By David Germain/ AP
If there were a Hollywood Remakes 101 college class, “True Grit” directors Joel and Ethan Coen no doubt would be in violation of a basic lesson: Never remake a film people know and love.
John Wayne’s 1969 Western “True Grit” was one of his choice late-career roles, earning him a best-actor Academy Award for a character so memorable that the 1975 sequel “Rooster Cogburn” was crafted to pair him with Katharine Hepburn so he could ride again as the boozy, one-eyed lawman.
But of course, the Coens were never thinking remake with their “True Grit,” which opens Wednesday. They had not seen Wayne’s “True Grit” since they were kids. Their idea was to bring to the screen a faithful version of the novel on which it was based.
Charles Portis’ “True Grit” reads like a novelization of a Coen brothers’ film. Macabre humor and bursts of savage violence, often at the same moment. Deadpan dialogue spoken with poetic rhythms, delivered with a high-falutin’ grandiosity that sets the world apart from any other. Oddball characters who have never met a movie cliche they couldn’t sidestep to do something utterly unexpected.
“I reread the book a few years back to my kid out loud and thought it would be fun to do as a movie,” Joel Coen said in an interview alongside his brother. Paramount Pictures owned the rights, but “they weren’t jumping all up and down about it … because I think studios are cautious about ‘Westerns,’ in quotations marks.”
“In their minds it’s a Western. In our minds, less so,” said Ethan Coen. “It’s an interesting novel, not a Western, per se. But yeah, to them it’s a Western, and that’s just kind of poison now. They know it doesn’t do well overseas.”
Even if international audiences are not keen for stories of America’s Old West, studios are eager to be in business with the Coens these days, after their offbeat sensibilities went mainstream with 2007’s “No Country for Old Men.”
That film won them the best-picture, directing and adapted screenplay Oscars and became their biggest commercial success. They followed with another solid earner in 2008’s “Burn After Reading” and a best-picture nominee last year with “A Serious Man.”
So Paramount gave them the go-ahead to not only take on a genre that has fallen out of favor, but also to re-create a character so closely identified with Wayne.
“I’m not even sure if John Wayne is more of an icon to us and less and less of an icon as the demographic gets younger and toward people who actually go to the movies now,” said Ethan Coen, 53.
“That’s really true,” said Joel Coen, 56. “There are people I mention the movie to who are not that much younger than we are, the next generation, and they go, ‘Yeah, I’m aware of that vaguely. That title sounds familiar. I have no idea what it is. What is it?'”
The Coens’ veteran cast was familiar with Wayne’s “True Grit” but not Portis’ novel, a first-person adventure told by 14-year-old Mattie Ross, an Arkansas girl who hires U.S. Marshal Cogburn to track down her father’s killer and bring him to justice.
Jeff Bridges, who starred in the Coens’ “The Big Lebowski,” plays Cogburn, while Matt Damon co-stars as Rooster and Mattie’s trail companion LaBoeuf, a pompous dandy of a Texas Ranger who was played in Wayne’s version by Glen Campbell.
The cast also includes “No Country for Old Men” star Josh Brolin as Tom Chaney, the cowardly murderer that Mattie and her men are hunting, and Barry Pepper as outlaw leader Lucky Ned, a role Robert Duvall played in the original film.
“I was curious why the Coen brothers wanted to remake a movie. It seemed odd of them,” Bridges said. “Once I’d read the book, I thought, well, this reads like a Coen brothers script. The characters are so unusual, and the twists and turns in the plot.”
Pepper had the same reaction when he read the book, particularly Portis’ dialogue, much of which the Coens used verbatim in their film.
“It would almost be fair to say that they’re kind of Portis-esque, the Coens,” Pepper said. “It fits them like a calfskin glove, this dialogue, this genius dialogue.”
Hailee Steinfeld makes her screen debut as Mattie, a role originated by Kim Darby, who was in her early 20s when she co-starred alongside Wayne.
Just turned 14, Steinfeld was only 13 when the film was shot and, as the Coens’ surmised about younger audiences, she had never heard of “True Grit” until she auditioned for the part.
“When I first heard that they were adapting, remaking, re-adapting this, I watched the original, and then that’s how I kind of became familiar really with the whole thing,” Steinfeld said.
Though the Coens do not consider it a remake, most everyone else does, even some of their cast.
“It is a remake of the movie, because the movie does exist, and there’s no way to deny the fact that they’re remaking a film that is iconic and a role that’s iconic,” Brolin said.
Early on, Brolin said he read blogs and online traffic from Wayne fans complaining that the Coens’ new version was disrespectful to the actor, who died in 1979.
Now that some audiences have seen the film in advance screenings, Brolin said he senses the word is spreading that the Coens have gone back to Portis’ story, not done a number on a beloved John Wayne flick.
“Their adaptation was spot on. Where they really, I think, got it right was in lifting as much of Portis’ dialogue as they could, because the dialogue is so beautiful and so funny,” co-star Damon said.
“It’s like I feel when I read a writer I really admire, my thought usually is, I know all of those words. I just never thought to put them in that order. And that’s how I feel about Portis. There was something in the formality with which people spoke but the barbarity of the world they were living in,” Damon said. “It feels very much like a Coen brothers movie to me. The total absurdity.”