From McCarthyism to post-9/11. It makes a certain amount of sense to re-adapt Richard Condon’s novel for a new age of paranoia, and this version does have some things going for it. It’s full of interesting creative choices, but while these result in a film that is perhaps more cohesive than John Frankenheimer’s classic, few of those choices have anywhere near as much impact as the greatest moments in the earlier film.
The core talent of Demme’s TMC is quite strong. Frank Sinatra is just not in Denzel Washington’s league as an actor, and if anyone but Angela Lansbury is going to play Eleanor Shaw, it should probably be Meryl Streep. Liev Schreiber manages to evoke Lawrence Harvey while keeping this version of the character notably different. Bruno Ganz is always good value. And Demme himself surely has the ability to direct a psychological thriller.
The film deserves credit for striving to set itself apart from Frankenheimer’s TMC and stand on its own merits. Being an adaptation of the book, not the earlier film, frees it up in many ways. It comments on contemporary American politics, sometimes presciently so. It takes plot developments that we’ve seen in Frankenheimer’s TMC and changes them in ways that are not only shocking but make more sense dramatically; that’s an impressive achievement.
It also acknowledges shifts in gender relations over time. Eleanor Shaw is a senator, a powerful figure in her own right rather than someone who must operate behind the scenes, which makes her incestuous love for Raymond an even stronger motivation. Jocelyn, meanwhile, has better things to do than wait around for Raymond; this, I think, makes some scenes far less upsetting than they could be.
Demme’s TMC has a distinctive mood. It’s almost tangibly disturbing; watching it makes me feel nauseated on some level. While Frankenheimer shot close-ups vividly, keeping background figures in focus simultaneously while the face dominated the frame, Demme uses his familiar technique of having characters look directly into the camera. It’s overused but goes a long way to making the viewer more uncomfortable, drawing them into its characters’ psychological trauma. The film leaves much unclear and unresolved, and while I found Frankenheimer’s TMC more emotionally upsetting, Demme’s still gives a lingering sense of unease.
This certainly is not the same film as the one Frankenheimer made. And yet the earlier one casts a shadow over it, keeping it from being separate and whole, while also making me feel that it should be better than it is. This new version just doesn’t have anything to really make you sit up and pay attention, anything distinctively exciting. The earlier adaptation isn’t perfect, but its flaws, such as Harvey’s wobbly accent and the red herring that is Janet Leigh’s character, only add to its uniqueness. And at its best, it’s strikingly clever and even iconic. Each version of The Manchurian Candidate is different to the other, but one simply has more to offer.