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211. US Director Sofia Coppola’s Film “The Beguiled” (2017) (USA): An Interesting but “amputated” Female Perspective of a Quaint but Intelligent American Novel

By Jugu Abraham
211. US director Sofia Coppola’s film “The Beguiled” (2017) (USA):  An interesting but “amputated” female perspective of a quaint but intelligent American novel
It is imperative that when a director adapts a novel into a film that one ought to compare how that effort changes or enhances the entertainment of the viewer/reader. That exercise is further compounded if an interesting earlier film had been made—making it useful to compare the three creative products—the novel, the original movie and the remake.

211. US director Sofia Coppola’s film “The Beguiled” (2017) (USA):  An interesting but “amputated” female perspective of a quaint but intelligent American novel

The Union Corporal (Colin Farrell) and Alicia (Elle Fanning) 


Sofia Coppola’s film The Beguiled is an adaptation of a novel and a remake of a 1971 film of considerable importance. Ms Coppola won the Best Director award at Cannes in 2017 from a jury that did not use that perspective but merely evaluated its strengths compared to the 20 odd films in competition at that edition of the Festival. 
The tale is set during the American civil war. An injured Union soldier is given refuge in a seminary/boarding school in a southern Confederate state inhabited by religious women/girls of varying ages. A series of unfortunate incidents lead to his death. 
Sofia Coppola is the director and screenplay writer of 2017 version of The Beguiled. Her approach to the film's subject is simple, obvious, and measured —while retaining the basic story of the novel, she would tweak it to serve us a female perspective of the novel. (Note that even the color of the film's title on poster is pink!) The original novel was written by a male author Thomas Cullinan. The original screenplay was written by Albert Maltz and Irene Kemp for the original film The Beguiled (1971), directed by Don Siegel. Ms Coppola uses that screenplay of Maltz and Kemp as the basis of her own adapted screenplay, while changing crucial elements of the preceding works. 

211. US director Sofia Coppola’s film “The Beguiled” (2017) (USA):  An interesting but “amputated” female perspective of a quaint but intelligent American novel

The not-so-frail Ms Martha (Nicole Kidman) in candle light


The crucial differences of the remake with the original film are the following:
  1.  The total deletion of the sympathetic black slave girl Mattie of the novel renamed Hallie in the original film by Don Siegel. In the original film. Hallie in a crucial scene during the second leg operation, courageously remarks “There is frailty in you” as Ms Martha (played by Geraldine Page) avoids looking at the face of the soldier. In Ms Coppola’s version, there is very little frailty in Ms Martha (played by Nicole Kidman). Further, both the original version and the remake of The Beguiled portray the character of Edwina (Elizabeth Hartman in the original, and Kirsten Dunst in the remake) as a white lady, while the character in the novel is of a mixed race.
  2.  The soldier’s character and his views are reduced to the minimal in Ms Coppola’s version allowing very little sympathy to develop in the viewer's mind  for the soldier. 
  3. The sexual encounter sequence is minimized in screen time in Ms Coppola’s version to the credit of the director, when compared to the original version. In any case, that sequence is not important. 
  4. The cinematography in the night sequences is captured in candle light in Ms Coppola’s version (as it ought to be) unlike Mr Siegels’ version. It reminds one of the cinematography and lighting in Stanley Kubrick’s film Barry Lyndon (1975). 
  5. The trees and the woods in Ms Coppola’s version are spectacular compared to Mr Siegel’s version. Even the fallen dried leaves in the veranda add to the intelligent details adopted in Ms Coppola’s version. 
  6. In Ms Coppola’s version, the soldier’s body is left unattended outside the gate in a covered body bag, which is odd indeed. In Mr Siegel’s version the ladies carry the covered body far away from their mansion. One can assume the ladies were not capable of digging a grave in both film versions leading to this action. 

211. US director Sofia Coppola’s film “The Beguiled” (2017) (USA):  An interesting but “amputated” female perspective of a quaint but intelligent American novel

Edwina (Kirsten Dunst) replaces the Edwina of mixed race of the novel


211. US director Sofia Coppola’s film “The Beguiled” (2017) (USA):  An interesting but “amputated” female perspective of a quaint but intelligent American novel

Religion and reality of the beguiled


The following is the intelligent and measured text of a statement issued by Ms Coppola to counter some criticism of her omissions in her version: 
 “My film is set in a Southern school for girls at the point in the Civil War when the men had been away fighting for some time and the Union had gained momentum. According to historians and several women’s journals from the time, many slaves had departed, and a great number of white women of the South were left in isolation, holding on to a world whose time had rightly come to an end—a world built on slave labor.” 
 “I wanted to tell the story of the isolation of these women, cut off from the world and in denial of a changing world. I also focused on how they deal with repression and desire when a man comes in to their abandoned world, and how this situation affects each of them, being at different stages of their life and development. I thought there were universal themes, about desire and male and female power dynamics that could relate to all women.”  “The circumstances in which the women in my story find themselves are historically accurate—and not a distortion of history, as some have claimed. From “Mothers of Invention” by Drew Gilpin Faust: “War and emancipation revealed that many white women felt themselves entirely ignorant about how to perform basic functions of everyday life…A war that had at the outset made so many women feel useless and irrelevant soon demanded significant labor and sacrifice from even the most privileged southern females…” 
 “Throughout the film, we see students and teachers trying to hold on to their crumbling way of life. Eventually, they even lock themselves up and sever all ties to the outside world in order to perpetuate a reality that has only become a fantasy. My intentions in choosing to make a film in this world were not to celebrate a way of life whose time was over, but rather to explore the high cost of denial and repression.” 
 “There have been some questions regarding my approach to my new film, The Beguiled. More specifically, there have been objections to my decision not to include the slave character, Mattie, in Thomas Cullinan’s book on which my film is based. I would like to clarify this.” 
 “My film is set in a Southern school for girls at the point in the Civil War when the men had been away fighting for some time and the Union had gained momentum. According to historians and several women’s journals from the time, many slaves had departed, and a great number of white women of the South were left in isolation, holding on to a world whose time had rightly come to an end—a world built on slave labor." 

211. US director Sofia Coppola’s film “The Beguiled” (2017) (USA):  An interesting but “amputated” female perspective of a quaint but intelligent American novel

"Isolation of women, repression and desire" captured
by Sofia Coppola


 “I wanted to tell the story of the isolation of these women, cut off from the world and in denial of a changing world. I also focused on how they deal with repression and desire when a man comes in to their abandoned world, and how this situation affects each of them, being at different stages of their life and development. I thought there were universal themes, about desire and male and female power dynamics that could relate to all women.” 
“In his 1966 novel, Thomas Cullinan made the choice to include a slave, Mattie, as a side-character. He wrote in his idea of Mattie’s voice, and she is the only one who doesn’t speak proper English—her voice is not even grammatically transcribed.” 
“I did not want to perpetuate an objectionable stereotype where facts and history supported my choice of setting the story of these white women in complete isolation, after the slaves had escaped. Moreover, I felt that to treat slavery as a side-plot would be insulting.” 
“There are many examples of how slaves have been appropriated and “given a voice” by white artists. Rather than an act of denial, my decision of not including Mattie in the film comes from respect.” 
 “Some have said that it is not responsible to make a film set during the Civil War and not deal directly with slavery and feature slave characters. I did not think so in preparing this film, but have been thinking about this and will continue to do so. But it has been disheartening to hear my artistic choices, grounded in historical facts, being characterized as insensitive when my intention was the opposite”. 
“I sincerely hope this discussion brings attention to the industry for the need for more films from the voices of filmmakers of color and to include more points of views and histories.” 

211. US director Sofia Coppola’s film “The Beguiled” (2017) (USA):  An interesting but “amputated” female perspective of a quaint but intelligent American novel

Exterior cinematography under natural light
with dried leaves on the floor


Both the film versions have their strengths and weaknesses. Both films and the novel compare the importance given to religion and the contrarian actions of the persons who profess to practice it. Both films and the novel discuss how good individuals change with circumstances that affect their ego or their possessions. Even a child can change if it's pet is deliberately hurt! Don Siegel’s 1971 version captures a larger canvas of male characters (soldiers of the Confederate army interacting with the ladies)---several brief yet important sequences. Ms Coppola’s version avoids those distractions as she is more interested in focussing on the ladies. Both versions have their strengths. Don Siegel’s 1971 version gave importance to acting, while Ms Coppola’s somewhat notable version is essentially a director’s, the art director's and cinematographer’s film--little else. Despite directorial maturity of the remake, the original is the winner with a notable Clint Eastwood performance to boot.

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