Sofia Coppola recently won the award for best director with the premiere of her new movie, “The Beguiled,” during the Cannes Film Festival.
Coppola has become the second woman to have been awarded best director during the festivals 71-year span, following the 1961 win of Russian director Yuliya Solntseva for “Chronicle of Flaming Years.”
“The Beguiled” is an adaptation of a novel by Thomas P. Cullinan and a remake of a 1971 film of the same name that starred Clint Eastwood and was directed by Don Siegel. The 2017 remake features Nicole Kidman, Colin Farrell, Kirsten Dunst and Elle Fanning in the leading roles.
Without revealing too much of the film’s plot, both adaptations of the novel are set during the American Civil War and follow the story of John McBurney, a corporal serving in the Union Army, who becomes injured in the woods of Mississippi. He is found by Amy, a young girl who is a student of an all-women boarding school.
With the help of the women and students, McBurney is nursed back to health and kept hidden from Confederate soldiers. As McBurney heals and the women and girls spend time with the Union soldier, they begin to care not only for his health, but for him as an individual.
Coppola and Siegel’s versions are sometimes very similar in terms of style, one example being both of them have nearly identical opening and closing shots. However in other ways, there are aspects of Siegel’s adaptation and the original novel that Coppola decides to exclude.
One noticeable difference in Coppola’s film that was discussed by many was the exclusion of Hallie, a slave who worked at the school and tends to the wounds of Eastwood’s McBurney when he first arrives there in the 1971 version.
As Slate writer Corey Atad notes, in the novel and 1971 film, Hallie is the most aware character who doesn’t fall for McBurney’s charms and stands up for herself when he threatens to assault her late in the film.
In contrast, reporter Angelica Jade Bastién said in an article written for Vulture that much of the criticism for Coppola’s “The Beguiled” rests on the idea that by eliminating Hallie, race itself doesn’t exist within the landscape of Coppola’s film. Bastién argues this idea by writing that blackness and racism in general can never fully be removed from stories set in the South, even when black characters aren’t present.
During one scene in the 2017 version of “The Beguiled,” two students are tending to the school’s garden. Alicia seems to find the work not worthy of her time, and puts in minimal effort.
Bastién said in Alicia she saw the posturing of a young girl who has recently become aware of the labor black people were forced to do and the privilege Alicia used to enjoy. The untended garden is then an unavoidable visual marker for the labor of black people, she said.
When asked why Coppola decided to cut out the character, Coppola said, “I didn’t want to brush over such an important topic in a light way. Young girls watch my films, and this was not the depiction of an African-American character I would want to show them.”
As Bastién said, Coppola wasn’t interested in historical realism, but rather in depicting a point in history completely defined by the perspective of the women she turns her camera to.
Ira Madison III said in a piece for The Daily Beast that during the 1960s and 1970s, films often used a black character to show the realities of slavery or being a black person in America, and said these depictions become offensive in a modern context. Today, a film like that would be out of place and horrific, he said.
Madison said for Coppola, it’s a hard situation where she could have been criticized for the inclusion of a slave character that is based in stereotypes, but she has also faced harsh criticism for removing the only character of color seen in the original 1971 movie.
Another difference between the two adaptations is the use of inner monologues in the 1971 version to explain how the women of Miss Martha’s school are feeling, which help explain character motivations as the film progresses.
For example, in the 1971 version, it is implied in a flashback that Miss Martha had a romantic relationship with her brother Ben before he died. Because of this, when McBurney says that he considers Martha a sister after she attempts to make an advance toward him later on, the audience is able to understand why she is upset.
In contrast, the lack of any inner thoughts in the more recent film allows for the characters to seem detached, making their motives mysterious and muddled. In Coppola’s film, when Miss Martha decides to perform a very dangerous procedure on McBurney to potentially save his life, we are unsure why she would choose to go through with it. When the same scene plays out in Siegel’s 1971 film, the audience has a feeling Miss Martha’s actions are prompted by McBurney’s refusal of her, and not by medical necessity.
Though both versions of “The Beguiled” tell a similar story, Coppola’s version drew the attention of a lot of criticism because of her decision to leave out Hallie. The films offered the chance for audiences to see how two directors interpreted the same source material. Though as pointed out by Coppola in her decision to leave out Hallie, her adaptation shows how directors personal ideals shape their work.
Sofia Coppola’s “The Beguiled” will be playing at Pickford Film Center until July 20. Don Siegel’s 1971 version can be found on Amazon and HBO streaming platforms.
Illustration by Shannon DeLurio