A novel heroine

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 20 February, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 20 February, 2011, 12:00am

Charles Portis' 1968 novel True Grit features what some consider one of the most epic characters in American literature. Speaking of one of the novel's characters, 14-year-old Mattie Ross, best-selling American author George Pelecanos said: 'Mattie's voice, wry and sure, is one of the great creations of modern fiction. I put it up there with Huck Finn's and that is not hyperbole ... Most importantly, it can be appreciated by readers of various ages, education levels and economic backgrounds.'

When film-making siblings Joel and Ethan Coen reread Portis' story as adults, they were particularly drawn to the character of Mattie, and they knew they had the ideal source for a film adaptation. 'It's [the story] told by this very self-assured 14-year-old girl,' says Ethan, 'which is probably what makes the book so strange and funny. But it's also like Alice in Wonderland because this 14-year-old girl finds herself in an environment that's really, nowadays, exotic.'

Their screen version, like the novel, takes place just after the American Civil War. The spunky and impertinent Mattie (Hailee Steinfeld) arrives in Fort Smith, in the southern state of Arkansas, to collect the possessions of her father who was murdered by Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin), a farm hand who once worked for the family. Although she's only 14, Mattie is determined to find the fugitive Chaney, and so enlists the help of the most ruthless marshal on the American frontier, Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges). But the search for Chaney is further complicated when Mattie learns Texas Ranger LeBoeuf (Matt Damon) is also eager to find Chaney to earn a financial reward.

The novel was first turned into a film in 1969, with John Wayne as Marshal Rooster Cogburn. But, as Bridges explains, the Coen Brothers set out to remake the novel and not the film. 'When the Coens first mentioned the idea of making True Grit, I said 'Gee, didn't they make that movie? Why do you want to do it again?' and they said, 'We're not remaking the film, we're making a version of the original book by Charles Portis'. So I read the book and I immediately saw what they were talking about,' he says.

The Coens were excited to tackle a Western, something they had never tried before, but a genre their actors believe they are suited to.

'The dialogue in the novel is like cowboy poetry done by Shakespeare,' says Barry Pepper, who plays outlaw Lucky Ned.

'The Coen Brothers got that rhythm, that precise musicality. What's remarkable about their adaptation is how specific and true the language is. The way they have re-interpreted and then visually expanded on what Portis did in his novel is something quite beautiful and special.'

Contains scenes of violence

True Grit opens on Thursday




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