Two Sides of the Gate: The Gender Contrast in The Beguiled's Adaptations
The Beguiled, first a 1966 novel by Thomas P. Cullinan, defies context in its motion-picture adaptations. The act of constructing a version of the story is its own plantation gate, shutting out intruders from forcing their perception of the events onto the canvas of the artist, and the pushback is often violent and savage in nature. Sofia Coppola, director of the 2017 revamp, has been lambasted for her omission of Hallie, a slave character built in opposition and honest understanding to the character of John McBurney (played in Don Siegel’s version by superstar Clint Eastwood). The 1971 film drew fire for its sensationalist male fantasy, not to mention its inclination towards art-erotica and exploitation. Both works have been criticized for their omissions as well as their focuses; it is what makes them great companion pieces, although now, they’re fascinatingly empty without the other in conversation.
Coppola’s film, although much more recent, should be the beginning catalyst for why these films can never, ever be separated from each other. Discussing the Coppola version, especially after already being accustomed to Siegel’s outing, can feel strange, as if you’re punishing her work for not attempting similar movements or moods, but what she doesn’t bring to the table is arguably stronger than any intentional distinction. The lack of a lucid ‘male gaze’ angle provides Coppola’s film with a greater understanding of the desires of the women, as the work never resorts to portraying the character of John McBurney as more than a necessity — a prop rather than a reigning mastermind. The female cast is in control of the screen and the role they play in their lives, and the fear is not of other men but of losing such a grasp on their southern slice of etiquette.
And by making man secondary, especially in material such as The Beguiled, Coppola presents an alternative vision of how one gender disrupts another and what the tremor is stemmed from. This latest version — a muffled, sultry examination of women in conflict — is a far cry from Siegel’s film, one glazed in sticky masculinity and the power a male can supposedly have over a group of sexually-deprived women. Eastwood’s portrayal of McBurney oozes horniness from every gesture and encounter, biding his time at first and then soon playing his cards to his advantage. Colin Farrell’s version of the character is merely attractive and intriguing enough to support the upheaval of the house of codes in which he’s been rescued by, and his ulterior motives are physically hidden behind closed doors. Coppola’s film, above all else, doesn’t spend a lot of time in McBurney’s recovery room, but in the hallway outside, observing the changes present in action and reaction within the group of women. This is a commendable approach, as well as a necessary one, for the story can never successfully give equal weight to both sides without losing its specificity of director/cast/intention. It was not meant to be balanced. Instead, the angle the story is viewed showcases insight into the perspective of the filmmaker; one interpretation among many. To steady this tale would be a disaster in masking moral and sexual implications imbued by the artist, and those details are what makes the films interesting to compare.
General aesthetic and formal properties are the most prominent beyond a discussion of gender politics, as Coppola’s Beguiled is arguably a subversion of Siegel’s film in more ways than one. From the hot pink title card, Sofia’s film screams ‘the seventies’. If she was a homage-obsessed hack, she would’ve added fake cigarette burns to the image. Each composition expands on her trademark tactility, but they are primarily distanced in the same vein as Picnic at Hanging Rock or Tess, two works similarly taken with the frustrations and mysteries of women, and what occurs within their experience. The original adaptation negates this by being a film cut and reeled in the 1970s, never a question of homage but of contemplating its uneasy choices. Coppola’s film fails at being the 'original' because it doesn’t dip its toe in dangerous waters, and that’s precisely the point. Its imagery is airless, with the sexuality sucked out and replaced by the fear of lost agency, detached from the time that already left its mark. By the concluding shot, Coppola's Beguiled seems to slyly shame its predecessor by stating that you don’t need the whole '70s' package to create a pastiche and unfold its untapped potential, only what still sings.