Candice Tan
by Candice Tan

Remakes are always a tricky business. From James Bond and Spiderman to Ghostbusters and Superman, remakes run the risk of turning viewers off as the original can hold a special place in people’s film psyches. Sofia Coppola’s The Beguiled, which is a remake of Don Siegel’s 1971 film of the same name, brings up this issue once again.

However, it’s not only the fact that the films were made in different eras in American history that could potentially see a difference (in the 1970s when feminism was being fought for, compared to the current day when it is a relatively accepted part of the modern day), but also because of the gender change in directors. That is, would a female director steer this story of a group of girls and a seductive lone man on a different path compared to the male director?

The Beguiled

The answer is yes. Both films are based on the same source material, Thomas P. Cullinan’s 1966 novel, with the premise the same: an all-girls boarding school in the South gets an unexpected drop-in by an injured “enemy” Northerner. As time goes by, the soldier begins to realise his pull on each individual girl and his subsequent seduction leads to grave consequences. However, beyond this, there are several notable changes that affect the tone and feel of the films:

1. Clint Eastwood vs. Colin Farrell

The choice of Farrell as John McBurney gives Coppola’s film a softer edge. While Eastwood’s McBurney was more masculine, edging towards brutish, Farrell gives a more sympathetic blush to the role. He seems less outwardly manipulative and unsavoury as Eastwood, with this ambiguity suggesting a man who was almost unwittingly compelled to do the dastardly things he did.

2. Historical detail

Coppola’s The Beguiled focuses less on the historical details than Siegel’s, with attention instead given to the relationship between the female inhabitants and the soldier. On the other hand, the 1971 version gives more time to the rivalry between the Rebels and the Confederates and the broader conflict. Another difference in historical accuracy is the exclusion of a black slave character in the modern film. This led to a harsh backlash from some, with accusations of the film white-washing history. Coppola, however, argued that she didn’t want to simply include the significant and complex issue of slavery as a mere side plot.

3. The women

Perhaps the most noticeable difference in both films is the driving force behind the women’s behaviour towards the soldier. With Coppola’s version, coupled with the relatively gentle and restrained performances of Nicole Kidman, Kirsten Dunst and Elle Fanning, the viewers get the impression that the women are overcome by their yearning and suppressed urges for company, particularly male company. They are decidedly less catty with each other compared to Siegal‘s take, which lessens the ‘crazy and shrieking women’ vibe in the original by quite a lot.

Indeed the two films almost seem worlds apart at times. The 1971 version is filled with misogynistic dialogue which, at the time, was perfectly acceptable, but which would grate against today’s sensitivities. Also, the older version was only from Eastwood’s, or the man’s, perspective. Coppola has stated that one of the reasons why she wanted to remake this film was because she wanted to explore the story from the women’s perspective. Having won the Cannes Best Director Award (the second woman who has ever done so), we can conclude that this remake was a successful one. Regardless of the differences though, both films are a reflection of their time, and a comparison of the two makes for some compelling viewing.