also going to predict that we see more than one of these actors nominated for Oscars later this year for their brilliant performances.

Go see it. Put down that book (I know…eerie isn’t it? That I know you are reading a book?) and log off of your laptop. Go to the movies. They have popcorn there! Go on! As Rooster would say, “Git!”


  1. Fun review--thanks for the endorsement. Seems like a movie to see. Loved the line "hang in the current way, you know--lattes and talk about books. Not the wild west version of hang.." Made me chuckle :-)

  2. OO sounds fabulous - haven't seen the old or new versions - and love the Coen brothers (usually) of course... although nothing has yet touched my love for Fargo...

  3. Hi Karen. Loved your post and I am off to see the movie (I hope). I usually try to read the books first, but my reading list is sooo long right now, the movie will be long gone from the big screen (sad and whimpy excuse, but true all the same).

    Hope all is well with you and you had a happy holiday. You asked a question on my blog a while ago and my new year's resolution was to respond (it was acutally a tough question).

    I would love your feedback and I hope I was able to respond adequately.

    All the best and happy new year,
    Meryl Jaffe

  4. I saw your post already, Meryl! And commented back at ya!

    Interestingly, I was with my writing critique group last night, and the one other woman who had seen True Grit absolutely hated it! But then again, she was not a Coen brothers I'm sure that had something to do with her reaction. She didn't seem to appreciate the dark humor that is typical of their work at all and thought Jeff Bridges portrayal of Rooster was "over the top" -- whereas I'm hoping he gets an Oscar!

  5. Just finished this book (must admit I listened to it as an audiobook) and immediantly downloaded it onto my kindle to reread. I also put it on my 11 year old daughter's kindle- I can't imagine a better role model than Mattie Ross.