Ten years on from its release, True Grit has settled firmly into the middle ground of Joel and Ethan Coen’s filmography. It’s well-respected in the Coen canon but doesn’t seem to be many people’s favourite. This is, perhaps, because it is not particularly “Coenesque”. At first glance, True Grit lacks the quirks and postmodern touches that define the brothers’ style in the popular imagination, and instead plays as a straight, even traditional, western. Adding in the fact that it is one of the Coens’ few adaptations, it is easy to label True Grit a solid but unoriginal effort.

True Grit may be among the Coens’ least archetypal films, but it is also one of their best and a masterclass in literary adaptation – one which could not have been achieved if the brothers’ style was not so well-suited to the source material. The original 1968 novel True Grit by Charles Portis is rife with irony, black humour, arbitrary violence, idiosyncratic verbiage, and esoteric allusions. If the 2010 film seems low on Coen brothers flavour, I believe it is at least partly because that flavour is inseparable from a faithful rendering of Portis’ authorial voice. The Coens’ True Grit is an excellent film for many reasons – universally strong performances, stark sepia-tinged cinematography, a haunting hymnal score – but its greatest strength is its ability to understand and adapt Portis’ voice.

Courtesy of: Paramount Pictures

By rights, the novel should have – and has – made for a rougher page-to-screen translation. Portis tells his story through the voice of septuagenarian Mattie Ross recounting her experiences as a 14-year-old in post-Civil War frontier country. Mattie narrates in a dry Arkansas patois and often makes detours to moralise on proceedings from the perspective of a Presbyterian spinster confident in her own place among the elect. The book’s comedy – and it is chiefly a funny book – comes from Mattie’s particular voice and its incongruity with the events she is describing. As author and Portis fan extraordinaire Donna Tartt writes in the New York Times:

“Portis caught better than any writer then alive the complex and highly inflected regional vernacular I heard spoken as a child [in neighbouring Mississippi] — mannered and quaint, old-fashioned and highly constructed but also blunt, roughshod, lawless, inflected by Shakespeare and Tennyson and King James but also by agricultural gazetteers and frilly old Christian pamphlets, by archaic dictionaries of phrase and fable, by the voices of mule drivers and lady newspaper poets and hanging judges and hellfire preachers.”

Portis wrote five novels, all of which exhibit a similar dry humour, often in the tone of his native Arkansas. Upon his death earlier this year tributes poured out declaring him one of the great American writers – if he is not often found in the canon alongside your Hemingways and Fitzgeralds and the like, it is likely because he used his literary powers in service of comedy. As the author Roy Blount Jr. has remarked, “Portis could have been Cormac McCarthy if he wanted to, but he’d rather be funny.” If adapting acclaimed literature to film was hard enough, you might imagine that adapting funny literature was even more likely to go wrong.

John Wayne and Charles Portis on the set of True Grit (1969). Courtesy of: Paramount Pictures

Henry Hathaway’s 1969 True Grit is a perfectly fine western but a poor adaptation of the novel. The script by Marguerite Roberts sticks closely to Portis’ plot and lifts much of his dialogue directly, but without Mattie’s first-person narration we lose not only the book’s unique tone and humour, but also its main character. Kim Darby, 21 at the time, plays a passable Mattie, but the movie belongs to John Wayne as Mattie’s hired marshal Rooster Cogburn. As a result it’s a very good Wayne vehicle which even earned him his only Academy Award, but it is not True Grit.

The main reason the Coen brothers’ adaptation succeeds where Hathaway’s fails is the later film’s commitment to keeping Mattie at its centre. This may have been an obvious choice, but it was also a risky one, hanging the entire movie on the casting of its 14-year-old protagonist – as Joel Coen said, “if the kid doesn’t work, there’s no movie.” Hailee Steinfeld was one of 15,000 girls who attended open auditions or sent in tapes for the part. 13 at the start of filming and with only a handful of minor credits to her name, Steinfeld took to the leading role with almost supernatural ability, embodying Portis’ Mattie to a T. To return briefly to the Academy: Steinfeld’s nomination for Supporting Actress rather than Lead was a bigger flub than anything you could say about John Wayne’s acting.

The Coens also centred Mattie’s voice by including parts of Portis’ Mattie’s narration in voiceover, read by Elizabeth Marvel who also plays an older Mattie in the epilogue. Bringing in the novel’s framing device enriches the main story with the nostalgia and regret that tinges Portis’ humour, exemplified in the older Mattie’s pronouncement (absent in the 1969 film) that “time just gets away from us.” The use of voiceover in literary adaptations can be (rightly) criticised as a crutch for lazy adaptors, but here it is another well-fitted part of the whole. The novel is Mattie’s monologue and the story’s events are coloured by her particular perspective. Most importantly, Portis’ writing is already ideal for speaking, “so devastatingly strange and fresh and hilarious that you [want to] read it aloud.”

Courtesy of: Paramount Pictures

With their Mattie in place, the rest of the Coens’ True Grit follows naturally. While it is one of their least brazenly stylised films, the directors’ sensibilities align with Portis’ in a way that brings out the charms of True Grit the novel even when the film’s script strays from the exact plot. One invented scene has Mattie climbing a tree to identify a hanged man. In this miniature shaggy-dog story, the man turns out to not be Mattie’s quarry Tom Chaney, but Rooster has her cut him down in case there’s a bounty on him anyway. Rooster kicks over the eyeless corpse: “I do not know this man.” A native man arrives and takes the corpse because, Rooster says, “a dead body may be worth something in trade” (our perspective stays with Mattie in the tree, so we only see this from far above). In the next scene, Mattie and Rooster encounter a traveller who has in turn bought the corpse for “two dental mirrors and a bottle of expectorant”.

The above sequence exemplifies the coincidence of the Coens’ and Portis’ idiosyncrasies: characters defined by their particular manner of speech; significance given to an arbitrary event; mundane cruelty and strange levity side by side; as well as an ear for particular American regionalisms. The 2010 True Grit is a superior act of adaptation, even if it hews less slavishly to the novel than its 1969 forebear did, because the people making it had a truer grasp of the book’s tone, character, and peculiar wit – and moreover, possessed the craftsmanship necessary to bring that understanding to the screen.