The Ken Burns Effect

Jeff Bridges and Hailee Steinfeld squint, mumble, and take
themselves very seriously in the Coen Brothers’

Here’s a question: Do filmmakers have a responsibility to the words that have inspired readers? If you base your movie on a great novel, are you obligated to follow it exactly?

This is a question I struggled with during a screening of the Coen Brothers’ newest flick, True Grit (now showing at Bow Tie Cinemas.) True Grit is both a remake and a faithful adaptation of Charles Portis’ novel of the same name.

The book should be a classic–it is a beautiful and moving story, funny as all hell, and
Portis has been lauded recently by the Oxford American with a literary prize honoring him. The film is not really a classic, but it is a beloved John Wayne western, the one that finally nabbed him that Oscar.

As a writer myself, I have to say that if you gave me a choice of a filmmaker who would adapt my novel faithfully, or someone who would using at a springboard to leap into something entirely new, I’d take the latter. Children of MenThe Big Sleep–these are great movies that inspired different directors and bear little resemblance to their source novel. There are very few close-hewn adaptations that are anything but boring.

The story is pretty simple: Mattie Ross has come to town to bury her father, who was gunned down in the streets by their hired hand, Tom Chaney. Father Ross and Chaney were there to buy some ponies. Chaney got drunk and belligerent, so Ross tried to calm his employee down, and was shot to death by the lush, who fled into the mountains and into Indian territory. Mattie, headstrong and intelligent, hires the violent Rooster Cogburn, a marshall, to find Chaney and bring him to justice. Along the way, a Texas Ranger named La Boeuf arrives seeking the killer as well… and the chase is on.

In anticipation of the Coens’ movie, I read the book, was blown away, and then saw the mediocre Henry Hathaway flick, with Kim Darby as Mattie. I should say “allegedly mediocre” because actually Hathaway’s version, though broad-humored and ill-lit, is actually a crack western. It diverges only once from the novel, but actually makes the story more brutal, killing off a major character who survives in the book.

Well, the Coens supposedly decided not remake the film, but claimed they were just following the book more closely. It’s true, to a degree–this True Grit does not kill that character, and keeps the dialogue sounding as it did in print. That is, in a very stilted way, a dialect of the west around the turn of the last century. But that’s about all they did, for this Grit is dull as the shine on an unpolished silver dollar.

Whether it’s Oscar gold or some other lofty reason, the Coens decided to make their True Grit a fairly pretentious operation. Grit is easily the most overwrought film I’ve seen this year, every scene looking drenched in butter for all its warm browns and candle light. The dialogue is ruinous, and poorly delivered all around. Like Shakespeare, it works only for the most masterful actors and directors–a great talent can make Hamlet sparkle with a clarity to rival The Social Network. The Coens love of having dull-witted people speak as if they consult a thesaurus regularly upends them here: no one seems real, sounding instead like volunteers in a museum reenactment.

It would not surprise me if the Coens hadn’t actually read True Grit. In the past, the Coens have claimed that O Brother, Where Art Thou? was based on the Odyssey, which they claimed they hadn’t read. They’ve called Raymond Chandler’s work “insanely eupeptic”–in other words, insanely cheerful. Under no circumstances could you suggest that anything by Chandler fits that bill. And here we see the boys taking the life out of True Grit, a book just bursting with energy.

Grit is, well, gritty, but it is not as somber as this damn movie. This version gives us Mattie’s voice over, and with the plaintive piano, it sounds like they’ve been inspired to make a Ken Burns documentary, this time on wild west justice. Each scene takes an
interminable amount of time, much like a Burns doc, hovering over every detail, as if verisimilitude were the primary goal.

This movie is at a distinct disadvantage in that it’s competing against the original, with all its great actors. For instance, the beleaguered Col. Stonehill, the horse dealer whom is brow-beaten by Mattie’s stubbornness, was played by Strother Martin–you can’t
beat that, and poor Dakin Matthews does a noble effort to fill those shoes. Much has been made of Jeff Bridges’ Cogburn, but I thought he was nearly terrible, mumbling his words and doing his best to be iconic. Wayne’s been criticized for his work in
Grit, some critics suggesting he was sleepwalking through it, but that’s far from the truth– it’s a rambling, fun performance, on par with his best work for Howard
Hawks. And Hailee Stenfield as Mattie–well, she squints and punches her words out hoping we’ll think she’s strong. She’s no comparison to Kim Darby, who acted as if she herself had just come in off the prairie.

Consider the scene when Mattie rolls Cogburn’s cigarette. For starters, director Henry Hathaway understood this was the first scene with these characters, and it ought to be a
doozy. There’s a little dance going on here, and it’s perfectly staged–Wayne’s timing is great. Darby is sassy and bold, and there’s even a bit of sexual tension here–Hathaway was not afraid to examine that a little bit, as fourteen-year-olds were marriagable back then. (You can see this scene almost in its entirety at the :21 mark in the trailer.)

The Coens utterly drain the life out of this moment, with Bridges bumbling and stuttering, Steinfeld doing her best to bully the air around her, the camera work unable to capture this first dance. It doesn’t work at all. Neither does the added violence. A scene in a beat up cabin works better here (I’ll leave it to you to figure out which one), but the dead bodies littering the landscape seem like props rather than actual bodies, and Mattie’s gaping at them is a cheap way to make us feel horror. In the book and the original, the violence was never lingered over–part of the point was that in the
west people saw this every day, as exemplified by the hanging (which barely bothers Mattie, who is obviously seen this stuff before.)

No, the modern True Grit is serious, it is noble, filled with gorgeous images, music that will appeal to the folks who bought the O Brother soundtrack, and chock full of Oscar-worthy performances (Matt Damon is actually quite good, and a hell of an improvement over Glen Campbell in the original.) It doesn’t matter that it doesn’t live up to the book
(what could), nor does it matter that it isn’t like the original. True Grit fails because it commits the worst crime of all–tedium. It’s never funny when it wants to be, never exciting when it should be, and bludgeons you with its tired soundtrack and gorgeous, though empty, cinematography.

The story of Mattie Ross deserves better, and fortunately it’s been given life in a dazzling novel and a thumpingly good western… from 1969. Read the book, see the original, and forget this one ever happened. And even if you do see the new True Grit, you’ll probably forget it anyway.

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2 Responses to The Ken Burns Effect

  1. Pingback: Coen Brothers Redux | James River Film Journal

  2. Pingback: One Curmudgeon’s Opinion: The Ten Most Over-Rated Films of All Time | James River Film Journal

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