The Cohen brothers remake of True Grit proved something I have suspected all along and that is that in the final analysis a novel trumps a movie. The film makers might have been at a disadvantage with someone like myself who has read Charles Portis novel several times and seen the original movie with John Wayne. But I am also a Cohen brothers devotee who rushes out every time to see their latest movie and I seriously believe they are among the great film makers with movies such as Fargo, Raising Arizona, Blood Simple and Millers Crossing. But I do believe their egos got the better of them when they took on True Grit. They were fighting against a legend in John Wayne's portrayal of Rooster Cogburn and Charles Portis dead on novel.
Still I went to see the movie and knowing every scene as I did from the novel I knew immediately when the Cohen brothers parted from the book. The problem was every time they left the novel with some inserted scenes or dialogue the movie sagged. The sparking prose so faithfully preserved in the Wayne film and used probably in seventy five percent of the Cohen Brothers film is what makes the film. The audience laughed most as the bandying of Mattie with Stockwell the horse trader and the dialogue between Rooster (Jeff Bridges) and the Texas ranger Labeef (Matt Damon) It was damn interesting to hear people chuckling over scenes that mirrored the Wayne film and of course originated in the book. But when the brothers veered the film became still born and strangely silent.
The problem was that all the Cohen brothers could bring to their movie was a sort of Ken Burns Verisimilitude and at times the movie had a documentary feel. Even the music was Burnsian with the piano plunking along and the realism of the people and the time was amazing. But the story moved only when Portis lines were faithfully delivered and some were thrown away as when Rooster gave his background on horseback instead of by the campfire as it was in the book. The problem for the Cohen Brothers is what can you bring to something that is damn near a perfect novel and a very good movie adaptation thirty years before. The answer is not much.
Even the Cohen ending tacked on did nothing to really make the story mythical. I knew before that scene even came on what the Cohen brothers were up too. All they could do was place the novel in historical significance and try and add what the Wayne film had left out, but it just fell flat. They did not have Rooster return as in the movie with the famous scene of Wayne jumping his horse. Jeff Bridges character just did not stand up to John Wayne's portrayal. How could he? Wayne was mythical by the time he played Rooster Cogburn and he did the role justice. But again, the Bible was the book and if you read the novel and then go and see the Cohen Brothers 2010 take on this very good story, you are left with just one question at the end. Why did they ever take it on?
Rocket Man will be out in January