Wednesday, December 15, 2010

The pain of it will ease a bit

The 1969 film, True Grit, is -- along with Romeo and Juliet -- one of the memorable movies of my childhood. I saw it several times and I checked out a copy of Charles Portis's novel from my local library. I recall not liking it very much, probably because it wasn't like the movie (sound familiar?), so when I realized that another movie version of the book was opening soon (and that a. I would want to see it and b. I would want to revisit the book beforehand), I took a copy of the audiobook out of the hands of some deserving old person as the book was headed into the delivery van (the only lending library I have regular access to is that of Library Outreach Services). I'd just like to add that the book was not on hold for anyone, it was just going into a general mobile circulating collection.

[Why do song lyrics stick in your head forever? The title of this post is part of the execrable "theme song" of the 1969 movie by Glen Campbell. Alas, I had no difficulty whatsoever in dredging that from my brain. But can I remember the name of the book I read last week?]

True Grit is the story of Mattie Ross, a bossy, self-possessed 14-year-old girl growing up in Yell County, Arkansas in the decade following the Civil War. Her father travels to Fort Smith with their hired hand, Tom Chaney, in order to purchase some horses. After an argument, Chaney shoots her father dead in the street and escapes west to Indian Territory (Oklahoma). Her mother is too devastated to see to the details, so Mattie goes to Fort Smith to claim her father's body and to hire someone who will track down Tom Chaney and see that justice is done. On the recommendation of local law enforcement, Mattie hires Deputy U.S. Marshal Reuben J. "Rooster" Cogburn because he's the meanest. He's also a drunk, probably a racist and he doesn't like little girls very much, but he likes the idea of Mattie's money and so he takes the job.

Mattie meets up with another lawman, a Texas Ranger called LaBoeuf, who is also hunting Chaney down for another murder. The two men agree to conduct the manhunt together, but neither is very happy when Mattie succeeds in coming along. Mattie's got a lot of "sand" in her, but she's also a prudish, condescending pain in the ass. The tough journey the three of them make in search of Chaney only takes up about a third of the book, but it's a fascinating exercise in character development to watch how each is changed profoundly by their experience. I liked the book a lot more than I did as a teenager -- it's really funny, and the sense of time and place feels very authentic. I enjoyed the voice of Mattie -- so confident, yet so clueless about her effect on others.

The part of the cover image that you can't read says "with an afterword by Donna Tartt." Tartt, the author of two novels I've been meaning to read, also reads this audiobook. She has a pleasant, Southern-tinged voice that is pretty perfect for young Mattie. Even though Mattie is an elderly woman telling us her story, Tartt thankfully doesn't attempt to sound old. I disagree, though, with her interpretation of Mattie's coolness and unflappability. She reads the novel way too flat emotionally, with barely an acknowledgement of Mattie's moments of panic and fear, not to mention grief.

Tartt reads her own afterword, which is an essay on her lasting affection for the novel. I appreciated the way she revisited sections of the story to support her points, and that the quoted sections came from the audiobook.

Nearly every other character in the novel is male and Tartt attempts to create distinct voices for Rooster, LaBoeuf, Tom Chaney and another nasty bandit, Lucky Ned Pepper. She's not terribly consistent with her voices, and -- in many places -- I could not easily determine who was speaking. Her attempt at a Spanish accent for another character fails completely.

I don't mean to pile on, but the recording itself wasn't very good either. There were gulps and swallows, lip smacks, breath intakes and all manner of bodily noises pretty much constantly throughout the recording. Now, I believe these sounds show up all the time when books are being recorded and the publishers simply do their voodoo and excise them. Did Recorded Books deliberately choose not to edit out the sounds because Tartt is not a professional narrator (although she has recorded her own novels)?

The 1969 movie ended differently than the novel (which I didn't remember). Now that I've done my homework (and, despite my criticisms, I enjoyed it), I'm very curious to see what the talented Coen brothers will do with the material.

True Grit by Charles Portis
Narrated by Donna Tartt
Recorded Books, 2006. 6:30 (unabridged)

1 comment:

Carin S. said...

Haven't seen the original movie, loved the new movie! Have you managed to watch it yet? I was hoping you'd have loved the audio book as I'm looking for a new one and really want to read this, but alas, I'd say I'm going to skip it based on your review. Thanks!