People used to love prison movies. And I don’t mean low-rent exploitation fests like “Caged Heat” (1973). I mean legitimate quality cinema in which the setting of incarceration framed meaningful questions about human nature and society. But much like the Western, the prison genre has faded from popular culture. You can’t blame oversaturation for it, like the Western, and it’s certainly not because the public has lost its taste for tales of crime and punishment. So what happened?
That’s one of the things this edition of KIMT’s Weekend Remake Throwdown will consider as we pit two versions of one man’s story against each other. One is a stirring anthem for the unbreakable human spirit. The other is proof that people have too much time and money to waste nowadays. It’s Papillon (1972) vs. Papillon (2018) in a battle between someone born to be a movie star and someone who very much was not.
"Lord, save me from these horrible remakes."
Both films are based on the autobiographical books of Henri Charriere, a French safecracker who was framed (he claimed) in 1931 for the murder of a Parisian pimp and sentenced to life in the penal colony of French Guiana in South America. Nicknamed “Papillon” for his butterfly tattoo, Charriere befriends a fellow inmate named Louis Dega on their way to the colony. Dega is a rich counterfeiter who agrees to bankroll Papillon’s escape attempts in return for protection. Both films tell the same basic story of Charriere’s attempts to escape, though the longer original goes into a bit more detail, and takes the same basic liberties in trying to compress Charriere’s story into a feature-length film. The liberties that Charriere took with his own story are a little harder to pin down.
The thing that most directly strikes you when watching these movies is that 2018’s Papillon (Charlie Hunnam) can’t carry the jock of 1973’s Papillon (Steve McQueen). And while it’s true that few actors in history have been able to carry Steve McQueen’s jock, Charlie Hunnam proves himself to be particularly unworthy. He’s not helped by the 2018 version’s bizarre creative choice to keep Papillon in almost pristine physical condition. McQueen ends the original movie looking like he’s been through hell and back several times. Hunnam finishes the remake looking like he just got back from a day spa. With all the advances in makeup and special effects, it is truly inexplicable why Hunnam sails through the 2018 film like a male model strutting down a catwalk.
It's like the director said "Guys? I want to see how many different ways you can wear these caps."
No amount of dirtying Hunnam up, however, could disguise the poor performance he puts forth here. From his inescapably modern affect that makes him seem like a time-traveler from the future to his sedate inability to approach McQueen’s lows of suffering or highs of irrepressible determination, Hunnam takes his career and tosses it into the dumpster fire of failed Hollywood “IT” boys. He can go back to cable TV. He can go back to Britain. Hunnam’s chance to be a major star is dead, buried, dug up, ground into bits, and served to livestock.
The reason why Hunnam pales in comparison to McQueen is related to the decline of prison cinema. Though he came from a poor family, Hunnam started modeling at 16 and got his first acting gig at 17. He’s literally spent his entire life as an adult in the entertainment industry with all the unreality that comes with it. Not that show business is easy. There are plenty of starving artists who’ll say otherwise. But Steve McQueen joined up with a Merchant Marine ship when he was 16 and followed that by working at a brothel, as an oilfield roughneck, a carnival barker, and a lumberjack before enlisting the Marines at 17. McQueen didn’t even take up acting until he was 22, didn’t get his “big break” until he was 28, and didn’t become an actual movie star until he was 30.
This is what it's like being a prisoner on Devil's Island.
In McQueen’s day, it wasn’t unusual for people to come Hollywood after living a real life and bring that wealth of real experiences with them. Hunnam’s world is one where everyone in Hollywood grew up never wanting to do anything else, got into the business as early as they could, and wound up repeating the same personal and professional experiences as every other aspiring performer. It leaves Hunnam’s generation with a shallow personal core and alienated from the public they’re trying to entertain. They’re all very much like each other and progressively less and less like us.
The second thing you’ll notice when watching these films is how every time the 2018 version differs from the original, it makes the exact wrong creative choice. From wasting time with a Paris girlfriend pre-arrest who is never seen or even referenced again, to half-heartedly trying to personalize Papillon’s struggles by inflating the role of the penal colony warden, to making a mess out of a significant supporting character by stripping him of everything that made him important in the original, the remake is just one error in judgment after another.
This is what it's like when your pedicurist cuts the nail on your big toe a little too short.
They even screw up the dynamic between Papillon and Dega. The original masterfully crafts a friendship through McQueen’s underplaying of his larger-than-life anti-hero and Dustin Hoffman’s scenery-chewing turn as the nebbishy counterfeiter. In the remake, they’re just two dudes. Rami Malek’s restrained presentation of Dega might be more naturalistic but it leaves the sodden Hunnam with nothing to play off.
Nothing illustrates the differences between these films better than how they handle Papillon’s time in solitary after his first escape attempt. In 1973, we see Steve McQueen worn down by physical and mental deprivation into a tiny nub of primitive will, ending up almost involuntarily as a creature who would rather die than give in. In 2018, it’s an excuse for a stupid dream sequence. It really is quite remarkable how the remake seems unwilling or unable to embrace to awful suffering Papillon endured, like it can’t believe it happened and feels uncomfortable pretending otherwise.
Speaking of inexplicable mistakes: Hoffman's coke-bottle glasses make him seem helpless and worth of empathy. Malek just looks like a hipster doofus.
Which gets back to the reason why prison films seem to have fallen out of favor. At the heart of the genre is the conceit that the audience identifies with the prisoner. Whether he’s unjustly accused or genuinely guilty, we put ourselves in his place and imagine how we would respond to the challenges he faces, and usually lie to ourselves that we’d handle them just as well. But whether it’s an issue of race or class, the willingness to see ourselves in the prisoner is waning. And not just on the part of the audience but by the performers and filmmakers themselves. Much like the Western, the diminishment of prison cinema isn’t merely about changing viewer tastes. It’s also about storytellers distancing themselves from a brutal and naked machismo they find distasteful or even repellent.
Westerns are defined by manly virtues. Prison flicks are defined by manly vices. Both of them revel in blunt, harsh realities that don’t fit into the perspective of someone who’s never come closer to hard physical labor than waiting tables or who’s watched a thousand fight scenes without ever throwing a punch in anger.
So...Papillon was also the first guy to use steroids? Seriously, NO ONE looked like that in 1931.
Papillon (1973) wins this Throwdown. It’s a little long and ungainly as masterpieces used to often be before we were convinced perfection must always be neat and tidy, but no one of this or any other time could possibly think the remake is superior.
Written by Dalton Trumbo and Lorenzo Semple Jr.
Directed by Franklin J. Schaffner.
Starring Steve McQueen, Dustin Hoffman, Don Gordon, Anthony Zerbe, Robert Deman, Woodrow Parfrey, Bill Mjmy, George Coulouris, Ratna Assan, and Victor Jory.
"Damn! Why didn't I do that "Pacific Rim" sequel? If I'm going to do terrible movies, I might as well get paid well for them!"
Written by Aaron Guzikowski.
Directed by Michael Noer.
Starring Charlie Hunnam, Rami Malek, Michael Socha, Eve Hewson, Joel Basman, Brian Vernel, Ian Beattie, Tommy Flanagan, and Roland Moller.
Always remember, everything's better with your Easter bonnet on.