No one Asked for a Papillon Remake

The 1973 film Papillon made history, with Steve McQueen playing Henri Charrière, a safecracker who was wrongly convicted of murdering a pimp. The film was inspired by the autobiographical novel written by Monsieur Charrière himself (nicknamed Papillon because of the butterfly tattoo on his chest), covering the fourteen-year period from 1931 to 1945 of his incarceration and escape from the French penal colony of French Guiana.

Besides being a very strong critique to the severe conditions at the penal colony, this is a story about a friendship. Papillon befriended Louis Dega, a former banker convicted of counterfeiting, and agreed to protect him from attackers.

The younger generations who might have missed the Papillon written by Dalton Trumbo and Lorenzo Semple Jr. and directed by Franklin J. Schaffner, over four decades ago, will be enthralled by this reboot.

Charlie Hunnam, as Papillon, and Rami Malek, as Dega, have a moving bromance going on. It is very gripping, with terrific performances that embody the physical and mental struggle lived by the inmates at Devil’s Island. Michael Noer’s shots combined with Hagen Bogdanski’s cinematography create an eerie atmosphere, that enhances the grittily effective production design by Tom Meyer; and the entire drama is amplified by David Buckley’s music score. But was this remake necessary?

The first screen adaption — that had Dustin Hoffman playing Dega, next to McQueen’s Charrière — was exceptionally powerful, and yet the film industry felt the urge to revamp the old flick. This new version undoubtedly has a talented cast, brilliantly directed by the Danish filmmaker, and comes across as vigorous, realistic and dynamically progressive.

However Hollywood’s craze for reboots and remakes reveals how there is a lack of new ideas, or how very few investors are willing to take a chance on original scripts. Tinseltown, besides being a dream factory, has always been a profit-oriented enterprise and executives probably find more reassuring to greenlight projects with a proven track record, that have a greater chance of success because the audience is aware of what they will see.

But the very classic films that are being remade, or that have inspired prequels and sequels, were initially born out of a gamble. No one had any certainties about what would have happened at the box office. The time has come for production companies to newly take that leap of faith, financing original stories, allowing them to emerge from their cocoons and take flight as beautiful butterflies. Which in French are called Papillons….