Film Review – Papillon (2017)

Not to be confused with the 1973 film version of Papillon starring Steve McQueen as the French convict Henri Charrière; this 2017 version totally passed me by when it first came out.

I recently spotted it on DVD in the local library – and given that the 1973 version is highly ranked in my top movies of all time – I thought, ‘OK I will give it a go’.

I seemed to recall putting something in a post about the original McQueen movie and so I watched this new version. And in fact I did mention both way back in this post (click here… ) when talking about classic great escape movies.

Papillon 2017

Unfortunately this movie, while quite good, was always going to be compared to the 1973 film. You just can’t help it. What did the film makers expect? Well, sure enough, on that basis, it was just not as good as the original.

It could have been better because the original movie was not without it’s flaws. The annoying Dustin Hoffman as Papillon’s fellow convict Louis Dega for one thing. But what does the new version go and do? It puts Rami Malek (aka Freddie Mercury) in the roll of Dega. Not nearly as annoying but certainly less convincing. He just doesn’t feel right in this roll.

The Plot and Lost Opportunity…

The 2017 film starts by trying to show us how Papillon lived – and let’s not forget,  stole – in the 1930s Paris crime scene. This was a divergence form the original movie but (for me) was the poorest part of the new film. The plot is then almost exactly the same once the prisoners leave for the French penal colony of French Guiana. Why wouldn’t it be? (you may well ask). Because it is all taken from the book of the same name, the autobiography by Henri Charrière; “Papillon” himself.

Well actually it isn’t. As is usually the case with films and books, the book is quite different. And often much better. (I also found the book in the same library. More on that one in a book review to come…) In the real story the character of Dega is not a constant presence. I understand that casting Dustin Hoffman in the roll in 1973 meant that he was going to have plenty of script. But the new version did not need to do that. It could have introduced new characters and phased Dega out of the picture. More true to the book.

In short the book is way too long and drawn out to be made in to a two hour (or so) movie. But herein lies the problem with the remake. It makes no attempt to use different sections of the book. It still ends at the same point when Papillon escapes Devil’s Island. Papillon made himself a lovely sack of coconuts (so to speak) for that escape, but that was by no means the end of his tale. I was hoping that the new version would go into some detail of the events that followed the jumping into the sea clutching his ‘bunch of coconuts’. But it didn’t.

The only difference is the 2017 film then jumps to the late 1960s when Charrière flies back to France to hand over his handwritten manuscript for publication. And that’s it! What about the (best part of) 30 years in between?

Critique (in as much as I can be bothered)

Papillon is played by English actor Charlie Hunnam who is not a bad actor, but he is also not Steve McQueen. And again, it is impossible not to compare the two. The film sets and general acting are fine but the overall this 2017 movie was a missed opportunity.

One fine example is the second (and longer) term Papillon spends in solitary confinement. Who can forget the state of Steve McQueen in the 1973 film when he had served that punishment? But that was not what happened. The real story (in the book) of how he came to get out of his second spell in solitary actually makes for far more interesting cinema.

All that said, I would expect newcomers to this story to enjoy the 2017 version. The real life based tale is a compelling one after all. But I would urge them to watch the original film also.

The best thing that came out of this remake was that it inspired me to finally get around to reading the book. I will give this 2017 movie 2 stars (out of 5). But my tip to anyone who has watched the McQueen version of this movie is to just read the book instead.
In fact, everyone should read it.

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