Reclusive Arkansas literary genius Charles Portis likely had no idea what a juggernaut he was in the midst of creating when he serialized a story called "True Grit" for the Saturday Evening Post beginning in May of 1968.
Born in El Dorado, Ark., Portis was a former newsman. Following a stint in the Korean War, he came home to study journalism and, upon graduation from the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville in 1958, began his journalism career at the Arkansas Gazette in Little Rock. After several years, Portis was off to New York to write for the New York Herald-Tribune before getting shipped to England to serve as the paper's London bureau chief. After two years in London, Portis left journalism behind and began to write fiction. His first novel, Norwood, was well-received, but few would have expected that, just 24 months later, he would pen an iconic American classic.
The serialized version of "True Grit" was printed as a novel soon after and the film rights were quickly snapped up. Within a year, a movie by the same title appeared in theaters. Directed by Hollywood veteran Henry Hathaway and starring John Wayne as Rooster Cogburn, the film was Hathaway's 64th turn as a director in half as many years. Given the director's prolific nature, it is perhaps not surprising that despite the story's distinctly Arkansas and Oklahoma setting, he never stepped foot in either state and chose to frame the story against a rather unlikely Rocky Mountain backdrop.
Notes film & literary critic Philip Martin, "It looks like it's in the Swiss Alps or something. It's ridiculous. I mean, you expect to see the Matterhorn or something."
Set in frontier-era Fort Smith, Arkansas, "True Grit" tells the tale of Mattie Ross, a fourteen-year-old girl "from Dardanelle in Yell County" bent on avenging the murder of her beloved father by enlisting a famously tough Deputy Marshal named Rooster Cogburn to track the murderer into what was then "Indian Territory," but which is now best-known as Oklahoma.
The novel was a success. The movie was a success too. And, come awards season, John Wayne was a success, too. He was awarded his first and only Oscar for his role as the crotchety-but-lovable Cogburn. The character, imagined by Portis and interpreted by Wayne, quickly took its seat at the table of unforgettable American cinematic characters.
The story continued to grow in reputation in the years after, with the reclusive Portis gaining cult-like status among the literary set. Then, more than 40 years on, the legendary Coen Brothers, longtime fans of the story, decided to remake the film. The new version, starring Jeff Bridges, Matt Damon and newcomer Hailee Steinfeld as Mattie, will be released the week before Christmas and is already the talk of the Oscar circuit.
SoLost noted that while all the attention lavished on the story is well and good (and we're as excited about the new film as any Coen Brothers fans), there is something odd in the fact that this uniquely Arkansas (and Oklahoma) story has produced multiple films that didn't shoot even a minute of the story in either state. We decided to strike out to see what the "True True Grit" might have been like and got more then we expected.
A headstrong teenage girl named Maddie who lives in virtually the same spot as the literary Mattie? Check. That she actually tried out for the film and got a callback? Check and check.
A delightful career actress who grew up in Fort Smith immersed in the culture (and offspring) of the characters that made up the basis of the original Portis story? Check. A slight infatuation with Josh Brolin's eyebrows? Check! (though you'll have to watch to the end of the credits to figure out that reference....)
Join us for a look around the land that gave us "True Grit" as SoLost peers a little closer at the two films and the breed of Arkansans that form the basis for this uniquely American tale.
(c) 2010 The Oxford American Literary Project