A truly Gritty analysis of ‘True Grit'(2010)

By Max Butler

By comparing the film True Grit(2010), adapted by the Coen brothers, to the original novel by Charles Portis you can glean that despite some changes or additions to the original narrative, the Coen brothers tried to stay true to the story. There are many scenes that do a great job of translating the physically simplistic and stereotypical, but emotionally complex western onto the screen. This is done by maintaining its simplicity in dialogue, but complexity in actions, emotions, and body language. The element of the film that sells this the most is Mise en Scene, but Editing and Cinematography also have large roles. 

Although in this article I will briefly go over some differences between the original novel and the 2010 adaptation, that will not be the main focus. I will instead be talking about a scene where the 2010 version managed to carry the sentiment and general aesthetic of the novel into the movie set. This was mainly done with the use of thoughtfully planned Mise en Scene, but there were many factors in play. 

Mise en Scene is defined as “the arrangement of scenery and stage properties in a play”-Oxford dictionary. However, from a film perspective, Mise en Scene means much more. Studio Binder states that “mise en scene refers to everything in front of the camera, including the set design, lighting, and actors. Mise en scene in the film is the overall effect of how it all comes together for the audience”. In simple terms elements of Mise en Scene could include:

  • Sets
  • Props
  • Lighting 
  • Costumes
  • Actor blocking
  • Shot composition
  • And more

This means that Mise en Scene is a total coming together of the film elements to create the look and feel of the film which means you can very heavily influence the way an audience member perceives the scene, plot, setting, objects, and or characters. 

Say you have a very simplistic setting such as a desert and although as much planning may have not gone into this shot it can still have the desired effect. From a simple scene like this, the audience might read the actors as stranded, lonely, helpless, etc. 

More complex use of Mise en Scene can also have an extraordinary effect on audience perception. If you have a very complex set of grandiose settings the character might look small or insignificant as well but in a different context. Or if you use complex lighting you can create a disorienting effect. Or if you use costumes to your advantage you can create memorable characters with figures that stick in your mind well after viewing the film. This kind of afterimage can create things such as pop culture and cult film culture. 

Simply put, Mise en Scene is a powerful tool and the 2010 film adaptation of True Grit uses it quite well to keep them in line with the original novel. The scene I will be used to compare the original and the 2010 adaptation is when Mattie falls into the pit. In the film adaptation, she falls back into the pit and gets stuck on some tree roots. She can’t get out and sees a skeleton with a knife attached to its chest. She goes for the knife and in the process of pulling the skeleton over to her, she rips the shirt open which reveals a coil of rattlesnakes. This right here is an ingenious use of costume in mise en scene. She panics and knocks the skeleton away which disturbs the snakes and she ends up being surrounded by snakes. Rooster eventually comes to save her, but he is slightly too late and a snake bites Mattie’s hand. Rooster then sucks out the poison and carries her out of the pit and to safety. 

In the Book this scene followed a very similar progression, however, there are some very small and subtle, yet important differences. In the book after she ripped open the shirt filled with snakes, she rips off the corpse’s arm to defend herself from the snakes. She hits the snake futilely with the arm. I feel like this was a missed opportunity in the 2010 adaptation because if she was flailing around the arm it could somewhat visualize her struggle and panic, and only increase the chaos of the scene. It would make her seem even more helpless as she basically pails out a sinking boat. It would translate really well onto the screen and be a gruesomely intriguing use of a prop. However, Laura from the professional film analysis blog ‘Why the Book Wins’ says “I’m assuming it would just be too graphic for a PG-13 movie. Once again, in the book it felt like she was in the pit longer than is shown in the movie”.

In contrast, another small difference between the pit scene in the book and the film is that in the book she seemed to be in the pit for much longer and struggled for far longer than in the movie. Although this may simply be the effect that it takes longer to read something than watch it, it could also be that the film made a lot of the explicit details in that scene much more implicit. Although this is an obvious difference between the film and the book I actually think that it keeps the movie closer in aesthetic to the book. This is because when you translate a piece of literature to film you are dealing with a different type of viewer, and a different type of attention span, and you have to adjust accordingly. The viewer would not feel as immersed in the scene if the shots were twice or even three times as long. They wouldn’t feel the anxiety of the scene that is trying to be displayed through the actors, setting, and quick editing. They also might get bored with the low light setting whereas if it is a rather quick scene they could feel intrigued by it. The Mise en Scene of the setting is supposed to make the viewer feel as trapped as Mattie is. This is especially obvious when they show a low shot behind her with the mouth of the cave so far away. The mouth of the cave is letting in light and silhouetting Mattie which really makes her pop from the otherwise purposefully dark and drab set. Although there are times when drawing out actions creates tension such as Stanley Kubrick so often did in his film adaptation of The Shining(1979). However, the difference here is the opportunity for performance from the actors is much higher and variable in the Shining where there is only so much Mattie could ever express while stuck in a hole. This is why I believe that if they drew this out it could become almost repetitive and boring to many viewers. This is how timing combined with Mise en Scene makes True Grit(2010) an effective adaptation.

In the 2010 film adaptation, one thing I believe they really sold the audience on was how the actors interacted with the positive and negative space of the setting. Overall the setting of the pit was rather interesting because it looked believably difficult to get out of which strengthens Mattie’s case for being stuck while not being too steep as where she probably would have died from the impact. However, I think the most interesting part of the setting was how the way the setting and actors interacted with the light and space. When they show the mouth of the cave they often also show a silhouetted Mattie down at the bottom which really shows the scale of how far she fell but it also makes a positive and negative space in the frame. Positive space is usually used for the main character in that frame and negative space refers to the background. As the looking movies textbook states, in a scene from the Lord of the Rings when Frodo is about to meet a giant spider named Shelob the “negative space creates the unsettling expectation that the inevitable giant spider will creep from the shadows to fill the empty space”. This is a perfect example of the typical use of negative space, however, in True Grit(2010) they switch these around and your focus is often on the Negative space for a savior to come out of the light and not a threat out of the dark. The whole scene you are anxiously waiting for Rooster to fill that awkward negative space which puts you on the edge of your seat. A very simple compositional rule being broken and used ingeniously in this scene can throw the viewer off just enough that they can’t look away till it’s fixed. Best said by the Looking at Movies textbook 

“We are so accustomed to compositional balance that sometimes when we’re presented with a lopsided composition, an expectation is created that something will arrive to restore balance”.

This is how Mise en Scene not only accomplices the same aesthetic as the original book but can actually further it and make the audience feel even more emotion. The negative emotion of anxiety over the compositional unbalanced frame and the positive emotion of relief when he finally comes into the frame.

Also when Mattie pushes the skeleton back and away from her it retreats more into the darkness and out of focus. This makes use of the regular use of negative space as it is uncomfortable that you can clearly see the threat approaching the snakes, but through props, sound, and lighting you know they are coming. This is how Mise en Scene is used to add suspense to the scenes and be just as nerve-racking as the original novel.

The use of costume is also a very important detail of this scene in the film adaptation. After Mattie falls down the pit when it is covered in dirt, her dress is a little torn, and she is difficult to pick apart from the set around her. This is on purpose to foreshadow her possible demise inside that cave. Then it shows the corpse wearing tattered clothing that easily rips to show the snakes. This costume functions in the sense that it reveals a vital element of the scene, the snakes/antagonist, but it also compares to Mattie’s own clothing. Her own clothing looks similarly dirty and tattered almost as to say the only thing separating the two of them is a few years. Then the biggest contrast is when Rooster comes into the pit and stands next to her. He has clear skin at the moment and his white shirt is unstained or dirty. This is in contrast to the slowly dying Mattie who looks filthy and not well. It is up to him now. This is how Mise en Scene adds to the image of the viewer and unironically makes it easier to visualize the struggle that was written in the original novel.

Although there are many more reasons why Mise en Scene, along with other film elements, are used ingeniously in this scene from True Grit(2010), these are the main couple of ways it truly furthers the interpretation of the original novel instead of subtracting from it which adaptations all too often do. This is done by using positive and negative space to convey emotion, anticipation, and fear. The use of costume to sell Mattie’s situation and current physical state in relation to her environment and Rooster. And the more actors, more rapid actions, editing, and quick changes in view of the setting increase and preserve the intensity of the original novel. All of these together make Mise en Scene the perfect tool used in this scene in True Grit(2010) to make for a thrilling, intriguing, cinematically complex, entertaining, and most importantly accurate adaptation of the original novel.

Brothers, Coen. “True Grit.” IMDb, IMDb.com, 22 Dec. 2010, https://www.imdb.com/title/tt1403865/. 

Laura. “True Grit Book VS Movie.” Whythebookwins.com, https://whythebookwins.com/true-grit-book-vs-movie/.

Monahan, Dave, and Richard Meran Barsam. Looking at Movies: An Introduction to Film. W.W. Norton & Company, 2022.

“Oxford Learner’s Dictionaries.” Oxford Learner’s Dictionaries | Find Definitions, Translations, and Grammar Explanations at Oxford Learner’s Dictionaries, https://www.oxfordlearnersdictionaries.com/us/.

staff, Studio binder. “What Is Mise En Scène in Film: Definition and Examples.” StudioBinder, 13 Sept. 2020, https://www.studiobinder.com/.

Turella, Mary, and Charles Portis. “7.” True Grit: Charles Portis, Perma-Bound, Jacksonville, IL, 1988. 

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