Tomorrow When The War Began Questions

Tomorrow When The War Began

The following are some resources I used with New Zealand high school English students some years ago during a novel study of Tomorrow When The War Began by John Marsden. Posted here in case anyone still finds this useful.

How many wars has New Zealand been involved in during the last 50 years?

  1. The Cold War (1950 to 1953)
  2. Korean War (1949)
  3. Malayan Emergency (1960)
  4. Vietnam War (1965 and 1971)
  5. September 11 Attacks (2001)

Was there any warning before the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Centre Towers in New York? (September 2001)

Are there any civil defence guidelines for what to do if New Zealand was attacked by another country?

Where is East Timor, who invaded it in 1975, and what was New Zealand’s response to this invasion?


The narrator says that Robyn told her to write everything down.Ellie decides to go camping up in Hell.
The narrator introduces us to the members of the group.The group drives to Tailor’s Stitch in the Landrover.
The group set up camp in Hell.They find a snake in a sleeping-bag.
Ellie sees waves of jets flying overhead.The group heads back to Ellie’s house in Wirrawee
The group goes to Homer’s and Corrie’s housesThey decide to go into town later that night to see what is happening
Ellie, Corrie and Kevin see people being held in tents at the showgrounds.They get trapped in Mrs Alexander’s back yard.
Ellie blows up three soldiers with a ride-on lawn mower.Robyn and Lee don’t return from town.
The group makes plans to load up the vehicles and head to the shearer’s quarters.A helicopter circles the house, sees Flip and signals a jet to blow up Corrie’s house.
They find Robyn in her own house, although she was meant to wait on the hill.They return to rescue Lee from the restaurant and destroy several vehicles on the way out.
They find Chris (in his pyjamas) after rolling the car into the dam.They carry Lee back to Hell.
Ellie finds the Hermit’s hut.The group reads some documents they found in the Hermit’s hut.
The group decides to do something to slow the enemy down.Fi and Ellie steal a petrol tanker and Ellie drives it to a secure location.
Homer drives the cattle over the bridge using a camera flash to scare the cattle.The tanker blows up the bridge.
We learn that Corrie has been shot.Kevin and Corrie leave the group for good.
Author’s note: John Marsden tells us that the story is based, in part, on real events 


Describe an important idea dealt with in the text.

Explain why this idea is important.


An important idea in the novel by John Marsden, Tomorrow When the War Began, concerns growing up despite adversity.  All the main characters in the novel change over the course of events in the story, especially Ellie, who starts off as an ordinary rural Australian teenager and ends up a more mature, introspective adult.  Ellie’s growth as a character is important because Marsden hopes she will be an important role model for the novel’s teenage audience.


  • Describe Ellie at the start of the novel
  • Find evidence from the text to show she is an ordinary teenager (a mimetic hero if you want to use Northrop Frye’s terminology)
  • Make reference also to the teenagers’ comments about the Hermit, and how they think he must be terrible because he killed his own family.
  • Finally in this paragraph, explain how this is related to the fact that at this stage of the novel the teenagers see things in black in white.  They don’t see shades of grey, for example how it might be considered right to kill others in some circumstances.  Explain that this part of the book is important because the teenagers seem familiar to the audience, and can identify with them.


  • Compare this to an incident part way through the novel when they are way out of their comfort zones, doing things they never thought they could do. (You choose the incident, perhaps the lawnmower one.)
  • Explain that the setting is important here because if it weren’t an isolated, rural area, help would be readily available and they wouldn’t have the opportunity to show what they are capable of.
  • Explain that one of the reasons Marsden wrote the series was to show that under difficult circumstances, teenagers can shine.  And that this incident demonstrated the teenagers doing exactly that.  This idea is important because it helps the teenage audience feel strong and capable.  Teenagers in this book are capable and valued.


  • Now pick an incident near the end of the book (eg. the bridge incident)
  • Include a quote to show that Ellie is now a much more introspective character.
  • Explain that through the narrator of Ellie comes Marsden’s voice, and he is inviting us to think about things that we may not have thought of before (eg equality between Australia and the invaders), whether it is right to kill in some circumstances and not in others.  By having Ellie as a reflective character, and seeing her change, Marsden is triggering change in the readers, too.


The idea of personal development through adversity is linked to other, thought-provoking ideas in Tomorrow When the War Began.  Marsden’s point is that it is not until teenagers go through tough times that we fully understand the shades of gray surrounding some issues.  He hopes that his narrator Ellie will be a model for teenagers reading the book, who reflect on issues carefully, and perhaps become more open-minded for doing so.


(This was an example of excellence when NCEA had just started. Standards may have changed in the past 15 years.)

TASK: Describe an important character in the text.  Explain why he/she is important.

Tomorrow When the War Began – John Marsden

An important character in this novel is Ellie. She is important because she shows how human beings can adapt to their circumstances. She was drawn into a war situation and faced adversity. This required her to adapt and mature.

Ellie began life as a rural teenager. She lived on a farm and her life consisted of school, friends and family. She was sheltered: “Our lives had always been so unaffected by the outside world.”  She loved “being a rural” and had little pressure other than to milk cows. Despite this gentle lifestyle I gained an impression early on in the novel that Ellie is an intelligent leader, confident in herself and showing strength of character. This is further shown when Ellie and her friends are thrust into a volatile war. Ellie was forced to kill three soldiers in order to save herself and her two friends: “This is war now and normal rules don’t apply.”

We see Ellie being reflective and realising that she has special qualities. “It was hard for me to believe that I, plain old Ellie; nothing about me, middle of the road in every way; had probably just killed three people.”  She questions her own motives and eventually accepts her situation. The reader sees  her able to make adult decisions.  “I stopped being a normal teenager and began to become someone else.”

Ellie is important because she shows that within us all are qualities that emerge only when circumstances change. Human beings can adapt to almost all situations, showing a courage and an ability to cope with adverse circumstances. Ellie is important because she shows the complexity of human nature and our ability to reflect on our lives.

  1. What exact words did the student use to answer the question in the first paragraph?
  2. What is the reason given for the character’s importance?
  3. What is said about Ellie’s character early in the novel?
  4. What example from the novel backs it up?
  5. What change has the student noticed in Ellie over the course of the novel?
  6. What evidence is given for this change?
  7. How is the essay concluded?



(The following are simple know-it-or-not type questions and can be used competitively between groups and with a time limit attached.)

  1. What is the narrator’s name?
  2. Who lived in Hell before the group did?
  3. What game did Homer invent in Year 8?
  4. How did the group get to hell?
  5. Who had to stay at home and work on the farm?
  6. What is the name of the town they live in?
  7. What public holiday was the country celebrating?
  8. Who has Thai and Vietnamese parents?
  9. Who does Homer develop a liking for?
  10. What was in the sleeping bag?
  11. What happened when Ellie went to the toilet at night?
  12. What was the first indication that something was wrong at the farm?
  13. What is Homer’s surname?
  14. Whose parents write a note to the kids?
  15. Where was everyone being held?
  16. What is Ellie’s ex-boyfriend’s name?
  17. What had been happening at the show grounds before the kids left?
  18. How does Corrie hurt her leg when they are chased from the showgrounds?
  19. Where did they get trapped?
  20. How did they get away?
  21. Who gets separated from Ellie and the others?
  22. Where do they meet after going into the showgrounds?
  23. What is Homer’s ethnicity?
  24. After coming back from town the first time, where do they initially plan to hide?
  25. Where do they keep a lookout?
  26. Where did Homer and Fi hide?
  27. What do Ellie Corrie and Homer see while on look-out?
  28. What happens to the family photos?
  29. What makes the soldiers in the helicopter suspicious?
  30. What happened to Corrie’s house?
  31. Where do they find Lee and Robyn?
  32. Who did Robyn and Lee meet in the town?
  33. What had happened to Lee?
  34. Where was Lee hidden?
  35. How do they get Lee out?
  36. Where do they get it from?
  37. What kind of car does Homer pick them up in?
  38. What do they eventually do to it?
  39. What happens immediately after this?
  40. How did Lee get back to Hell?
  41. What ritual did Corrie have in Hell?
  42. When listening to the radio, which country do the children hear refusing to help?
  43. Who can butcher the feral animals they catch?
  44. Where do the pairs plan to have their base when they go back into Wirrawee?
  45. What was the title of the half a book they found in the Hermit’s hut?
  46. What was the Hermit’s name?
  47. How did his wife and child die?
  48. What had Chris “souvenired” from town?
  49. How did Homer scare the cattle?
  50. Who drove the petrol tanker?


Part of a Creative Writing series of videos. Possibly hard to get now, except floating around in high school English department resource rooms.

Watch the video and answer the following questions.


What gets Marsden angry about teenagers?


What did Marsden want to show in “Tomorrow”?


Why was it important for the book to be set in a rural area?


Who is the target audience?


How does Marsden write?

What had Marsden decided about the plot before he started writing?

What person does Marsden like to write in?


When does Marsden know that he has ‘grasped’ the essence of a character?

What does every character have to have?

What does Ellie reflect on?


How does Marsden bring other characters to life?


What do characters in any novel have to do?

What is a typical way in which they do this?

What examples are given?

  • Kevin
  • Homer


What has to happen for change?

What does the writer need to do to make characters suffer?


Why did Marsden use the setting of Hell to launch the story?

Why did he call it Hell?


What is the main similarity between the main plot and the hermit subplot?

How does Marsden show the similarity symbolically?

What do the rotting wood and rose symbolise?


What three things does a writer need to be conscious of all the time they are writing?


What is the foreground for?

How does a writer create a good main story?


What does a book need apart from action?


What does reflection mean?


Why is Marsden careful not to identify the invaders?


Why does Marsden like to take more responsibility for the marketing than many authors?


What is Ellie’s comment about story telling?

The Woods At The End of Autumn Street by Lois Lowry

The Woods At The End Of Autumn Street

Lois Lowry is an American children’s author, best known for The Giver. The Woods At The End Of Autumn Street is an upper middle grade novel set in WW2 America.

The following biographical information feels relevant to The Woods At The End of Autumn Street:

  • Born in 1937, that makes Lois Lowry the same era/age as Liz in Autumn Street. The details of the era therefore ring true, from the racial and playground gender segregation to the freedom afforded young children, allowed to enter the woods.
  • Lois’s sister Helen, three years older than her, died in 1963 at the age of 28 of cancer. A number of Lois Lowry’s books feature death, e.g. A Summer To Die, Number The Stars and this one.
  • Lowry’s father was a career military officer – an Army dentist – whose work moved the family all over the United States and to many parts of the world. Autumn Street is set during WW2, and the children have been moved to a new place. Moving to a new place is something Lois Lowry herself would be highly familiar with.

The book opens with a self-contained first chapter, meaning it could almost stand alone as a short story or vignette. The characters are ghosts and float above Autumn Street in Pennsylvania, bordering woods as if from a fairytale.

The reader wonders, why are all these people dead? Why is the narrator, and only the narrator, alive? We already know the narrator is an old woman.

It was a long time ago.

The first person narrator opens with a nostalgic warning to young readers, that you never know the ending of things. This is something we really can’t feel first hand while we’re still young. We know this is a feminine voice because she compares her grandfather’s lawn to a skirt.

“No account” is the catch phrase used by our two main characters, who have heard the phrase but don’t know how to use it properly. They use it as an attributive adjective. Readers love a tagline to hold onto. Repetition of a catch phrase is a dialogue trick. In this case it provides humour and it also conveys naivety — a naivety that the children will grow out of by the end of the story.

Our main character/first person narrator is revealed as a girl who notices things, who appreciates beauty and loves to paint. As the story progresses we’ll see that she is equally down-to-Earth — the kind of girl who wipes her hand on her nose then licks her hand, because she ‘wants to know what it tastes like’.


Because chapter one is so ethereal, chapter two functions to ground the reader firmly in setting. What’s going on? Why have the children been sent for a year to live with their grandparents? We quickly learn that Pearl Harbour just happened, the narrator was four years old when WW2 began, and that she is naïve. Though looking back, the narrator has full understanding. Juxtaposed against the war preparations – the cousin injured in hospital, the father getting his uniform ready, is the fact that our narrator is a gifted painter. This gift influences the way she writes, because of the way she sees. (Already observed in chapter one.) Also juxtaposed against the big, world events are the minutiae of a six year old’s life – the fact that the school milk is disgusting to her, and that she has to wear a French beret, which marks her out as different.


We don’t know the name of our narrator until the beginning of chapter three: Elizabeth. The first scene told to us is the last scene she remembers with her mother before leaving their old house. After a scene break the reader is transported to the grandparents’ house on Autumn Street, with no segue about getting there by train, or whatever. This is how memories link together, too, and allows the reader to remember events the way Liz does – vignettes with no strong connector between them.

While the adults around her are no doubt worried about the war, Liz’s fears are to do with the story from the doctor’s daughter, the nine year old with the pet turtle. Liz is terrified to think that the turtle will grow as large as the dining table and eat people.

The huge house with all the rooms and the manicured lawn and staff is the archetypal cold house, where Liz does not feel nurtured or safe. She gets any nurturing she needs from the cook and housekeeper, not from her own mother or grandmother.


Liz confides her fears to her big sister Jess in the dark. In naïve, childlike fashion, Liz thinks that if mother gives birth to a boy then that means father must die in the war, in a causation chain. This is from overhearing adults say that babies born during a war are boys, to serve as replacement for the lost men. Liz also says that she would like to be the boy of the family. She can just wear boy clothes and cut her hair short. By the age of six most children have a strong sense that their gender is immutable, so Liz is an unusually gender fluid six year old girl. In this way, Liz is an unreliable narrator. However, as an older woman narrator she is plenty reliable, because she’s giving the reader enough information to connect the dots for ourselves. The ironic distance between the perception of young Liz and the knowing older Liz provides interest.

There is a scene with ‘Japanese beetles’, first a save the cat moment as Liz helps them onto a leaf. But then she accidentally squashes one in her fist. Frightened by her own failures and grief stricken, she runs into the house.


It is revealed to Liz and the reader that grandmother is cold towards the girls because she is not their mother’s real mother – she is a step-mother, who only came into the house when Liz’s mother was 19. This cold woman contrasts with the maternal and warm Tatie, who runs the household.

A baby boy is born in the middle of the night.

This chapter explores Liz’s simplistic understanding of prayer. She has concluded it doesn’t work because she doesn’t get everything she prays for. She considers God another person in the room who must not be interrupted, and who probably has a short attention span. But she does pray, to assuage her own anxieties.


Tatie’s grandson Charles comes to stay while his mother goes away with a man for a holiday. Charles and Liz are only six. The reader can see what different backgrounds they have – Liz is White, Charles is Black. Liz has the privilege of knowing how to read already, but Charles is more worldly, knowing what ‘drunk’ is and how to get drunk. The reader is never told that Charles is Black and that he is poor. We are given more than enough to deduce.

When Lowry emphasises how quickly these two make friends she emphasises how divisions between adults are socially constructed, and at peak danger, these constructs lead adults into war.


The episodic story structure of the novel is now clear, or perhaps it’s building slowly to something. Liz cadges her grandfather’s autograph book and asks everyone to sign it, for no reason other than fun. But she can’t let go of the fact that Tatie, her favourite person in the house, won’t sign it. Her mother tells her that Tatie has never been to school and therefore cannot write. Liz is banned from annoying Tatie about it. Liz won’t let it go – she clasps Tatie’s hand around the pencil and guides her into writing her own name, which Tatie admits doesn’t look too bad. But for her insolence she is carted up to bed before her normal time.


In a turn for the dark present in all of us, even in innocent children, Charles and Liz plot to (gently) stab one of the seven year old twins next door, justified because Noah killed a cat. This is an interesting flip on the Save The Cat trick. Our heroes want to exact revenge on a budding psychopath, possibly in the hope that he won’t do anything like that again, though equally likely because they feel a sense of injustice if Noah goes unpunished.

Plans are thwarted when it turns out Noah is inside with serious pneumonia. If this were a WW1 story I’d suspect pneumonia resultant from the ‘Spanish’ flu, but this is WW2. It must have been a different virus, or bacterial infection.

While waiting, Charles and Liz cut a worm in half. They don’t mean to kill it – they have heard they’ll end up with two worms. This scene stands in for the big struggle scene we’ve been hoping for (not hoping for?) between Charles, Liz and Noah. Noah’s not-evil twin emerges instead, and the children happily accept him. One evil twin, one good twin is kind of symbolic of the sides during the war. Two people can look the same in every way, but because of minor differences (place of birth), one can seem evil while the other benign. Significantly, the twins’ father is German and has been taken away by the authorities.

By the end of the chapter, Noah has died. “But we must remember, Noah was a dreadful child,” grandmother reminds everyone. This is how we see casualties of war when they are on the other side. A shame, perhaps, that they have died, but somehow justice has been restored.

The ducklings are an interesting addition to this chapter. Noah and Nathaniel each own a duckling, given to them at Easter. As the ducklings grew, they followed the brothers everywhere. Noah was cruel to his duckling but it followed him anyway, having bonded with him. This is symbolic of how we are all subject to our circumstances. If Liz had been born German, she’d be on the other side, and she wouldn’t question it. Like a duckling, she’d just follow her masters.

Liz feels that she was a little responsible for Noah’s death, wishing harm upon him, planning to gently stab him with that knife. Charles and Liz do the only thing they can think of to make amends, and that is to bury the knife the same way Noah was buried. Grandmother’s suggestion is to go to Confession, but Liz has a touch and go relationship with God.

Charles has obviously had a realization – he didn’t know until now that children can die. They’ve both been disabused of this notion, and this is not going to help Liz with her anxieties.


Chapter nine is a single scene, much shorter than the previous chapter, which is an entire sequence of events leading up to Noah’s death as well as the aftermath.

Jess and Liz sit on the porch doing embroidery. Liz wishes she were a boy. She has it in her head that boys are brave, because they are boys. The adult reader knows that this is because the braveness and strength of men was emphasised during the wars, as a tactic to get men to sign up and fight fearlessly, sacrificing their lives.

They talk about the local kook, Ferdie Gossett. Liz makes up a backstory for him. The reason he hangs around kids staring must be because he lost a child, because she knows children can die now, like Noah.

Liz also says she’s too scared to go into the woods at the end of Autumn Street. Because of the title, we know a visit into the woods is imminent.


Liz and Charles visit the two great aunties, though it’s not clear whether they are blood relations. Upon quizzing Charles to see if he can read, the aunties decide to perform a Shakespeare play for him. They let him ride on the mechanical chair that goes up the stairs, though Lowry does not say whether either or both of them is incapacitated. I associate this heavily with the horror genre after seeing horror films with stairlift chairs in them. At the end of Charles’ lovely visit, Liz is clearly jealous and she calls him the n-word.


Grandfather suggests a bonfire, which is over all too quickly as it always is. When the bonfire is over Grandfather doesn’t feel good. He has a stroke. Now the bonfire is imbued with extra meaning – life itself (as we know it) is over all too quickly.

Liz focuses on the double meaning of ‘stroke’. There’s the medical condition, then there’s the ‘stroke’ of midnight. Liz associates death with the passing of time. Death (and life) is starting to take shape for her. She is slowly learning that everything must end. She has already learnt that children can die at any time. Now her beloved grandfather is severely compromised, restricted to a wheelchair.

This has brought out a maternal side in Grandmother, which Liz never knew she had.


This is where the mystery of the story kicks in. When writing a novel length work it’s often necessary to add a mystery to avoid a flagging middle.

Lillian, young girl about town, casually explains that spies are everywhere. Liz and Charles get it into their heads that the twins’ German father wasn’t taken away at all – he’s up in the attic with a direct line to Hitler. This works well because the first half of the book has set Liz up as a fantasist who often puts two and two together to make five.

So Liz and Charles break into the house next door to see for themselves.

Here we have a great example of setting as character:

Even empty rooms are populated with the presence of those recently there. I thought that I could smell the thin flowery scent of the cologne Mrs Hoffman sometimes wore; and I could almost hear the soft laughter of Nathaniel as he played.

They don’t find anything. In superior position, the reader knows that Mr Hoffman is a victim of the war, not part of it.


Summer has ended now and Liz has started at the local school, described as a Gothic building. Charles has to go to his own school, because this is in the days of racial segregation. This means Liz and Charles have to end their friendship, each of them declaring they don’t like girls/boys, but they make an exception for each other. This shows how ridiculous the gendered socialisation of kids is.

Liz makes a new friend, Louise. Liz really likes being at Louise’s house. She invites Louise’s mother to make friends with her own mother. We get a brief possible flashback. Liz’s mother might remember Louise’s mother, but then again she may not. This feels nostalgic to an adult reader in a way that probably doesn’t to a child reader – adults know that distant memory works like that. Things that seem so important at the time are soon such distant memories.


In this quiet chapter Liz realises a few things. She understands that the aunties are her real grandmother’s sisters. She learns what romantic love looks like (a little) and declares to her mother that she loves Charles. This again touches on the racial divide of that era when Liz’s mother says that things don’t always work out.


This chapter is about sickness and infirmity. Ferdie Gossett is mentioned. He’s been vacant and wandering since an earlier war. Until this moment Liz didn’t know that there had been any earlier wars. To her, this one big world event going on right now was the be-all and end-all. She is starting to learn her own place in history.

Her grandfather’s missing teeth disturb her, in contrast with Charles’s missing baby teeth, which do not. Age juxtaposed with youth.

It is here that Liz has a anagnorisis:

It was all a kind of pretending. It explained why Great-aunt Philippa, whatever her private feelings were, could flutter her hand with her years old diamond ring, could say that she thought of Grandmother as a sister, and could smile. [inserts a list of events from the story] it was a kind of pretending composed of pride, of the pain of powerlessness, of need – and fear of need – and it came from caring: from caring so much that you were fearful for your own self, and how alone you were, or might someday be.

This is a variety of anagnorisis which can really only come from a much older, extradiegetic narrator. If this were written by Liz looking back from, say, eleven years of age, there’s no way she would have been able to string all those thoughts together. This is the sort of understanding that comes only after decades of reflection. Therefore, when choosing your point of view, take into consideration the nature of your character’s anagnorisis.

Is it something pretty small and specific, in the scheme of things? Or is it deep and meaningful, like this? If so, you’ll probably need to spell it out in a paragraph of two like the one above. In that case, you’ll need either a viewpoint character who is not the young person, or you’ll need your autodiegetic narrator to be much older at time of writing.


As I expected from the title, the children must enter the woods, those fairytale woods where danger lurks. Liz has caught a cold, so goes home, but Charles never comes back.

He is found dead.

In the woods. In the woods. I heard them say that, and I heard Tatie’s low cry. I had known that the danger was in the woods. Charles had known. We hadn’t understood the form of the danger, had imagined it to be turtles, caves, or even the red-headed boy who licked lustily at the dripping from his own nose. But it was none of those.

Charles has been killed by Ferdie Gossett, ‘himself a victim’. The message here: Even those who kill have been somehow damaged themselves.

Charles has been killed by a knife. Earlier in the story, Liz and Charles buried a knife, meaning to do harm to another boy, but ultimately not doing so. While this foreshadowing seems a bit too neat, it does work in this story, underlining the message that life and death is pretty random, and at certain times in history, life and death has seemed easy-come, easy-go.


It is a handy writer’s trick to combine Liz’s bereavement with her own delirium from her sickness. Months pass in this state and when she comes out the other side, she is older and things have changed. Though it took place in a bed, Liz has been through her own big struggle and faced death.

It’s interesting that in the final chapter the character of Grandmother is redeemed. Grandmother has been to Charles’s funeral, the only White woman there, and cried. Tatie tells Liz not to be so hard on her grandmother.

This is interesting as a reveal because the narrator writes this with the benefit of hindsight, and could easily have written Grandmother more sympathetically from the start.

The story ends in spring, in contrast with the naming of ‘Autumn street’. An entire year has passed, showing that this is a circular, feminine plot shape. It is common for books starring girls to follow the seasons.

Note the style and tone of the final chapter, which mirrors the dreamlike tone of the opening chapter. This tone, which book ends the narrative, helps to give closure. It is a dreamlike, wistful tone with emphasis on scenery and nostalgia.

Hud Film Study

Hud poster

Hud is a 1962 black and white film based on Larry McMurtry’s first novel, Horseman, Pass By. There is a connection to children’s literature here — Patricia Neal who plays the housekeeper was Roald Dahl’s wife. Neal had a severe stroke not long after this film was made. Her recovery meant she had problems with language. The made-up vocabulary of The BFG was inspired by Patricia Neal’s strange communication style after her stroke.

 Hud is in many ways similar to Deliverance, appearing in American cinemas ten years later. 

  • Both are films based on novels
  • Written by white American men concerned with themes of masculinity
  • They both feature a stereotypical macho man whose bravado is also his downfall
  • Both feature a small group of men in a terrible situation, wrestling verbally with each other to make a moral decision
  • Each man of the group falls on a continuum from ruthless to morally upstanding
  • The morally upstanding character is destroyed by his compassion and ends up in the grave
  • While the macho man continues to ‘live’ but he has lost a part of himself, and his victory in getting his way is a pyrrhic one.
  • Both are anti-Redemption Stories: “Hud was certainly a unique picture in many ways, but, most significantly, it dared to portray a central character who was a “pure bastard”—and who remained totally unredeemed and unrepentant at the end of the picture.” (William Baer)

Stories of this type continue to intrigue writers and readers.

Jeffrey Eugenide’s first book of short stories, published 2017, is also about men struggling with how to behave:

It’s sort of, you’re caught in the middle of this thing, you want to redefine what it means to be a man in our time, and then going along with that has to involve a lot of self-exposure, and a lot of recrimination and regret for your behaviour. At the same time, there’s maybe some resistance to being told how you’re supposed to behave. So the characters are caught between being good and being bad. That makes for more energetic fiction, when you have someone of two minds trying to figure out a problem, as opposed to being really sure about his way and his conduct.


Genre Blend

Hud is not really a blend at all. Hud is a straight drama. You don’t find many of those on IMDb these days — most big films are a mixture of thriller/action/adventure and often with drama thrown in because of the character development.

At the time of release, Hud was said to be a contemporary Western. But here’s what the screenwriter’s response is to that:

BAER: Although Hud is clearly set in contemporary Texas, it’s often cited as one of the films that began the “demystification” of the American Western. It came out a year after The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, in which John Ford began to re-examine the Western hero, and it predated the so-called “revisionist” Westerns of the later sixties, like The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (1966) and The Wild Bunch (1969). I wonder how you feel about that?

RAVETCH: To be perfectly honest, I never thought of Hud as a Western. Never. I always thought of it as a domestic drama. Whenever I see Hud listed with Westerns, I wince. Not because I don’t admire Westerns—I wrote a number of them in my earlier days—but because I don’t feel the film is appropriate to that category.

Michigan Quarterly Review

The screenwriter, of course, is absolutely right. Hud is not a Western, nor is it even an anti-Western:

  • It doesn’t use the metaphorical symbol web of a Western and nor does it subvert those symbols to make an anti-Western.
  • It’s not about the taming of wilderness in order to build a home.
  • It’s not about expansion of a nation, or the destruction wreaked under said expansion.

On the other hand, I can see where people might get to thinking this is an anti-Western.

  • A Western has a lone warrior hero, leading a group of people to build a new village, and Hud seems like the ironic opposite of that guy.
  • It’s set in cowboy country, where death is all around them
  • There’s a category of Westerns set on a ranch, and the ranch comes under siege from outside forces.
  • There’s a life and death struggle and a pyrrhic victory.
  • Paul Newman starred in a bunch of Westerns and came to be associated with the genre. Larry McMurtry, too, also wrote anti-Westerns (later), as well as comical Western parodies, so was obviously influenced by the Western he grew up with when writing Horseman, Pass By.

Setting Of Hud


Hud opens with various pan shots of a small, rural town. This is the fictional Texas town of Thalia, based on the small town where Larry McMurtry grew up, surrounded by uncles like the men in this story. The Last Picture Show was also set in Thalia. 

hud railway crossing
Almost every small town has a railway crossing, but could this be symbolic? Crossroads symbolise changes to come, and suggest an imminent and major moral dilemma.

The grandfather is old enough to have lived through The Great Depression as an adult, and knows exactly how it goes down when cattle have to be slaughtered.

 For the people living in the mid 20th century, war was a big part of their lives and influenced everything. They were never free from the threat of it, even after the second World War had passed. Here’s another similarity to Deliverance: the images of war in what is technically a non-war movie.

Hud war scene
Men line a trench full of cattle, slaughtering them en masse.

The story opens at the height of summer. It’s six in the morning and bright as midday. When the story ends it is still the end of summer, but dog days. The stench of the dead cattle would have been intense. Summer isn’t all about fun in the sun. For characters in stories, summer is a vulnerable time. In the summer, characters exist in:

  1. a troubled, vulnerable state or
  2. in a world of freedom susceptible to attack

Summer stands in symbolically for an snail under the leaf setting.

Characters Of Hud

Character Functions

While Hud Bannon (34 years old) is the title character of the film adaptation, I suspect the change in title is to do with the superstar crowd-drawing power of Paul Newman. The title of the novel suggests this is mainly the story of the old man. The ‘horseman’ of Horseman, Pass By would refer to Hud’s father, Homer, who is strongly connected to horses as a symbol of his tie to nature and simple needs.

“Horseman, Pass By, ” on which the film “Hud” is based, tells the story of Homer Bannon, an old-time cattleman who epitomises the frontier values of honesty and decency, and Hud, his unscrupulous stepson.

advertising copy for Horseman, Pass By

The old man’s tie to his horses contrasts with Hud’s pink Cadillac. Elvis Presley had a 1955 Pink Cadillac, cementing that car as the vehicle of choice for rock and roll wannabes and men-about-town. Because the film is black and white, we are told several times at the very beginning that this is a ‘pink’ Cadillac. A showy colour for a small town farmer.

Hud in his pink cadillac
Symbolically linked to Hud, the Cadillac suffers damage by the final scene, caused by Hud himself, of course, ramming into his nephew’s vehicle.

Most Interesting Character: While Hud is a fascinating character, he is not the viewpoint/focalising character. We know a lot about Hud before we meet him. His nephew is looking for him, and the camera follows Lonny. Despite having lived in Thalia his whole life, Lonny’s function is similar to that of ‘the new guy in town’, because he is embarking on the new-to-him adult world that Thalia might offer. We follow Lonny as he tracks down Hud’s iconic car and then the woman’s shoe on the path, functioning like Hansel and Gretel breadcrumbs leading Lonny to his uncle.

Characters We Like The Most: We sympathise with Homer, who is a good man in a horrible situation. We also sympathise with the witty, attractive and world-wise Alma, especially when we learn more of her backstory, and see her sexually assaulted.

Viewpoint Character: Lonnie is the viewpoint character, obvious from the camera work in the film, but even more so in the novel, in which Lonny is the first person narrator. This is unusual for Larry McMurtry, who mostly wrote in third person. McMurtry has been accused of ‘head hopping’ but I disagree with that — instead, McMurtry probably switched to third person because he really wanted to move in and out of different characters’ heads. For me, he does it seamlessly, writing more like a novelist of the mid twentieth century than like a novelist of today, admittedly, where close third person point of view is the rule.

Off-stage Characters: Oftentimes, the characters who are missing from a story are nonetheless significant. Homer’s wife, Lonny’s mother and Hud’s older brother have all died, leaving these three men to form some semblance of family. For Alma, her missing character is her terrible ex-husband. The dead and missing family function as ‘ghosts‘ to the living (also known as the psychic wound).

Characters As Symbols For Ideas

When Larry McMurtry’s classic novel of the post-World War II era was originally published in 1961, it created a sensation in Texas literary circles. Never before had a writer portrayed the contemporary West in conflict with the Old West in such stark, realistic, unsentimental ways.

advertising copy for Horseman, Pass By

Old West in conflict with the New (mid 20th century) West. It’s not hard to fathom which character in this trio of men represents the Old West and which represents The New.

We sensed a change in American society back then. We felt that the country was gradually moving into a kind of self-absorption, and indulgence, and greed—which, of course, fully blossomed in the ‘eighties and the ‘nineties. So we made Hud a greedy, self-absorbed man, who ruthlessly strives for things, and gains a lot materially, but really loses everything that’s important. But he doesn’t care. He’s still unrepentant.

Screenwriter, Ravetch
Why Writers Can’t Trust Audiences

No matter how obvious you are.

Does this remind anyone else of the popular reaction to King of Assholes, Walter White?

FRANK: In our society, there’s always been a fascination with the “charming” villain, and we wanted to say that if something’s corrupt, it’s still corrupt, no matter how charming it might seem—even if it’s Paul Newman with his beautiful blue eyes. But things didn’t work out like we planned.

BAER: It actually backfired.

RAVETCH: Yes, it did, and it was a terrible shock to all of us. Here’s a man—Hud—who tries to rape his housekeeper, who wants to sell his neighbours poisoned cattle, and who stops at nothing to take control of his father’s property. And all the time, he’s completely unrepentant. Then, at the first screenings, the preview cards asked the audiences, “Which character did you most admire?” and many of them answered, “Hud.” We were completely astonished. Obviously, audiences loved Hud, and it sent us into a tailspin. The whole point of all our work on that picture was apparently undone because Paul was so charismatic.

Michigan Quarterly Review
Stark Good and Evil

While Lonnie is our more nuanced guide throughout this story, there’s nothing at all subtle about the goodness of Homer versus the amorality of Hud. The writing lesson from that: Don’t be afraid to overdo it. We are left in no doubt as to the nature of Hud:

  • He has been in a brawl the night before, breaking a shopkeeper’s window
  • He drives a big flashy car
  • He’s spent the night sleeping with another man’s wife
  • When the woman’s husband turns up he immediately blames his nephew
  • He doesn’t want the government involved in the business of the sick cow, even though it would be unneighbourly and environmentally tragic to ignore the foot and mouth disease.
  • “Sometimes I lean to one side of [the law], sometimes I lean to the other.” Hud tells the audience his philosophy of life. 
  • “How many honest men you know? You take the sinners away from the saints you end up with Abraham Lincoln.”

That’s just the first ten minutes. In contrast, Homer is a wonderful human being:

  • He has concern for the health of his livestock as well as concern for the environment
  • He does what is right and legal despite it ruining him
  • He doesn’t blame Hud for the death of his other son, even though it was probably Hud’s fault (we see him driving)
  • He is kind to Alma “It’s no reflection on your cooking Alma, I just don’t seem to have much appetite.”
  • Black birds sitting in a gothically spindly tree are foreboding. Hud is bothered by he buzzards and shoots them away with his gun. “I wish you wouldn’t do that, Hud. They keep the country clean.”
  • “You’re an unprincipled man, Hud.”/“Don’t let that fuss you, I mean you got enough for both of us.”

Homer has just learnt his entire livelihood hangs in the balance but he goes to the picture theatre with his grandson. The image of Homer singing loudly to the tragicomic song Oh My Darling Clementine is one of the most emotionally gut-wrenching for me, even worse than the slaughter of the cows, which is memorable but we know that’s coming.

Hud Movie Theater Sing-a-Long
The Romantic Subplot

Though this is a love tragedy rather than a romance or a love story, Alma’s existence shows us how Hud would treat a wife if he had one. For Lonnie, Alma is both a motherly and a sexual figure simultaneously — a hard thing to pull off without it being super creepy. This relationship Lonnie has with Alma shows the age Lonnie is at — still young enough to need a mother figure but old enough to be looking at women with sexual interest.

Larry McMurtry write women very well, considering he’s a man. Women do a lot of crying (though not Alma), and he does love women who go without shoes. He tends to write the same character over and over — Alma is a different outworking of Clara Allen in the Lonesome Dove series and of Molly Taylor in Leaving Cheyenne. (By the way, Leaving Cheyenne is the third novel in what’s known as McMurtry’s Southwest Landmark series — Horseman, Pass By and The Last Picture Show are the other books set in the same place at around the same time, linking together by their shared setting.)

Added to McMurtry’s understanding of women, the screenplay was written by a husband and wife team, which explains why the character of Alma is so well-drawn, so rounded and relatable.  The screenwriting team of Irving Ravetch and Harriet Frank, Jr met while working at MGM and had also collaborated on The Long Hot Summer (1958). After Hud, they wrote Hombre, Norma Rae, The Dark At The Top Of The Stairs and others. As you can probably tell, they were a good fit for Paul Newman.

Irving Ravetch and Harriet Frank, Jr
Irving Ravetch and Harriet Frank, Jr

My main point is that a woman on the writing team leads to better female characterisation. Every single time. A rounded character is especially important here, given the sexual assault scenes. When women are assaulted by men but are given no stories of their own, the violence feels egregious and exploitative.

What makes Alma ’rounded’?

  • Alma has her own ghost — a former husband, a gambler, abusive. She’s had trouble with unwanted sexual contact in the past. She’s basically had to run away from her old life and thought she’d found a new family with these three men.
  • Alma has her own shortcoming — she’s in a vulnerable position as paid employee, but more than that, she finds Hud attractive despite knowing how terrible he is.
  • She has her own anagnorisis — the only way she can overcome her toxic almost-relationship with Hud is by removing herself entirely.

Story Structure Of Hud

Hud is an excellent example of a story driven by a strong moral dilemma. All the best stories have a moral dilemma at some point, but in this particular story the moral dilemma is central. Donald Maass explains the difference between a ‘dilemma’ and a ‘moral dilemma’. You need a moral dilemma for good narrative:

A dilemma is a choice between two equally good or two equally bad outcomes. A moral dilemma elevates such a choice by giving two outcomes equally excellent, or excruciating, consequences not only for a protagonist, but for others. A dilemma is a situation in which none of us likes to be caught, but in which we all sometimes find ourselves. A moral dilemma is a situation nobody wants, and which few must ever face, but which is terrific for making compelling fiction.

Donald Maass

In other words, dilemmas are a day-to-day thing but moral dilemmas are super big, important problems faced only by the unlucky few. Most of us never had to kill our entire livestock. Most of us never have to choose between keeping a son or a daughter (as in Sophie’s Choice).

One way of thinking about mystery comes from Karl Iglesias. In his book Writing For Emotional Impact, Iglesias recommends the following breakdown for creating mystery around characters:

  1. Create a mysterious past Special abilities, secrets. Make the secrets hurtful and embarrassing or dangerous. Your character should be willing to do about anything to protect them.

  2. Create a mysterious present Why is the character behaving in this particular way? Maybe they say something surprising in dialogue. The balancing act for writers is, these actions have to be both surprising and consistent with attitudes and desires. This is where the moral dilemma comes in. As soon as you create a fork in the road for your character this creates curiosity, anticipation and uncertainty in the reader. The mystery is: What on earth will this character do? The harder the choice, the more interesting it is to see the character’s decision.

  3. Create a mysterious future What will be revealed about the character and when? How will the reader be surprised?— Writing For Emotional Impact

Check, check and check.

Hud’s mysterious past: He was responsible for killing his brother in a car wreck. He emerged without a scratch on himself. Turns out Hud is also a war veteran, though he did his darnedest to evade conscription. We never hear what happened to Hud during the war, but it wouldn’t have been great. So there’s his mysterious past (from Lonny’s point of view.)

The mysterious present is the question sustaining the length of the story: Do the cows have foot and mouth disease (we know that they do, because this is a story)

More interesting is Hud’s mysterious future: What is Hud going to do about this tragedy, given as how he’s such an unscrupulous asshole?

Other writers think in terms of ghost/psychic wound, setting up questions, rewarding with reveals.

It’s clear that the character function of Hud is as The Mysterious Character holding our interest. But is it really Hud who is facing the story-worthy moral dilemma? Ostensibly yes, but I’d describe Hud as I’d describe Donald Trump — this is a man whose morality was set long ago, and he’s on his own path. It’s up to everyone else around him to decide which way they roll. It is Lonnie who faces the moral dilemma of the ‘wrapper story’ — the metadiegetic level of story in which he comes to his anagnorisis at the end of the level zero story of the foot and mouth summer, but finishes his processing of it only after retelling. Lonnie must decide whether he’s going to stick by his uncle, becoming more and more like him, or set out on his own, risking everything he has left. The moral decision had by Lonnie is gradual rather than sudden. He doesn’t start the story knowing what’s right and wrong. At first Lonnie sits between Hud and his grandfather — Hud wants to sell bad stock to their neighbours; Homer wants to do the lawful thing, and Lon’s middle-of-the-road suggestion is that they turn the cattle loose. In case the audience is in any doubt about this: “You’re going to have to make up your own mind one day, about what’s right and what’s wrong,” says the grandfather to Lonny after the big struggle of words on the stairs. 

Does Hud have his own anagnorisis? If he does, it’s a surface-level realisation that he’s losing people But this is not enough to make him change. He apologises to Alma only because he’s losing her, not because he’s discovered some truth about himself and life, the universe and everything. The tragedy of Hud is that he does not change. Hud is a precursor to Don Draper, having small, almost imperceptible revelations that don’t add up to much.

Hud says goodbye to Alma


The Minotaur looming over this network of characters is the foot and mouth disease, personified by The Government, who are required to come in and kill their livestock.

Then we have a web of opposition between:

  • Hud and Homer
  • Hud and Alma (romantic opponents, morphing into abuser/abused relationship)
  • Hud and Lonnie (annoying young one, cramping the stud’s style)
  • Lonnie and Alma (between motherly interaction and sexual tension)


In a story lacking a big big struggle (e.g. a war scene, a natural disaster, a big bad baddie descending on the group) you often get an image of a big struggle, connected to the main plot only symbolically. In Hud we have the pig fight in which Hud manages to adeptly catch a squealing pig. This allows Alma to say, “I’ll stay home. I don’t like pigs,” right after she’s turned Hud down for the second time (and presumably more times than that). It also gives us a good feel for the smalltown rural vibe – this is a very hick kind of entertainment. Hud is very good at catching pigs. This is a guy with skills, such as they are. The sport of pig catching also requires the switching off of empathy because I’m sure the pigs don’t like it, though that may be a personal response, borne of suburbia.

During the contamination experiment with the outside cow Lon is kicked in the head and is knocked out. He throws up. We now know that this can be a sign of brain damage. Hud doesn’t think Lon needs the doctor, though Alma does.

The pig fight foreshadows the brawl Hud enjoys getting into with the man in the bar. The men here are reduced to fighting pigs, fighting over nothing of consequence. Indeed, the men are set up to win. The pigs have no chance.

Lonny exchanges glances with a man’s daughter and enjoys the thrill of the subsequent barroom brawl as much as Hud does. At this point the nephew could swing either way, morally. On the cusp of manhood, he could let go of principles like Hud or he could hold onto them, like his grandfather. Even at this late point, we’re not sure what Lonnie’s going to do.

The main big struggle, the third one of the night, is the one that Hud finally loses. This ghost of Hud’s guilt at killing his own brother is used as a big reveal, though it’s basically been telegraphed earlier when Homer tells the boys to be careful and Hud hands Lonnie the keys. Hud learns that the grandfather was sick of him a long time before the car accident. It’s Hud, as a person, because he ‘doesn’t give a damn’, not because of something he did. This is the rule of threes in storytelling at work. The third big big struggle leads to the real wound. Compared to these words, the fisticuffs was just play fighting. The ironic distance between the level of physicality and the quietness of the conversation on the stairs works well as juxtaposition.


Homer has a anagnorisis before he dies — that he can’t win against his stronger, less principled son. Evil wins out.

Hud has superficial revelations, never changing.

Alma realises she has to leave physically if she wants to move on psychologically.

Lonnie realises he can’t stay with Hud:

“We might have whooped it up, you and me. That’s the way you used to want it.”

“I used to.”


The film uses the symbolism of doors and windows — Hud gazes at his nephew driving away, chuffing a smoke and swigging on a beer. These vices will probably play an increasing role in his life. He waves dismissively and slams the door, slamming not just the door but also punctuating the relationship he had with anyone.

The extrapolated ending? We’ve been given enough information to know he’s going to get rich drilling into oil on their land. He will be wealthy but completely alone for the rest of his sorry life, damaged from the car accident, from the war, from toxic smalltown masculinity, from rejection from his father, from the death of his mother (“at least my mother loved me”) and rejection from his nephew protege. 

True Grit Film Study (1969)

True Grit movie poster 1969

When iconic Australian film critics Margaret and David reviewed the 2010 film True Grit they did enjoy it, but couldn’t see the point of a remake. The 1969 original stood the test of time, so they said. That’s what made me watch the original. Turns out the 1969 film is benign enough to watch with my cowboy-loving primary school aged daughter, who loves it to bits.

The two versions are very similar in plot. Any difference is mainly in tone.

The Coen Brothers also modernised Charles Portis’ novel by turning it into a mumblecore, which I understand better with subtitles, but the 1969 actors were stage trained, and speak with clear enunciation. Again, better for kids.

The novel is a first-person narrative recounted by a one-armed old maid. The Coen Brothers adaptation is more faithful to this dark detail, depicting Mattie at the end with no arm. The 1969 film ends with Mattie’s arm in a sling. For all we know, she’s going to fully recover, limbs intact.

What can storytellers learn from True Grit?

Genre Blend of True Grit

Listed on IMDb as Adventure, Drama, Western.

The Western is itself a blend of genres, using the American West of the 1800s as a setting.

The Coen Brothers remake is not a western at all. It is simply set in the West. At best, True Grit is an anti-western. In 1969, True Grit was widely thought to be a parody of a western. It depends on your definition. Are you talking about the setting, the plot or the themes? Setting-wise, it’s a western. Thematically, it’s not a western but a crime story.


If there are 7 basic plots of all Western stories, True Grit can be considered a Revenge Western. Revenge is a form of wish fulfilment. We see it in stories for all audiences, including in stories for children, in which they tend to be super popular. Matilda by Roald Dahl is the ultimate revenge fantasy.

Like almost all stories from the Revenge Western subgenre, the plot involves an elaborate chase and pursuit by a wronged individual. In other words, this is the Western equivalent of a cat-and-mouse story. Some of these Revenge Westerns also include elements from a classic mystery story, though not True Grit. Mattie is so capable that she solves any technical difficulties off-screen. She knows exactly what she wants and exactly who she must see in order to get it.

Revenge stories grip us because of their mythic excess. Another example of a Revenge Western is The Searchers (A John Wayne film from 1956) in which An American Civil War veteran embarks on a journey to rescue his niece from the Comanches. Ethan and Martin wander over the Southwestern landscape. As we watch them, the audience becomes aware of the depth of the vengeful main character’s alienation from the ‘sivilisation’ once equated with anything feminine. Consider this a kind of gender inverse of Thelma & Louise, in which two women are similarly alienated, then escape from all things masculine.

Linda Williams has said that when a female character (or female duo) lights out to seek vengeance, the audience expects her motivations to be stronger than it might be if she were a man. There’s something alienating about a woman with a gun and a chip on her shoulder. This may have changed in recent decades (for better or for worse) but male viewers were initially alienated by Thelma & Louise while women found it empowering (as a cohort). When writers create stories about women seeking vengeance, they tend to make them true underdogs, whereas we accept men who set out to avenge a villain like a superhero, asking “Well, who needs saving today?”

This can be easily explained, and is beautifully explained by Kate Manne in The Logic of Misogyny. According to Manne’s definition of misogyny (the ‘police force’ which works below the fabric of society to uphold the patriarchal status quo):

women are obligated to give to him, not to ask, and expected to feel indebted and grateful, rather than entitled. This is especially the case with respect to characteristically moral goods: attention, care, sympathy, respect, admiration and nurturing.

Down Girl by Kate Manne, “Eating Her Words”

Since women are expected to feel indebted rather than entitled, revenge is coded unfeminine, and writers (as well as women themselves) must work harder to win approval for stepping outside the norms.

How did the writers achieve sympathy when it comes to Mattie Ross? They basically have her step in as a proxy man. She’s acting on behalf of her dead father. The fact that she’s so young — a girl, really — is a bit ‘man bites dog‘. “Wow, a girl, and so young, out there on the prairie,” we think. I’m reminded of those films from the 1980s with highly precocious talking toddlers—aiming to be interesting as an exhibition in its own right.


Westerns have a similar structure to a subcategory of war story. As in a war story, the first half deals not with the chase itself but with the preparation for it. The social unit is central to war films, and the social unit is central to True Grit, too, with this odd combo of characters functioning as found family. It takes time to establish these people as a coherent fighting force, which is why so many time is dedicated to it before we see them on the road. When I watched this film again after a few years I had forgotten how much time was dedicated to the preparation.

The Difference Between War Films and Westerns

Westerns are set in frontiers and war films are set at the front. Both are places where colliding forces clash against one another. At the front in war films, large numbers of people follow rigid rules that come from military organisations. At the frontier of the western, there are usually few people, and because they are far away from any organisation’s power, the rules are weak or nonexistent. The emphasis in war films is thus on courage and tests of strength, while in westerns it is on morality and tests of will.

Howard Suber

For writing purposes — if you’re in the business of studying plot — True Grit is a crime drama utilising mythic structure, set in the old west.


A drunken, hard-nosed U.S. Marshal and a Texas Ranger help a stubborn teenager track down her father’s murderer in Indian territory.

Logline Annotated

A premise is a combination of CHARACTER and PLOT.

A drunken, hard-nosed U.S. Marshal and a Texas Ranger help a stubborn teenager [SOME SENSE OF THE MAIN CHARACTERS] track down [SOME SENSE OF AN OUTCOME] her father’s murderer [EVENT THAT STARTS THE ACTION]  in Indian territory.

The promise in the logline: There will be a chase. The murderer will be confronted face-to-face (we know this because it’s a ‘western’). We have to find out who wins the struggle by watching the film.

Also in the logline: the shortcomings that are ruining the characters’ lives. Rooster Cogburn is drunken and hard-nosed. Mattie Ross is stubborn. The Texas Ranger is not otherwise described. He is a bit-character after all, and sacrificed as sidekick to the main characters.

We’re also given the setting ‘in Indian territory’.


True Grit is set across Arkansas and Oregon in the Old West, or rather the popular imagining of how Arkansas was back in 1878 (which by the way, is the same decade Lonesome Dove is set). Mattie’s father is killed in Fort Smith on the Oklahoma border. The murderer has fled into ‘the federal territories’ to escape the law. The book is set in the middle of winter, which makes the environment super harsh. However, the 1969 movie was filmed in autumn, with beautifully coloured trees. According to An analysis of True Grit from the True Grit Roundtable Podcast these forests don’t exist in that part of America. There may  have been practical reasons why the film crew couldn’t/wouldn’t film in a wintry rockies, perhaps to do with John Wayne’s advanced age. In any case, the autumn vistas in the film make the setting a lot more accommodating than they would have actually been.


Perhaps more apparent in the novel, Mattie the old maid extradiegetic narrator is Calvinist — representative of the people who settled in the Ozark hills in the 19th century.

Unlike other major Protestant churches, Jean Calvin stressed equality before God in the sense that people had the right to choose their own priests and by extension their own rulers. This didn’t go down well with a lot of the kings and princes that embraced protestantism as a means to expand their own power base. There’s no pope. Calvinism was about austerity and predestination.

Contrast with Anglicans (the Church of England), who in the beginning were not that different from Catholics apart from their unwillingness to accept the Pope.

Lutherans are followers of Martin Luther. Lutherans are pretty similar to Calvinists, except Luther didn’t reject the Catholic notion of transubstantiation outright, simply modified it. Also, Luther said salvation is independent of merit and worthiness. Anyone can attain salvation through faith. Calvinsalvation is about predestination (a chosen few).

Baptists and Methodists came along later — these are more mystic forms of Christianity. Mormons are different again — more elaborate, strict and centralized.

Mattie’s Presbyterian upbringing (heavily influenced by her Calvinist environs) means she disapproves of Rooster’s drinking, not to mention his lack of religion. She probably has a pretty strong sense of religious entitlement. If she thinks she’s one of the chosen few who deserves salvation, maybe she’s interpreting this scripture to her advantage as she goes about avenging a murder by murdering in her own right.

Political Climate

Mattie was brought up to hate the Republicans of the Reconstruction. This was a new kind of Republican party which came about during the Civil War. They wanted to free slaves and give them the right to vote.

Old Mattie doesn’t know what to think of Al Smith, who is a Democrat like Mattie, but also a Catholic. In fact, he was the first Catholic nominee for President, and he mobilised a lot of Catholic votes, especially from women, who had only recently achieved emancipation (1920) when he ran in 1928. Prostestants feared a Catholic President. They thought the Pope would have too much say in how American ran its business. Protestants were also fans of prohibition at that time, and Catholics tended to be drinkers. Al Smith was anti-prohibition. He lost the presidential election to Calvin Coolidge because of his Catholicism. Or, that really didn’t help. (Calvin Coolidge was named after Jean Calvin, of course.)

Mattie ends up giving Smith the benefit of the doubt because he’s not a Republican at least. Like Al Smith, she uses weaponry to get her way.

Rooster is a veteran of William Quantill’s crew in the Civil War — at this point in America’s history everyone is still living in the shadow of this war. The Quantrill crew was particularly murderous. Rooster Cogburn is thought to be based on a composite of historical characters, but on one in particular.

None of this political stuff comes out in the film adaptation because there’s no wrapper story told in 1923.


In Wild West days it was far more common to see people walking about with missing eyes and limbs and teeth. In modern stories these losses are also symbolic. Rooster’s missing eye is basically the equivalent of the one-legged Long John Silver Mattie is fascinated by Rooster in the same way that Jim Hawkins is fascinated with Long John. Later, of course, Mattie loses one arm, joining her hero in physical imbalance.


True Grit was published 50 years ago. It first ran as a serial in the Saturday Evening Post, then Simon and Schuster published a hardback edition.

Because the novel is written in first person from the point of view of Mattie, all of the dialogue is theological and out of date. This is deliberate, of course. Charles Portis did not create Mattie herself to be a novelist. But a lot of the dialogue from the book was brought into the movie, and here it doesn’t sound as natural as it should have. Mattie as storyteller has been lost. So the screenwriters should have modified the dialogue of the villains to suit their character. This is something the Coen Brothers did fix really well. The dialogue is much more distinct from character to character.

In narratological terms, Mattie is a homodiegetic, extradiegetic narrator.  She is part of the story she tells, but she is telling it as an old lady, which means she’s distanced from it.

The 1969 is attempts to break free from Mattie’s limited point of view but doesn’t quite go far enough. The 2010 adaptation achieves a more omniscient point of view.

In the novel Mattie is not a particularly likable character.

She is severe and unforgiving, the antithesis of the archetypal freewheeling American youth as embodied by Huck Finn or Holden Caulfield. “I would not put a thief in my mouth to steal my brains,” she intones when Cogburn offers her a sip of whiskey as medicine.

The Coen brothers, who remade the film in 2010, likened the character to Alice in Wonderland. Donna Tartt compares her to Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz in an afterword she wrote for the 2011 paperback edition of the book. She has gone through the looking glass, having left the relatively civilized environs of Dardanelle for the Oklahoma Indian Territory.

And it’s true she has a relentlessness similar to Dorothy, but she doesn’t want to go until after she’s had her vengeance. Mattie is a civilizer, a law reader, an organizing principal — as much a symbol of imposed order as a piano in a homestead parlor. An unforgiving moralist, an Old Testament raver like John Brown, an imperial tamer of chaos who’s perpetually suspicious of others’ motives. She lights out for the wilderness not for the freedom that it promises, but to extend her Scots Presbyterian notions of justice. […]

Mattie is a cranky old maid, but we can love her for the creaky humanity that leaks through her Scotchgarded facade — her affection for her game pony, her pal Little Blackie, her affecting (and affected) rhetorical habits which include the seemingly random use of “quotation marks” to preserve the authenticity of the story she is telling us. Mattie’s dryly musical voice is a miracle of vernacular precision and authorial intent — she reveals only and exactly what is necessary.

A key to that voice might be found in Portis’ personal history. After a stint in the U.S. Marine Corps* during the Korean War, Portis enrolled in the University of Arkansas and worked for Fayetteville’s Northwest Arkansas Times. One of his duties was editing the correspondence columns written by little old Mattie-type ladies who lived in the hinterlands. He confessed he edited all the character out of their copy; perhaps he saved it up for Mattie.

Arkansas Online


Picking out ‘the main character’ is not always easy. True Grit is a prime example of a story with two main characters exhibiting the same character traits but in different outworkings. Mattie’s stubbornness is the same as Rooster’s hard-nosed-ness. But one is an old guy tip-toeing along the wrong side of the law, while the other is a young woman who could easily go the same way, but who has been wronged. For now she is on the right side of the law. It feels inevitable that these two characters find one another. They are two sides of the same coin, in the same way a criminal often has the exact same strengths as the detective in a typical crime drama.

By god, she reminds me of me!

Rooster Cogburn

The logline posits Mattie as the main character, ‘helped’ by the two men.

  • Mattie drives the action.
  • We see Mattie on screen from the first scene to the last. Mattie is our guide into unfamiliar territory. When Mattie watches the hanging in the town square, the audience sees through Mattie’s eyes. We’re as awed as she is.
  • But it is Rooster who changes the most, because Mattie is an example of The Female Maturity Formula, starting off as a sensible little mother, ending the same way. Rooster learns to care for another human being.
  • I’m guessing an audience finds Rooster and Mattie equally interesting.
  • I identify more with Mattie, myself. But she is almost a superhero archetype. Charles Portis is a writer who lists ‘grit’ as a necessary character attribute, but some of his characters acquire grit; others are born with it. Mattie is born with it. She is preternaturally mature, articulate and self-assured. She achieves the almost impossible, joining two world-wise men in an environment overtly hostile to women on a trek through dangerous territory. Mattie’s humanity only becomes apparent during the last third of the film when she gets into a life/death situation and needs to be rescued by the older men. Mattie is not in fact a superhero.


Mattie’s flaw is that she is single-minded, but this is also her strength. Shortcomings are at their most powerful when those same traits function as strengths.

Rooster is a fairly cliched alcoholic. Unlike other alcoholics crated by Charles Portis, Rooster is unable to do his job properly because of it. Here’s what Matt Bird has to say about alcoholism as character flaw:

Flaws need to have an upside, which is why some just don’t work very well. One of the most overused flaws is alcoholism, but it’s not as compelling as some writers think because ther’es very little upside. It’s hard to overcome, but only because it’s a chemical addiction. There’s never any good reason to be an alcoholic. We’ll never identify with a character’s desire to keep drinking destructively.

The Secrets Of Story, Matt Bird

The thing is, Portis isn’t using alcoholism as a flaw — Rooster has many others — but as a plot device. It’s because Rooster is drunk that he fails to load Mattie’s gun properly and that’s why it backfires. Otherwise she’d have killed her father’s murderer before the story was over. The misfiring gun keeps the big struggle going for as long as it needs to go for. Rooster’s reliance on the drink also contrasts nicely with Mattie’s up-and-go attitude.


Mattie wants to hunt down the man who killed her father. She wants to see him killed in front of her, and hanged in her own town, in respect of her father’s memory. As Rooster points out, this is a lot to ask. He tells her this at one point, in what’s known as ‘attack by ally’ that what she’s asking might be impossible. Isn’t it enough to see the man dead? Dead is dead. Mattie replies that she wouldn’t be happy with just dead. She is ruthless in her desire to see him hanged in her father’s town.


The ‘Big Bad Monster’ opponent is the guy who killed Mattie’s father. He is horrible. Unpredictable, unsympathetic… a monster for storytelling purposes, who wreaks havoc in every town he visits.

But for a story to work this big bad monster isn’t enough. There needs to be conflict within the group. Rooster makes an excellent opponent for Mattie, as well as an ally. This is similar to the progression of a love story, except that kind of creepiness is never on the table — that’s why Rooster calls Mattie ‘baby sister’. He considers her family, and the audience doesn’t have to worry about the gender issues. The book is much less clear about Mattie’s age. She herself obfuscates it in the retelling, and it feels to the reader that there may be some erotics of abstinence going on, precisely because she doesn’t mention any such feelings for Rooster.

Contrast Rooster with the Texas Ranger who initially sees Mattie as a love interest. Mattie isn’t having any of it. Le Boeuf (pronounced La Beef). The three remain opponents until they learn to rely on each other.


We’re not let in on Mattie’s plans — we see her carrying them out. In stories, characters rarely tackle problems head on, but Mattie is an exceptional character in this regard. This is because she is young and naively optimistic that she can do anything. Her plan eventually fails when she comes face to face with her main opponent by complete accident. No amount of excellent planning can account for this kind of coincidence. In the end, Mattie is literally in a massive hole and she must rely upon others to rescue her. She can’t plan her way out of that.


A series of big struggles, accidentally with the murderer when Mattie slips down a bank towards a river, and then with the other outlaws, culminates in a highly symbolic fall into a snake pit. This scene is less harrowing and drawn out than the one in the novel.


Okay, so in the film there’s no hypodiegetic narrator — just a level zero narrative. In the level zero story, it is Rooster and La Boeuf who have the revelations — first La Boeuf, who learns to respect Mattie despite her being a young woman. Presumably he will transfer this respect to others in his life, except then he dies. Then Rooster softens and learns to call Mattie family. By being nice to someone else he finds that he in fact really likes her, in what’s known in psychology as The Ben Franklin effect.

When Mattie is the storyteller, she has her own anagnorisis in the telling of the story. This is lost in the film, and that’s why it becomes an example of the Female Maturity Formula.


In the film, Mattie tells Rooster she’d like to bury him in her family plot and Rooster agrees to this and says a proper goodbye. We are left with the feeling that Mattie will lead a pretty normal family life from here on in, getting married, having her own children.

In the novel, Rooster gets Mattie to a doctor who saves her life after she is bitten by the rattler, but when she comes to, Rooster is gone. She learns later that he is part of a Wild West show and she goes to see him perform in Memphis. But he dies several stops before Memphis in 1903. She retrieves his body and buries it in her own family’s plot. Mattie has not managed to get married and have her own family, possibly because of the events and trauma of this very story, and because of her conflicted feelings for Rooster.

So the book is more of a love tragedy whereas the 1969 film has a tidy, satisfying ending.