I read the novel “True Grit” by Charles Portis recently because I wanted to see what compelled Joel and Ethan Coen to remake the original movie. The novel, by Charles Portis, is short, and written in a straight forward style. It is funny and engaging and it didn’t take long to figure why the Coens loved it–it reads like one of their movies. The material is right in their wheelhouse.
There was a piece on Portis, a private man with no interest in celebrity, this past weekend in the Times Magazine:
There’s a special challenge in adapting a writer like Portis for the screen, because so much of his craft lies in that combination of word-music and sensibility called literary voice. Borrowing his dialogue is a start, and the Coens have done that, as well as employing voice-over passages plucked from the novel. And the dialogue they have added sounds suitably Portisesque: “He has abandoned me to a congress of louts,” for instance, and “I am a foolish old man who has been drawn into a wild-goose chase by a harpy in trousers and a nincompoop.”
But filmmakers have other ways to mimic the effect of literary voice. Think of film noir’s use of low-key lighting to express Chandler’s dark vision of his characters’ inner lives or how different directors try to catch Philip K. Dick’s signature feeling of creeping unreality with trippy special effects or extreme close-ups. And then there’s acting style. John Wayne’s mannered presence, his declamatory line readings and mincing he-man gait, suited him well to Portis’s mock-epic tone. Similarly, the actors in the Coens’ “True Grit” communicate a winning sort of self-importance by puffing themselves up, portentously matching words to actions (“I extend my hand”) and gnawing their lines as if extracting tobacco juice from them.
For more on Portis, check out Tom Wolfe’s famous story, “The Birth of the New Journalism”:
…At the desk behind mine in the Herald Tribune city room sat Charles Portis. Portis was the original laconic cutup. At one point he was asked onto a kind of Meet the Press show with Malcolm X, and Malcolm X made the mistake of giving the reporters a little lecture before they went on about how he didn’t want to hear anybody calling him “Malcolm,” because he was not a dining-car waiter—his name happened to be “Malcolm X.” By the end of the show Malcolm X was furious. He was climbing the goddamned acoustical tiles. The original laconic cutup, Portis, had invariably and continually addressed him as “Mr. X” . . . “Now, Mr. X, let me ask you this . . .” Anyway, Portis had the desk behind mine. Down in a bullpen at the far end of the room was Jimmy Breslin. Over to one side sat Dick Schaap. We were all engaged in a form of newspaper competition that I have never known anybody to even talk about in public. Yet Schaap had quit as city editor of the New York Herald Tribune, which was one of the legendary jobs in journalism—moved down the organizational chart, in other words—just to get in this secret game.
…As for our little league of feature writers—two of the contestants, Portis and Breslin, actually went on to live out the fantasy. They wrote their novels. Portis did it in a way that was so much like the way it happens in the dream, it was unbelievable. One day he suddenly quit as London correspondent for the Herald Tribune. That was generally regarded as a very choice job in the newspaper business. Portis quit cold one day; just like that, without a warning. He returned to the United States and moved into a fishing shack in Arkansas. In six months he wrote a beautiful little novel called Norwood. Then he wrote True Grit, which was a best seller. The reviews were terrific . . . He sold both books to the movies . . . He made a fortune . . . A fishing shack! In Arkansas! It was too goddamned perfect to be true, and yet there it was. Which is to say that the old dream, The Novel, has never died.