Girl-power revisited in the remake of True Grit

I tend to view remakes through Leo Braudy’s critical lens, as evidencing a source’s “unfinished cultural business.” Braudy posits remakes as more than simple retellings. Positioning remakes as transacting unfinished cultural business invites exploration of the socio-historical moments of the original and the remake. As the same can be said of adaptation, this entry engages with and explores the True Grit cycle: Charles Portis’s 1968 novel, the 1969 film adaptation, and the Coen Brothers’ 2010 remake. Portis’s novel deepens the themes of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence (1962), John Ford’s elegy for the Western hero. Valence signals the death the Western hero by putting Tom Doniphon (John Wayne) in a coffin at the start of the film. Doniphon died off screen, anti-climatically, and nobody knows his true role in settling the town of Shinbone. Portis’s True Grit also contains and marginalizes its classic Western hero, ending with Rooster Cogburn dead, buried, and then dug up and re-buried. Beyond that, Cogburn died an obsolete caricature of himself, a frail old man performing in a Wild West show. This works, because the novel’s true hero is Mattie Ross, a 14 year-old girl. Thus, Portis’s novel participates in the revisionist Western’s hollowing out of the generic tropes established by Hollywood. It’s interesting, then, that the 1969 film adaptation turns away from revisionism and back toward classic Hollywood Western tropes. While Portis’s novel signals a torch-passing to Mattie’s rising generation, the movie re-centers old Rooster. It ends not with Cogburn dead (and twice-buried!) but with him alive, ornery, and riding off heroically toward the mountains. Wayne’s larger-than-life Rooster towers above Mattie (Kim Darby), shifting the film from Portis’s implicit consideration of 60s youth culture toward a validation of the “greatest” generation. With regard to transacting cultural business, the adaptation reveals cultural tensions surrounding generations in 1969 America; the film delivers a counter-argument, generating a conservative vision from a progressive text. The revisionists are wrong, the adaptation argues, the old Western hero is not dead; it’s neither time to bury/re-bury him nor yield to the younger generation. Time has not passed Rooster Cogburn and his ilk by. Far from fading into the past, they are the future. The Coens refer to their version of True Grit as an adaptation rather than a remake, suggesting that they take issue with the 1969 interpretation. In execution, their film functions as either a “faithful” adaptation of Portis’s novel or a corrective remake of the adaptation. The Coens return Cogburn to his tragic Doniphon-like status, a man unable to transition to the new West that he helped produce. Jeff Bridges’s Cogburn dominates neither the film nor Hailee Steinfeld’s Mattie, as the Coens return to Portis’s generation-formula. Rooster dies again, and the film approximates the novel’s ending by fading out on adult-Mattie standing over his (second) grave musing about the slipperiness of time. The unfinished cultural business transacted by the remake revolves around the (re)introduction of teenage Mattie Ross as the new Western hero. The film was released into a culture overtly considering the ability of young girls to carry action movies. Specifically, 2010 sees teenage girls avenge the killing of their fathers in a range of typically male-dominated genres: beyond Steinfeld’s turn in the Western, Jennifer Lawrence plays a neo-noir detective in Winter’s Bone, Chloe Grace Moretz a super hero in Kick Ass, and Saoirse Ronan an assassin in Hanna. The Coens’ remake harkens back to Portis’s novel in order to contradict Wayne’s film. In doing so, it repurposes 40+ year old sources to fit right into its own moment.

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