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New Films: Papillon, The Happytime Murders

New Films: Papillon, The Happytime Murders

Directed by Michael Noer

There’s something wonderfully simple about the 1973 adaptation of “Papillon,” starring Steve McQueen as Henri “Papillon” Charriere and Dustin Hoffman as forger Louis Dega, whom he meets while being shipped to a penal colony in French Guiana. We see them both for the first time as they’re being sent away from France to serve their respective sentences and we know little of their backgrounds other than what is described in expository dialog between the convicts, much of which initially centers on speculation as to how much money each of the convicts might be hiding in their bodies. The description and detail of the prison is provided by another convict who has been there before – and it provides a solid idea of what they’re facing.

The entire film is essentially a study of one man’s determination to escape and the inability of the system he’s placed in to break him of that intent. Papillon is constantly gauging those around him and figuring out the best way to benefit from his circumstances. He only befriends Dega because he’s a convenient source of funding for potential escape attempts and Dega is vulnerable to attack. And throughout the film, Papillon is scheming and planning in that manner. There’s an “honor among thieves” at work but it’s always a plan of Papillon’s at the forefront, whether it’s successful or not in the moment.

By comparison, the new adaptation starring Charlie Hunnam and Rami Malek in the same two roles, seems to have lost much of that focus. The writing credits include the original source book by Charriere as well as the earlier film, but the sequence of events during the period of incarceration primarily seem to follow the 1973 film. Which makes some of the departures from the earlier screenplay seem oddly chosen.

We’re now given an opening sequence that shows us Papillon in his life before prison, including the manner in which he was framed for his alleged crime. The earlier film simply has Papillon assert his innocence and trusts that we’ll believe him as we see him behave honorably and in a trustworthy manner from that point on. Where the earlier film seemed to trust its audience, the new film spoonfeeds.

In contrast, the 1973 film was far more explicit about the prison conditions, including a sequence in which a convict staggers into the water upon arrival at the dock and attempts to swim away, only to be casually shot by a guard in a manner that clearly indicates the likely fate of anybody attempting escape. The new film leaves those conditions a little more vague and, in the process, the conditions seem less extreme. This is exacerbated by things in the new adaptation seeming cleaner and generally less oppressive. The climate also seems more temperate and less threatening to wellbeing, where in the 1973 film you could almost sense the constant tropical heat and humidity.

But perhaps worst of all, the new adaptation diminishes the sense of Papillon’s agency. While he’s still the central character around which everything revolves, he’s no longer the source of all the ideas and observations. Which changes the entire film from being a focused character study to being something more like a prison buddy film. And that loses much of the point of the story and the appeal of the earlier film.

Of note, the original 1973 screenplay was co-written by Dalton Trumbo, a screenwriter whose own story was told in the 2015 “Trumbo,” reviewed here.


Also opening this weekend, “The Happytime Murders” comes from the folks behind The Muppets – but there’s absolutely no intent here to attract a family audience. It’s an intentionally crass private eye film in which puppet characters exist within an LA that includes both humans and actual stuffed fabric puppets. That premise itself is pretty neat, initially, with the puppets filling the role of the oppressed population, with puppetism replacing racism in the story. That aspect of the film is slightly reminiscent of the awful Netflix original “Bright,” starring Wil Smith as a cop in an LA with Tolkienesque orcs and elves. “The Happytime Murders” centers around a series of killings of the puppet cast of an old TV show about to go into profitable syndication, and it’s quite funny at times. But it’s a little too reliant on puppet porn, puppet sex, puppet bodily fluids, exploding stuffed puppet heads, and the broadest comedy of Melissa McCarthy. There will be a lot of parents trying to explain to their kids why this film isn’t for them.

New Films: Papillon, The Happytime Murders via @sacramentopress

About the author

Tony Sheppard

Tony is a Professor at Sacramento State, Co-Director of the Sacramento Film & Music Festival and a long-time writer, primarily on topics related to film and the film industry. He is an active supporter of the local arts community, an amateur photographer, and has an interest in architecture and urban planning topics. He is currently designing a 595 sq.ft. house on a very small infill lot in Sacramento.

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