It's a rare movie that delivers writing lessons, but that's exactly what I got when I watched the remake of True Grit with Jeff Bridges and Matt Damon.
I had put off watching this movie for a long time, thinking the remake was just another sappy story about a kid demanding justice. I was wrong.
While the premise remained the same, the movie was grittier and more realistic than the original. A lot of the credit has to go to the script and the young girl who played Mattie (Hailie Steinfeld).
Without giving away too much of the movie, I noticed that with every turn, the director made things more and more dire for the protagonist. The odds remained stacked against Mattie to the very end.
We all know that's critical for a good story. But what impressed me was the depth (and risk) the director was willing to take by making the cost (vengeance) so dear that the ending actually shocked me.
Had the same events happened to the sheriff (Bridges) or the Texas Ranger (Damon), it would be sad, but acceptable. But because it was a child who deliberately placed herself in danger, it made the story all the more poignant and chilling. The movie ended up being part morality play and part drama.
It forced me to examine goal versus cost in my stories. I know I'm always too easy on my main characters in the first draft. It's only when I start tweaking that I squeeze every ounce of emotion by threatening the characters to the brink of their existence.
I'll never forget the frantic email I got from a reader when she found out what I did to poor Grey in Apocalypse Rising. I did the unthinkable and the reader feared for his life--the life of a fictional character.
I try to accomplish two things in a story. The protagonist must want something well out of his reach. And the cost must be so high that the reader is sure he'll fail.
In True Grit, Mattie is obsessive-compulsive. She will not take no for an answer and she's sees her path as crystal clear and resolute. She hires a sheriff known for his true grit because he's the only person who will have the same resolve as herself. They might be doing it for different reasons, but the goal is the same and that's all that's important to her.
In the original movie, John Wayne was the one depicted with true grit, (being his movie) but in the remake, this is more Mattie's story. She's the real character with 'true grit'. She is willing to risk it all and that resonated with me.
How far would you go to bring your father's killer to justice, to save a child, or the love of your life? How far did I go to find a beloved pet? Maybe the better question would be: What wouldn't we do?
If it's important to us, we do whatever it takes. That's what keeps us glued to the edge of our seats.
Second question for American history buffs: I know from reading Civil War letters that Americans spoke quite formally in the 1800s--as they do in this movie.
There are plenty of euphemisms and slang, but the dialog itself is stiffer and formal. Does anyone know when we started speaking more casually? If I were to venture a guess, I would say after WWI, but I honestly don't know for sure.