Other than the fact that it contains a lot of stark Southern landscapes and cold-blooded violence, True Grit doesn't seem the most likely material for a Coen brothers remake, and in their hands the humour is dryer and characters more complex.
Remakes are currently Hollywood's bread and butter; it's easy to recast a successful movie with a new generation of good-looking actors and watch the box-office dollars flood in. Westerns, although they've fallen out of fashion in favour of superhero or disaster flicks, aren't immune to this effect. The 2007 version of the 1957 cowboy film 3.10 to Yuma starred Russell Crowe and Christian Bale, and raked in US$70 million (Dh257m) worldwide as well as nominations for some major prizes. But then again, the Yuma original wasn't as well-known or well-loved as True Grit. Why would filmmakers of the calibre of the Coens - who, among their various Oscar trophies, have one for Best Original Screenplay - rehash old work?
The same could be asked of Werner Herzog, the German writer-director once called by François Truffaut "the most important film director alive". He has staged operas and made dozens of award-winning documentaries and original features, so why did he choose, a couple of years ago, to remake Bad Lieutenant, Abel Ferrara's seedy crime drama that was first released a decade and a half earlier?
The new Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans features Nicolas Cage in the role of the increasingly unhinged cop, who (in this version) hallucinates dancing ghosts and singing iguanas. It's set just after Hurricane Katrina, and begins with Cage's character injuring his back while freeing a prisoner who is drowning in a flooded cell. Like the original, it drew both acclaim and bemusement from critics.
Didn't Herzog and the Coens watch Gus Van Sant's doomed 1990s version of Psycho, a shot-for-shot remake that was universally panned? It was justified by Van Sant in art house terms: "The biggest reason of all is that nobody's ever done it," he said to Newsweek of the copycat technique. "If you put things together that have never been put together nobody knows what will happen; to me that's a great reason to try it. You might discover something."
All that resulted was a colour version of the classic, but with worse acting. Setting yourself up to be compared with an iconic film is always a dangerous game and these are filmmakers who can take their pick of stories and screenwriters. It seems obvious that the path to discovering something new is unlikely to be found by treading in another director's footsteps.
Unlike Van Sant, though, whose slavishly precise replica used the original film as its blueprint, Herzog and the Coens have insisted that their latest works borrowed a familiar film's story without imitating the original. Herzog battled unsuccessfully to get the name of his cop story changed and said that he'd never even seen the first Bad Lieutenant. "It only has a corrupt policeman as the central character," he said to the website comingsoon.net of the degree to which the two films are alike, "and that's about it."
Herzog probably would have been better off starting from a totally original idea - the director of the first Bad Lieutenant movie said he hoped the makers of the second would die in a car crash - but strange choices are nothing new for the director who remade one of his own documentary films, Little Dieter Needs to Fly, 10 years later, as the fictionalised Rescue Dawn.
Like Herzog, the Coens insist that their take on True Grit is no mere remake - it's inspired by the novel that the 1969 film was based on, rather than the movie itself. "We'd both seen the movie, but probably when it first came out in 1969 and not since, so our recollection of it is pretty dim," Joel Coen told awardsdaily.com recently. "I think if that's what you were sort of initially expecting - 'Oh, they're going to remake this movie' - it might seem a little bit strange. But the book is the book, you know: the book is something else."
The novel was written from the point of view of an elderly Mattie Ross, and its dialogue is quaint, full of long, unusual words and free of contractions. The Coen brothers' adaptation sticks more closely to these features than the John Wayne version, with lines like "he has abandoned me to a congress of louts", and "I am a foolish old man who has been drawn into a wild-goose chase by a harpy in trousers and a nincompoop". It also uses the same framing device, with an older Mattie doing the narrating.
The result, according to critics in the US, is a sensitively drawn black comedy that stands up alongside the Coens' finest work. Not only does it demonstrate that you can remake a familiar story without retreading old ground; it also rehabilitates the Western itself, showing that it's a genre that can be made fresh, funny, moving and full of grit.