True Lit

By Jones, Malcolm | Newsweek, December 20, 2010 | Go to article overview
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True Lit

Jones, Malcolm, Newsweek

Byline: Malcolm Jones

Movies eclipse their literary sources all the time, which is fine when the book is 'Jaws.' But when John Wayne overshadows a master such as Charles Portis, we have a problem.

When Charles Portis published True Grit in 1968, the novel became a critically praised bestseller. Then a year later the movie, starring John Wayne, came out, and after that no one even remembered there was a book. If we know how 14-year-old Mattie Ross hired Rooster Cogburn, a one-eyed U.S. marshal with a drinking problem, to hunt down the man who robbed and killed her father, it's mostly because the movie never stops showing up on television. As a result, most of the pre-release chatter about the new Coen brothers version of True Grit, with Jeff Bridges as Rooster, continually calls it a remake of the John Wayne film. For Portis fans this is nothing short of a crime.

Criminal or not, there's nothing unique going on here. Any time Hollywood takes a book and turns it into a successful movie, there's every chance that the book, however good it may be, will be forgotten. For every To Kill a Mockingbird or Gone With the Wind, where the book and the movie are equally respected and neither trumps the other, there are five examples of movies that eclipse the books they came from. Of all the people who have seen Alfred Hitchcock's The Birds, how many have read the Daphne du Maurier novella on which the movie is based, much less recognize that in many ways the original is better? How many fans of Die Hard know it's based on a good crime novel? Or Out of the Past, Vertigo, or Don't Look Now (du Maurier again, this time a short story)? The explanation isn't complicated: more people will go to see a movie on any given Wednesday afternoon than will read the book on which it's based in a year. Almost always, the more successful the movie, the more forgotten the book. But understanding that situation is small consolation for authors or their admirers.

Readers who love Portis have it especially tough. To the extent that he's known at all to the reading public, it's as the author of True Grit--his one shot at the big time, and it backfires. This has only goaded his small but devoted band of readers to spread their gospel, and with good reason. His five novels are not hard to read or hard to find--it is a true credit to the publishing industry that someone, as a labor of love, is always republishing him. Maybe Roy Blount Jr. got closest to the truth of the matter when he said, "Charles Portis could be Cormac McCarthy if he wanted to, but he'd rather be funny."

Readers and critics don't like putting "funny" and "important" in the same sentence when talking about a writer, as though there's something vaguely disreputable about someone who can make you laugh. Or, to put it another way, they are not comfortable with the idea that someone who can make you laugh can also make you think. Would Mark Twain still enjoy his status as a great American writer if he had not inserted the issues of slavery and racism into The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn? Just asking.

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