‘Papillon’ Struggles To Adapt A Classic Adventure Memoir For The Big Screen

Bleecker Street

In order to truly appreciate the artistry that goes into a successful adaptation, sometimes it helps to see a more artless one. You don’t think about that elusive “X” factor that makes some tales compelling until it’s suddenly missing. Papillon is one of those movies. On the surface it has all the ingredients for a successful film — dramatic events, exotic locations, handsome actors — and yet in some subtle yet ultimately obvious way, it just doesn’t work.

The bestselling French memoir on which it was based (which was also adapted into a Steve McQueen movie in the ’70s) was written by Henri “Papillon” Charrière, who survived incarceration on a penal colony on French Guiana in the 30s, and has been called “the greatest adventure story of all time.”

I don’t doubt it based on the plotline, and, if nothing else, the film made me want to read the book. But this adaptation, directed by Danish filmmaker Michael Noer (I liked his crime film Northwest a few years back) and adapted by Aaron Guzikowski (Contraband), essentially defines the wide gulf between “stuff happening” and “story.”

All aspiring screenwriters should watch Papillon, in order to understand why character is so much more important than plot. Charlie Hunnam plays the titular Papillon, aka “Papi,” and if there’s one role Hunnam’s famously wonky accent is right for, it’s that of a Frenchman speaking English for a movie. Instead of taking care to introduce Papi, the script seems to think it can get us to care about him through the sheer speed of things happening. In fact, it took at least 30 minutes of screen time before I realized that “Papi” was short for “Papillon,” and that he was called Papillon because of the butterfly tattoo on his neck — “Papillon” being the word for “butterfly” in French (which, again these characters never speak). Confusing, no? Also, why does his nickname have a nickname?

An underworld figure in the gangsters and molls world of swingin’ 1931 Paris, “Papi” is a safe cracker we never see crack safes, who gets framed for a murder we don’t see, by a guy we meet for five seconds. He gets sent to French Guiana without so much as a shot of a courtroom. Other than the bare-breasted showgirls and tootin’ big band horns in the opening montage, we know nothing of this man or the cultural context in which these events take place. Who is this guy? Who is framing him and why?

Look, I appreciate being dropped right into a story, but there’s a difference between dropping us in in the middle and simply fast-forwarding through the beginning. We cut directly from Papi getting dragged out of bed at his girlfriend’s house — with a few lingering shots of Hunnam’s hot, hairless bod — to his girlfriend leaning through his prison bars saying “I can’t believe they sentenced you to life!”

That’s how we learn of a lifetime prison sentence. The dialogue is like that the entire movie. There’s no time for believable chit-chat, only this brutalist patois of utilitarian scene-setting, where the only words people spare are to describe things that just happened or are about to. My favorite painfully literal line came during a shower scene, when one prisoner declined another’s advances, saying “I would never let you f*ck me!”

Forced to try to breathe life into these dud lines, even the best actors struggle. Mr. Robot‘s Rami Malek plays Louis Dega, whom Papi meets in prison, a character who seems to be some strange combination of platonic lover, best friend, and prison bitch. You’d never know from this movie that Malek is one of the most interesting actors of his generation. Dega is a rich forger, a tragic pipsqueak, a human exposition machine, and a character who hides MacGuffins in his ass. Forced to be everything but a human, more talking footlocker than man, Malek comes off slightly mentally deficient.

Papillon‘s most consistent thematic thread is Papi’s devotion to Dega. Papi initially sees Dega as an easy mark, but eventually becomes almost suicidally devoted to him, because… well… I’m not sure, actually. That would’ve been the theme to explore if Papillon cared for exploring themes.

Their relationship would be easier to understand if this were a straightforward love story, but any real romance is strictly implied, and we’re left to make wild guesses as to the film’s intention. In Australia they have a concept called “mateship,” an abiding unspoken code that’s sort of like chivalry for being “a good bloke,” the kind of guy who’s reliable, and generally useful to the larger society. For a time I wondered if Papi’s consistent refusal to sell Dega down the river was some kind of Frenchly conveyed blokeship parable. That’s just my best guess though, not being familiar with Papillon the book or its place in the French cultural canon. Suffice it to say, they seem to be prison lovers who never have sex, a kind of butt-smuggling Frodo and Sam.

Part of the task of adapting a book, which can fit so much more narrative and exposition than a movie can, into movie format, is figuring out what’s absolutely necessary to the story and then cutting the fat. You can’t just know the what of the story, you kind of have to know the why, the underlying themes, to understand not just what happens but why it’s compelling. Papillon is one of the ultimate examples of trying to squeeze in every single plot point from the book without regard for why anything is important. So that the movie just ends up feeling like a rote checklist of things happening. It’s like the cargo cult style of adaptation, where you think maybe if you just follow every bullet point from the book you’ll summon the good movie gods and an interesting story will fall from the sky.

I know what happens in Papillon, I just don’t know what it’s about.

Vince Mancini is on Twitter. More reviews here.