One of my favorite, truly epic “inspired by actual events” films is Papillon. Released in 1973, it stars Steve McQueen as Henri “Papillon” Charrière, a safecracker framed for murder and condemned to a life of hard labor at the notorious French Guiana penal colony on Devil’s Island. The film is balanced by a terrific performance from Dustin Hoffman as Louis Dega, a counterfeiter who agrees to finance Papillon’s escape in exchange for protection.
I can clearly remember the first time I saw this movie, watching a late-night cable presentation at my grandmother’s house on a 20-inch tube TV, where the marathon tale of survival and escape from the brutalizing French penal system seemed like it ran for four hours.
Whether you saw and remember the original Papillon, I’m betting you weren’t aware it was recently remade. The new version came to theaters in a very limited release this past August with little to no fanfare, and moved on to home video shortly thereafter. When I saw that both versions were available for purchase on the Kaleidescape Movie Store in HD quality, I downloaded them to see how they compared.
Both films are based on Charrière’s international best-selling autobiographies, Papillon and Banco. (It’s interesting to note that the 1973 film features a screenwriting credit by Dalton Trumbo, whose own incredible life was the basis for the film Trumbo.) Whereas most “prison break” films spend the majority of time following the plotting of the escape, Papillon instead focuses on the characters and their daily nightmarish existence on Devil’s Island, where treachery lurks around every corner and 40% of prisoners died within the first years, with only two prisoners successfully escaping.
The remake is based on the 1973 screenplay, and thus borrows heavily from the original film’s storyline. Here, the titular character of Papillon (which means “butterfly” in French, for a prominent tattoo) is played by Charlie Hunnam, with Rami Malek (of recent Bohemian Rhapsody fame) taking over Hoffman’s role of Louis Dega.
At 133 minutes, the new film certainly isn’t short, but is 18 minutes shorter than the original. This helps it feel faster paced, with less time spent on the solitary-confinement scenes, and quicker transitions to the film’s many dramatic moments. It also excises scenes from the original (notably the visit to the leper colony), but offers a bit of backstory at the beginning showing Papillon’s life outside of prison, in a very Gatsby-esque Paris.
In many ways, the new version reminded me of Gus Van Sant’s (in)famous Psycho remake. While Papillon isn’t a shot-for-shot remake like Van Sant’s Psycho, it leans so heavily on the original storyline, and even dialogue, that it ends up feeling like the same film. Hunnam does an admirable job portraying Pappy, but never seems to hit the same level of rock-bottom despair and suffering McQueen portrayed. Malek, however, does a fantastic job filling Hoffman’s shoes as the out-of-play and overwhelmed Dega just trying to survive to the next day.
One thing that can’t be faulted with the new film is the picture and sound quality. While not available in 4K HDR, it has nice detail and solid black levels. The color palette is mostly restrained by design, with drab prison and guard uniforms and hardscrabble landscape. But the images are natural looking, and outdoor scenes are bright, showing off the vibrant blues of the inviting waters surrounding the island. The 5.1-channel DTS-HD audio track is also quite active and does a great job keeping dialogue intelligible. It also upmixes wonderfully to a Dolby Atmos speaker layout, with nice overhead fill from the score and well-placed ambient effects, such as aboard the prison transport ship or during exterior scenes.
Critics and audiences alike greatly preferred the original film, with the 1973 version scoring 83% on Rotten Tomatoes and a 90% audience rating, while the new film only mustered 52% on RT with a 69% audience score. While I’d agree that the original is the superior film—and certainly the one to watch if Papillon is new to you—the remake is far from unenjoyable, and provides a great way to revisit an old favorite in a spruced-up manner.
Probably the most experienced writer on custom installation in the industry, John Sciacca is
co-owner of Custom Theater & Audio in Murrells Inlet, South Carolina, & is known for his writing
for such publications as Residential Systems and Sound & Vision. Follow him on Twitter at
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