To contrast Franklin J. Schaffner’s 1973 Papillon with its remake is to underscore certain differences between commercial films of two distinct generations. The original is the sort of pungent prison drama that could have only been made in America in the late 1960s or ’70s, as it evinces a grasp of detail and cruelty that’s almost entirely absent in contemporary mainstream cinema. Michael Noer’s remake is more generic and romantic, with a duller sense of character and setting. It’s a reasonably diverting genre exercise, but Schaffner’s original humbles it by every criterion of excellence.
Also based on the novel by Henri Charrière, Noer’s Papillon takes shortcuts in establishing its settings and characterizations for the sake of sentimentalizing the friendship between two prisoners in the 1930s as they attempt to escape from a brutal penal colony in French Guiana. (Charrière was once a safecracker who served in such a colony, and his nickname is Papillon because of a butterfly tattoo on his chest.) At the colony, Papillon (Charlie Hunnam) meets Louis Degas (Rami Malek), a wealthy counterfeiter known for the stash of money he keeps up his ass, which simultaneously protects and endangers him. Papillon can handle himself in a place as “kill or be killed” as French Guiana, which is made up of jungles, deserts, and islands even more forbidding than the central camp. Degas is a clever and resourceful man of the mind, who’s not without his uses in French Guiana but who nevertheless requires a benefactor such as Papillon. Plotting several elaborate escapes over many years, the men forge an unexpected friendship that represents a traditional kind of male camaraderie: between the alpha and the beta.
In the original film, a charismatic and vulnerable Steve McQueen elucidates the intelligence lurking underneath Papillon’s steely exterior, while Dustin Hoffman, a master of playing nerds with an undercurrent of ferocity, reveals Degas to be powered by an aggression, bitterness, and will to survive that’s in sync with Papillon’s worldview. In comparison to McQueen’s take on the character, Hunnam’s Papillon is a more typically cocksure stud who’s accorded a needless new prologue that asserts his erotic bona fides in Paris. And while Malek’s Degas has a distinctive and prickly physicality, he’s a generally soft and accommodating buddy, who seems far more likely to get killed in the French Guiana than Hoffman’s character in the original.
In Schaffner’s film, Papillon, suffering a grueling two-year stint in solitary confinement and on the verge of losing his mind, nearly betrays Degas for mercy, and Degas even says that such an action wouldn’t be a betrayal in this hellish setting. These scenes, which piquantly suggest the moral relativism of such extreme living, aren’t in the remake, as so much contemporary cinema is insistent on offering us unflinching superheroes of unswayable will.
The sun is harsh and unrelenting in the original film, as is the darkness when Papillon is locked in a closed cell, while the prison is vividly punishing, with alligators, insects, crabs, and other creatures assaulting the inmates. The film is also rife with precise, militaristic staging—characteristic of the director of The Planet of the Apes and Patton—that unrelentingly visualizes the fascism of this environment. Alas, all these elements are soft-pedaled by Noer for the sake of fashioning a simpler, creamier escapist film. When a guard explains to Papillon the maddening possibilities of solitary confinement, in Schaffner’s film he warns the protagonist not to hope for anything and to masturbate as little as possible so as to preserve his strength. In Noer’s film, this warning is cut in half, including only the admonishment about the danger of hope. And the effect of this elision in the new Papillon isn’t incidental, as the scene is leached of detail to foreground a platitude that will be familiar to viewers of Frank Darabont’s The Shawshank Redemption.
The original Papillon embodies how ’70s-era cinema could casually treat audiences like adults with rich, unresolved, novelistic textures, while this remake proffers the sort of cinematic nowhere place that’s all too common of an increasingly corporate, globalized cinema. Despite its obsession with friendship, the origins of the new Papillon feel cynical, as if a producer asked during a meeting, “How can we sell a French prison drama to Generation Z?”