Thursday, December 23, 2010


WINTER’S BONE, one of the best movies we’ve seen this year, opened early in the year. Now, three days before Christmas, 2010, TRUE GRIT opens. This is the Coen Brothers version of Charles Portis’s 1968 novel, starring Jeff Bridges, Hailee Steinfeld, and Josh Brolin. This is not a Christmas movie but rather, like the novel itself, an absurdist comedy, a gothic western.

The October, 2006, edition of FIRSTS: THE BOOK COLLECTOR’S MAGAZINE featured the books of Charles Portis. Of True Grit, Robin H. Smiley writes:

“I was dazzled by the book, a turn on the traditional Western set apart by its use of vernacular and its unforgettable central characters , , ,seldom has a character been so finely hewn out of pure language as Mattie Ross. Portis’s judicious use of late-Nineteenth-century Western dialect is integral to establishing her strength and vitality.”

Indeed. In an Andrew Haddon interview, the Coen Brothers say that both the language and the humor in the book were crucial in the making of the movie:

“I have to say, one of the things, when we first saw the first take of Hailee [Steinfeld] doing a scene from the movie, 99.9% of the hundreds or thousands of girls that read for this part didn't have the facility to [speak as we needed them to]. They sort of washed out at the level of not being able to do the language. That was something which was never an issue with Hailee. Right from the beginning, it was clear that she was completely comfortable with the language. The language isn't, as everyone's pointed out, our language. That was the threshold level at which you could sort of hope to do the part, but Hailee had it right from the get-go in a very, very natural way.”

Coincidentally in that same issue of FIRSTS MAGAZINE, mentioned above, Robin Smiley wrote a long review of a new book, WINTER’S BONE by Daniel Woodrell, then retailing in first edition for $22.99, and with 40% off that at Amazon. Smiley touted it as the collectable book of the month, and indeed first editions are now selling for hundreds of dollars.

Of course, if you just want a reading copy of Winter's Bone or TRUE GRIT, there are plenty to be found.  There is an unabridged audio edition of True Grit that is read by southern novelist Donna Tartt, author of THE SECRET HISTORY, "who includes a thoughtful, deeply felt and appreciative essay at the end of the recording."

Back then, Smiley wrote of WINTER'S BONE:

“The protagonist is Ree Dolly, a tough teenaged girl who has been compared with Charles Portis’s TRUE GRIT heroine, Mattie Ross. Both are from Arkansas, both have responsibilities unknown to other girls their age; both have astonishingly strong wills and do not compromise…The Dollys and all their kin have peopled these hills since the time of Mattie Ross.”

The marked difference between them is that, while Mattie seeks vengeance, Ree seeks only to live, and to take care of her family according to the code of behavior she has inherited. Mattie wants vengeance and is not willing to compromise, but Ree is willing to forgive. The end of WINTER’S BONE even tosses you the bone of a possibility that the father had willingly sacrificed himself for the benefit of his children.

TRUE GRIT is an absurdist-comic vengeance western with a puritanical heroine, and WINTER'S BONE is bleakly gothic noir with hardly a religious reference at all, ending with redemptive forgiveness.  I ask you, which movie has the better Christmas message?

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