I finally got around to watching Jonathan Demme's version (2004) of The Manchurian Candidate. It took me a while because, frankly, I really wasn't expecting very much. However, I am genuinely pleased to be able to say that it is a far better movie than I had feared.
It contains some excellent acting from the principals (Denzel Washington and Meryl Streep in particular), and the direction isn't bad either. As for the writing... Well, quite impressive too. I admit that with some surprise, because I feared the worst. But fortunately the writers started with some absolutely classic material, and although they have made changes the plot still works pretty well.
If you aren't familiar with the history of The Manchurian Candidate, please pay attention, because it is, in my opinion, one of the classic books of the twentieth century -- as opposed to all that literary nonsense that the college professors would have you believe in.
First published in 1959, The Manchurian Candidate was written by Richard Condon. He had a background in advertising, p.r., and the Hollywood movie business. He wrote about twenty novels, several of which were filmed, and nearly all of which are still worth reading. For my part, I must have read The Manchurian Candidate at least four times, and it's still in print if you want to give it a try (which I warmly recommend).
Soon after publication, Condon's novel was bought for movie adaptation, and the film was released in 1962. It was directed by John Frankenheimer.
The plot does not lend itself to easy summary (in my opinion). It is best categorised as a thriller, and what happens, basically, is that a small group of American soldiers are captured during the Korean war, and are brainwashed by the Communists (actually I think conditioned would be a better word) to return to the US with a fictional story which they believe utterly. One of their number (Raymond Shaw) is brainwashed/conditioned into being an assassin who will kill whenever instructed.
In due course, the brainwashed killer is to be used to assassinate a man who is running for president, thus enabling the vice-presidential candidate to be elected in his place. And the VP candidate is a Communist agent. The bulk of the story is taken up with finding out whether one of the brainwashed soldiers (Ben Marco) can figure out what has been done to his head, and whether he can then prevent the assassin from carrying out his instructions.
The book can be read simply as a thriller, and as such it is a very good one. But Condon is often spoken of as a 'satirical' writer, which implies that he had some higher purpose than merely writing a gripping story.
Certainly he uses the plot of The Manchurian Candidate to reveal his total contempt for Senator McCarthy and similar political conmen. And in later books Condon gave us some brutal portraits (with a smear of disguise) of such figures as Nixon and Joe Kennedy. But his principal object, I believe, was not to make us smile, or to ridicule his subjects; it was to purge himself of his own profound disgust and distrust of the US political system. Or rather, not of the system itself, but of the corrupt and perverted version of the system which was then in place, and which shows, nearly fifty years later, absolutely no sign of being able to make itself clean and whole again.
In short, Condon's work is deeply revealing of how reality varies from the image presented to the public. And that is a situation which we find, in the world today, over and over again. Condon first saw it, in close-up, in Hollywood, but he soon came to understand that 'spin' (as we now call it in the UK) was everywhere, and was everywhere corrupting, demeaning, and dangerous.
The climax of The Manchurian Candidate involves the gunning down of an American politician in a public place. And, one year after the release of the film, America was traumatised by the Kennedy assassination. After that the film dropped out of sight. Today, however, you can buy it on DVD. And you can read the original George Axelrod script free of charge on the web. My tip: print it out and read it on paper. It's perfectly easy to follow, and a model of its kind.
Before I leave the original novel and the Frankenheimer movie, let me point out that I have written about both before. On 22 April 2004 and 23 April 2004, to be precise, and with a few other passing references. But the best online essay on the subject is the one by Louis Menand in the New Yorker.
So, we had the novel, followed by the Frankenheimer movie, and now we have the Jonathan Demme remake. Which is, incidentally, produced by Frank Sinatra's daughter Tina; see Menand and my own earlier posts for comments on the Sinatra connection.
The fact that the film was directed by Jonathan Demme had me worried for a while. Demme was director of the 1986 movie Something Wild, which I well remember as one of the most objectionable films that I've ever seen and which was, not surprisingly, a box-office flop. However, he has also done some good stuff, including The Silence of the Lambs, and his version of The Manchurian Candidate is about five times better than I thought it would be.
It is in the plot of the Demme version that we find the biggest variations from the Condon/Frankenheimer story. I am not going to compare and contrast the two movies in any detail here, though someone could (and probably will) make a PhD thesis out of it. But if you want an amusing account of how the story goes, there's quite a good one on the imdb page. (The reviewer doesn't like Frank Sinatra's kung fu fight in Frankenheimer's version, but I thought that was one of the really good bits.)
Demme has shifted the period in which the action takes place from the 50s/60s to the present day. The Korean War brainwashing episode now takes place during the first Gulf war. And while Condon was positing that the Communist powers were plotting to get their own man into the White House, Demme argues that it is a branch of America's big business which now wants to take over the world: a big-time defence contractor called Manchurian Global.
Demme's plot is stronger than Condon's in one respect. Demme's candidate for the US presidency actually has a chip in his brain which obliges him to follow instructions. Whereas in Condon's version the candidate was a puppet, but a puppet with his own free will intact.
In other respects the plot changes are not, in my judgement, an improvement. But I shall have to see the film again before I finally make up my mind about that. Both movies, incidentally, chicken out of revealing that Raymond Shaw's mother has an incestuous relationship with him. Although even the book, written in 1959, had to be discreet about that. It's OK to write about assassination and brainwashing and stuff, but having sex with your mother... There are limits, you know.
On the whole, the Demme version seems to me to lose some of the ironies and the tragedy of Frankenheimer. Raymond is no longer obliged to kill his journalist mentor and friend. And his teenage girl friend, the one his mother got rid of, no longer appears to care for him, and thus the horror of his killing her loses much of its power. I at least no longer felt pity for this new Raymond.
However... as the imdb reviewer points out, there is lots of subtle stuff going on in the background of this movie, and it requires more than one viewing. Also, being deaf, I shall either have to read the script or get a subtitled version to make sure that I've absorbed all the information. And, although there are losses, there are probably also gains.
Why have I spent quite a lot of time reading and re-reading the Condon book, and watching the first movie version several times (and will now, I suspect, proceed to do the same with the new one)?
Because the material is oddly fascinating, moving, and highly relevant to our times. One way and another, Condon put his finger on some of the most vital issues of our day: the relentless desire of politicians and big businessmen to control what we do, think and buy; and their ready willingness to destroy the little people for what they would have us believe is the greater good. And to achieve their ends, they tell us endless lies, without a hint of shame or regret.
When he retired from the presidency, in 1961, Eisenhower warned the American people about the unprecedented power of the military-industrial complex. 'In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist.'
Nothing has changed since then, except that the risk has become greater. And these are the kinds of issues which Condon and two movie directors have dealt with. Along the way, they have given us characters who are interesting in themselves, who move us by their actions, and who become, in some instances, tragic victims of circumstance.