People do not give it credence that a fourteen-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 fourteen 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.
Thus begins one of my favorite novels published in my lifetime and the first book I ever bought for myself in hardcover: Charles Portis's True Grit (I proudly have that first edition from 1968 still). What enchanted me then was the language, perfectly captured in its opening paragraph with its economical and commonsense use of commas, disregarding grammatical rules for rules' sake (which might beg for a comma after the word "blood" but which our narrator Mattie Ross knows full well is not needed to get her point across and cares not how others might judge her for the omission). In two sentences, her age at the time of the atrocity is repeated--establishing (1) that our narrator is no longer that age and (2) at that age something incontrovertibly turned her into the person she would become. Then there's the naming of what Chaney took from her father, clear and exact as the red ink markings in a T account. Then, too, there's the use of the word "credence," an old-fashioned word with reverberations of credibility, credit, and credentials that an adolescent prone to making deals and casting judgments (such as calling somebody a "coward") would be inclined to use. In fewer than 100 words, Portis tells us pretty much everything we will need to know about our protagonist and narrator.
These words also begin the new film adaptation of the novel by writers and directors Joel and Ethan Coen. Their respect for Portis's diction and their appreciation for nineteenth-century America, when a colorful turn of phrase was still a form of public entertainment, are what make this film vastly superior to the Oscar-winning John Wayne version of 1969. Unlike that early version the Coens' film retains the pokerfaced Gothicism of the novel--matter-of-factly recounting the horror of violence ("The woman was out in the yard dead with blowflies on her head and the old man was inside with his breast blowed open by a scatter-gun and his feet burned"), with a dusky look that conveys the malarial enervation of frontier life, which Portis's prose and Paul Davis's original book jacket design likewise connote, entirely missing from the 1969 film, whose tone is virtually indistinguishable from El Dorado or The War Wagon or most other Hollywood westerns of the late sixties.
The performances of Hailee Steinfeld and Jeff Bridges are more nuanced and drolly humorous than those of Kim Darby and John Wayne. I would not mind at all if Bridges won his second Oscar in the role that gave Wayne his first and only. (I do not begrudge Wayne his Oscar for his portrayal of Rooster Cogburn, though not one of his best, because he clearly deserved the award 13 years earlier for his performance as Ethan Edwards, the racist with a heart of granite in The Searchers.) I hope the Academy remembers Steinfeld and Josh Brolin (as Chaney) too. I hardly need to add that Matt Damon (as LaBoeuf, a Texas Ranger) is a better actor than Glen Campbell.
What's more, the Coens' and music director Carter Burwell's decision to use traditional music (notably "Leaning on the Everlasting Arms") instead of something resembling the 1969 film's sweeping orchestral score, is a good one, evoking the sterner fiber of the nineteenth-century American soul, without the sturm-und-drang and smarmy sentiment of late sixties Hollywood. Even more noteworthy are the long stretches where no music score undergirds the action on screen or tries to cue us the audience as to how we are supposed to feel about it. The Coens lift long swatches of dialogue from the book, without embellishment or updating (or dumbing down), and lets Portis's earthy prose, often mumbled, always drawled (therefore requiring some attention), carry its own weight.
If True Grit is not the best screen adaptation of a book I love, I cannot for the life of me remember the one that is. Oh, yes, I do recommend it.