19 August 2016

Recasting across David Lynch's Wild at Heart and Álex de la Iglesia's Dance with the Devil

There's a story about when two different films were being made of two different Elmore Leonard novels by two different directors for two different production companies at the same time: Quentin Tarantino's Jackie Brown (1997) and Steven Soderbergh's Out of Sight (1998). Both novels and thus both films featured appearances by the character Ray Nicolette. (I haven't see either film, but I believe he's a central character in Jackie Brown and a cameo in Out of Sight.) Tarantino cast Michael Keaton as Nicolette, and Steven Soderbergh asked if he could do the same for Out of Sight, to maintain continuity. Thus followed a lot of legal wrangling between the two production companies over the ownership of the character and Keaton's performance of the character, until Tarantino stepped in to say that his production company needed to just give the character to Soderbergh's, and that was that, and Michael Keaton appeared as the same character in two otherwise completely unrelated films.

This doesn't always happen, of course. Probably it almost never happens. The Marvel character of Quicksilver, a mutant whose real name is Pietro Maximoff, appeared in both 2014's X-Men: Days of Future Past and 2015's Avengers: Age of Ultron played by completely different actors in completely different circumstances. (I liked the X-Men version better.)

Earlier this year I read the first seven Sailor & Lula novels by Barry Gifford, and I grew curious about the film adaptations, because the first two books, Wild at Heart: The Story of Sailor and Lula and Perdita Durango, have both been adapted into films, but by completely different directors with completely different casts: David Lynch's Wild at Heart (1990) and Álex de la Iglesia's Dance with the Devil (1997). Though recently I've been watching most any film adaptations of books I read, my motivation for watching these films back to back was mostly to see to what extent they could be perceived to go together.

The books aren't exactly sequels per se; Perdita Durango is a side character in Wild at Heart, who gets her own adventure in the second book. Sailor and Lula, the stars of every other novel in the series, do not actually appear in Perdita Durango. So the main character who carries over between Wild at Heart and Dance with the Devil is Perdita herself:
Isabella Rossellini as Perdita in Wild at Heart
Rosie Perez as Perdita Durango in Dance with the Devil

I'm not sure if it's possible to rationalize these two characters as the same person. Isabella Rossellini's version in Wild at Heart is apathetic and sardonic, unreacting and uncaring. She's the girlfriend of a hitman, and seems to have something of a history in the business herself-- Sailor comes to her to find out if a hit has been placed on him. Rosie Perez's version in Dance with the Devil, on the other hand, is wild and impulsive and giggly. We don't have a clear vision of what she did prior to the film's events, but she quickly hooks up with a drug smuggler/bank robber/witch doctor/kidnapper seemingly mostly for the thrill of it, which it's hard for me to picture the Rossellini version doing.

Rossellini is Italian (though not playing Italian), whereas Perez is Puerto Rican (though again, I don't think playing as such; the character seems to cross the Mexican-American border a lot, but I'm not sure it's ever said which side is her home). I'm not sure how much that difference matters. They are both equally unperturbed by violence, however; when Rossellini's hitman boyfriend is blown apart (literally), she just legs it without a second thought, while Perez's version sees some pretty terrible things and does some pretty terrible things in the course of her adventures.

Perdita actually isn't the only character who appears in both films. There's also Marcelles Santos, a gangster chief: (In Wild at Heart he's based in North Carolina, in Dance with the Devil, Texas.)
J. E. Freeman as Santos in Wild at Heart
Don Stroud as Santos in Dance with the Devil

I liked both performances, but they're not really the same. Freeman is very intense, very focused, whereas Stroud plays it comic but then says completely something completely awful in a totally genial way.

Most difficult to reconcile is Reggie, a small-time gangster hired to do a hit by Santos, because he changes race between the two films:
Calvin Lockhart as Reggie in Wild at Heart
Carlos Bardem as Reggie in Dance with the Devil

In Wild at Heart, he's hired by Santos to kill Harry Dean Stanton's Johnnie Farragut (my favorite character in either film; a nice private detective to whom Lynch does terrible things that he does not deserve). In Dance with the Devil, he's made into the cousin of Romeo, Perdita's partner in crime. Reggie is hired by Santos to eliminate Romeo after Romeo botches a smuggling operation he's doing for Santos. Beyond the race transformation, it would sort of stretch coincidence that Santos would hire Perdita's boyfriend to kill Sailor and Romeo's cousin to kill Johnnie Farragut, and then later hire Romeo's cousin to kill Perdita's partner! (At the time of Wild at Heart, Perdita and Romeo have not met, and they don't meet through Reggie or Santos; they just bump into each other on the U.S.-Mexican border.) Though Barry Gifford loved coincidence, so maybe it's totally in-keeping with the style of the novels.

There's also Juana, Perdita's sister. The two versions can't have anything to do with each other, I think:
Grace Zabriskie as Juana in Wild at Heart
Andaluz Russel as Juana in Dance with the Devil

In Wild at Heart, she's another contract killer (working with Reggie, actually). Lynch builds this out of one(!) mention in the whole novel-- Perdita tells her boyfriend that her sister Jauana called, and that's all Juana has to do with anything. I don't think the film ever specifies that Perdita and Juana are sisters, though I guess they do have the same hairdo. In Dance with the Devil, she only appears in occasional flashbacks of Perdita's: she was murdered by her husband years ago when he snapped one day.

I'm sure there are other examples I can't think of of two books in the same series that get adapted into films relatively independently. You could probably make Wild at Heart and Dance with the Devil line up if you really squinted and contorted and ignored the race change-- surely Reggie could be Romeo's cousin, and maybe Juana got killed by her husband between the two films, and maybe Santos moved his whole operation to Texas. And we're just seeing different facets of Perdita's personality on different days-- the differences between Rossellini's and Perez's Perditas probably aren't any bigger than, say, Ed Norton and Mark Ruffalo's Bruce Banner, who are definitely meant to be the same guy. (And don't forget that Billy Dee Williams and Tommy Lee Jones both played the same Harvey Dent!)

What's interesting is what does line up: tone and technique. Gifford's original novels discuss some very brutal events, but always in a very matter-of-fact fashion. The books tell about terrible things, which usually don't feel terrible thanks to the detachment of his speakers. Both Lynch and de la Iglesia use the same technique of cross-cutting this detached narration with flashbacks to the actual brutality of the events. And in Lynch's case, he sometime heaps on extra violence not implied by the accounts given in dialogue. I found this removed a lot of what made the books charming and interesting to me; the films are less depictions of eccentric characters and more unfoldings of grotesque spectacles. There's a cynicism to it all-- Gifford loved Sailor and Lula, whereas Lynch is mocking them. (I haven't cared much for Perdita Durango in any incarnation, to be honest.) They have their moments, but on the whole, both films left me cold.

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