02/15/2011 03:40 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

True Grit vs. Gruesome Grit

Movie remakes are rarely as good as the original version. Updating a classic film is like trying to translate a classic text.

"Traduire c'est trahir" is the French expression for this -- literally, "translation is treason". There is always something missing, something wrong, something compromised. Dictionary equivalents never can grasp the meaning and mood exactly.

In the case of the new True Grit -- the highly touted opus of the Coen brothers -- the gap between the original film and the remake couldn't be more treasonable... and more disturbing. The John Wayne character in the original was gruff and insensitive; the Coen brothers have turned him (via Jeff Bridges) into a sadistic killer. The 14-year-old girl in the original was charmingly naive but determined to find her father's killer; she was believably played by an actress in her 'twenties. The Coens have cast an actual 14-year old, with impeccable pigtails, who punctuates her quest with legal jargon (in Latin, if you please).

But it's not only the characterization that has been upended -- the tone and texture of the film has been lowered several octaves to create an oppressive, menacing atmosphere. The brilliant Western landscapes of the original have been turned, literally, from day into night, and dramatic moments are shot almost entirely in the dark.

And never overestimate the Coens' taste for gore. Chopping off fingers is shown in a magnified close-up, a skeleton is not merely a heap of bones but oozing viscera, and our spunky little girl -- shown in the original finale with simply a sling on her broken arm -- is now (fast forward) a gaunt, elderly spinster who has lost that very arm.

If you haven't seen this new True Grit, I hope I have described it well enough to deter you from going. I was never a fan of John Wayne, but he looks like a Shakespearian hero compared to Jeff Bridges.

And here's my final point: the reason for my rant goes beyond aesthetic considerations. It has to do with the dangerous decline of what we call American culture. It is rampant in almost every sector of the popular entertainment business. It is a glorification of the harsh, the hard, the cruel, and the crude. It falls somewhere between shock and schlock -- sometimes a big helping of both.

Life is not what it used to be, that's for sure, but we are dramatizing its brutality rather than its beauty; we are wallowing in dramas of destruction and despair. Films like the new True Grit are reinforcing the climate of violence that has taken hold of America.

In these times, we need inspiration and hope and visionary tales that will help soften the sharp edges of our existence.