This essay discusses plot points, including the ending, of several iterations of “The Beguiled,” so the spoiler-averse should consider this a warning.
Sofia Coppola’s adaptation of “The Beguiled” came in for a bit of a beating upon its release last week thanks not to what is on the screen but what isn’t. Or, rather, who isn’t: Coppola’s detractors accused her of “whitewashing” for eliminating an African American character present in the source book and its first film adaptation. It’s a complaint that carries a great deal of weight in our increasingly woke world, but one that somewhat misses the point about the art of adaptation.
“The Beguiled” is a 1966 novel by Thomas P. Cullinan set in 1864 in Virginia and concerning a group of women and the wounded soldier they find. The book devotes first-person chapters to each of the women of the Miss Martha Farnsworth Seminary for Young Ladies — teachers Martha and her sister, Harriet; students, including the slatternly Alicia and the secretly-part-black Edwina; and the Farnsworths’ lone remaining slave, Mattie — as they nurse Cpl. John McBurney back to health and, in turn, fall prey to his charms and seductions. When he is pushed down the stairs after being discovered in one of the girls’ rooms despite pledging his love to a different student, Miss Martha amputates his severely re-wounded leg. The necessity of this surgery is a matter of some debate, and McBurney takes his revenge by rampaging through the Farnsworth Seminary until the women feed him poison mushrooms and he dies.
Cullinan’s novel offers numerous avenues for the would-be adapter to wander down. There’s lurid, pulpy melodrama suited for a womanizing star — a man, surrounded by women, stripped of his physical power but still psychologically adept at manipulating the fairer sex. This is more or less the route that director Don Siegel took with his 1971 adaptation starring Clint Eastwood; the Siegel-Eastwood version of “The Beguiled” was a perfect star vehicle for the man who would, later that same year, play one Detective Harry Callahan for Siegel in “Dirty Harry.”
Mattie, renamed Hallie (Mae Mercer), serves a note of moral ambiguity in the 1971 film. She’s the only one to voice serious concerns about taking McBurney’s leg despite the fact that she’s also the only woman on the Farnsworth campus who seems more or less immune to his charms. In a brief flashback during one of McBurney’s more aggressive come-ons, we see a Farnsworth man nearly rape Hallie — an explicit memory playing on the film’s pulp sensibilities that makes it clear to modern viewers just how dangerous life was for an attractive female slave and the ways in which her life was unlikely to change even when the Union won.
Coppola’s adaptation of “The Beguiled,” meanwhile, is more subdued than Siegel’s, less sensationalistic and melodramatic. The basics are largely the same: The wounded McBurney (Colin Farrell) is brought back to Martha Farnsworth’s (Nicole Kidman) school to be cared for by teacher Edwina (Kirsten Dunst) and the school’s students, including the temptress Alicia (Elle Fanning). (In both Siegel’s and Coppola’s films, Martha’s sister Harriet is excised and Edwina is a teacher who has no hint of mixed heritage.)
But the focus is quite different: McBurney is not the center of attention and he is only seen once or twice absent the women of the house. We see the women in prayer, the women tending the garden, the women gossiping about their new guest. He is less seducer than seduced: agreeing to drinks with Martha after she offers; listening to Edwina’s tales before proclaiming his affection for her; drunkenly falling prey to Alicia’s come-hither stare and decamping for her bedroom in the night before tumbling down the stairs.
Whereas Siegel’s eye for gore kept us in the room as McBurney’s leg was lost, Coppola glosses over all this. There’s little debate as to the necessity (it seems obvious), and she is uninterested in the surgery itself. Instead, she’s curious about McBurney’s presence as a foreign body, an unwelcome outsider whose gender has upset the equilibrium of their previously homogeneous home.
Coppola hammers home this theme in the film’s final shot: sewn up in a makeshift body bag, McBurney’s poisoned body is dumped outside the Farnsworth gate, upon which a blue handkerchief, a signal to the Confederates in the region, has been tied. The camera moves slowly, settling so that we see the shroud on one side of the gate and then, bunched together through the iron bars, the Farnsworth women. The blue hanky is not meant for allies in America’s Civil War but enemies in the unending war between the sexes. “Come pick up your man,” the camera seems to be whispering. “We’re better off on this side of the divide by ourselves.”
The unbridgeable divide between masculinity and femininity, and the danger in mixing the two, is a theme running through Coppola’s work, one seen most clearly previously in “The Virgin Suicides” and “Marie Antoinette” (and, to a lesser extent, “The Bling Ring”). It’s a theme that may have been strengthened by the inclusion of Mattie/Hallie — black and white women on this side, all men on the other — but one that comes at the risk of alienating audiences entirely: Will 2017 theatergoers really be able to identify fully with slave-owning women who complain, as in the Siegel adaptation, of being forced to do “[n-word] work”?
There is undoubtedly a version of “The Beguiled” that could be made about the complexities of race in the South during the Civil War, a film that uses Edwina’s mixed parentage and Mattie’s subjugation to examine white supremacy. But Sofia Coppola has no interest in making such a film. And so she shouldn’t. More importantly, she shouldn’t be shamed for it. She may be “guilty” of erasure, of whitewashing, of whatever other crime those who prize ideology over aesthetics are complaining about today. But if such sins are the price we pay to see an auteur’s adaptation of an interesting work — one in which she teases out elements of the original story that are important to her and help us understand how we make sense of the world — I for one am happy to pay it.