Quick. Raise your hand if you have a short stack of next-to-read books by the nightstand and a really long list of ought-to-reads in your head?
Right. Just about everyone.
If you’re mulling through those endless lists of great American works – I love those lists – you could do a lot worse than “True Grit,” the Charles Portis novel that, yes, famously has been adapted for the screen a couple of times. It still speaks to who we were and are, to a rough and barely civilized America from which we are not all that far removed.
One of these thou-shalt-get-serious-and-read projects is called simply The Big Read. Its list includes many you might suspect such as Ray Bradberry’s “Fahrenheit 451,” Ernest Hemingway’s “Farewell to Arms” and Willa Cather’s “My Antonia.” Titles roll in and out over time. “True Grit” has been added.
The Kansas City Public Library has embraced this addition. It’s holding seminars and other events, it’s got a zillion copies of the book to lend, and it’s screening both movies several times.
I sat in on one seminar at UMKC this week, and, unsurprisingly, our heroine and narrator, Mattie Ross, did not come out well. She has grit all right and pays a terrible price in her quest for vengeance, but she is willful, thoroughly judgmental and, in many ways, wrongheaded.
But what a story. Mattie is growing up on an Arkansas farm in the years right after the Civil War, and while that might be a peaceful existence day to day, violence and criminality are not far off. Life is often harsh. Violent deaths are not uncommon. Mattie’s father is murdered, and she quickly concludes justice will not be served without her to goad it along. An adventure ensures, all in her stilted but wonderful language.
What criminal ever said, “Keep still, I must now think over my position and how I may improve it?”
No matter. It all works. It’s a great read.
Oh, and those two movies. The 1969 version is flawed and glorious. The 2010 version is idiosyncratic and glorious. John Wayne won an Oscar for the first version, which is propped up by very good players in small roles, rousing music and – hey, it’s a western – great scenery and plenty of horses. The Coen brothers made the 2010 version, and they seldom misfire. Again, acting, music, the majesty of it all. It’s a better movie on so many levels, but don’t ask me which I prefer. I cannot say.
I love movies, but it’s unfortunate that an adaptation so often will overwhelm attention to the book itself. The Big Read folks are right to focus on this one.
If you want to see the movies, the Kansas City Public Library is showing both several times in the coming weeks, including:
• 2010 version, 7 p.m. Oct. 16 at the Sugar Creek branch, 102 S. Sterling Ave.
• 1969 version, 5 p.m. Oct. 19 at the Sugar Creek branch.
• 2010 version, 2 p.m. Oct. 26 at the Trails West branch, 11401 E. 23rd St., Independence.
I always kind of thought I was one of six people in America who have read the book and seen both movies an obsessive number of times. I was so wrong. It’s great to know the story – all three tellings – lives in the hearts of so many.
Follow Jeff Fox on Twitter @Jeff_Fox.