Director: David Cronenberg
USA - 1993
An analytical look at Cronenberg's Hwang.
Jeremy Irons plays Rene Gallimard:
An American diplomat, stationed in China, who falls head-over-heels in
love with a local opera singer. Rene lacks self-confidence-both at his
job, and in his marriage to Jeanne; a push-over, if you will. All this
changes after a night at the opera and a brief exchange with the
headlining star, Song Liling.
John Lone plays Song Liling: An opera singer who
seduces Gallimard, and later, manipulates him into disclosing secret
diplomatic information. Song also harbors a dark secret, which directly
coincides with harboring an Adam's apple.
Barbara Sukowa plays Jeanne Gallimard: Rene's
Ian Richardson plays Ambassador
Toulon: Rene's boss. And yes, he was also the Grey Poupon guy. No relation
to Andre, I presume.
Shizuko Hoshi plays Comrade Chin: Song's espionage
Though essentially the same story, David
Cronenberg’s cinematic adaptation of David Hwang’s M.
Butterfly takes several
artistic licenses, three of which prove considerably detrimental: the
method of storytelling, characterization depth, and finally, the subtle
alterations to the play’s poignant finale.
The most obvious difference between the play and
the film is Cronenberg’s use of linear storytelling.
In the book, M. Butterfly
is narrated, for the most part, through the eyes of Gallimard; and said
narration frequently jumps back and forth in time, as dictated by the
storyteller. This approach is
unconventional, and if mishandled, could easily confuse the reader, but M. Butterfly is not only simple to follow, but the random cuts in
narrative prove quite effective when delivering the story’s twist
ending. Though given an
occasional clue as to where the tale is heading, Hwang keeps the pace a
bit off-balance, thus keeping the reader guessing right up until the final
scene. Cronenberg, on the other hand, opts to relay his vision
through the more traditional, chronological method.
And though, in his own right, the director weaves a fine tale, the
unique delivery of Hwang’s original masterpiece is sorely missed.
Instead of gathering bits of evidence from the random times
depicted, the viewer, instead, is lead down a clear-cut path strewn with
clues, the end of the path, obviously, being the film’s conclusion-the
unbelievable plot twist from which M. Butterfly is famous. When
viewed chronologically, the surprise ending is easily predicted; and being
that said twist is the very crux of
Hwang’s play, it is a shame when prematurely unraveled.
Like the story’s construction, another crucial
element to M. Butterfly is the
question of protagonist/antagonist; specifically, who falls under what
category? Both the film and
the play blur this distinction, which is good, for in this particular
tale, the roles of good and evil should be subjective.
Neither Song nor Gallimard is wrong or right.
Song is a spy who manipulates, and ultimately betrays, the man who
loves her. Gallimard, on the
other hand, is a womanizer; He cheats on both his wife and his mistress,
and fulfills his male chauvinist fantasies at the expense of what he
presumes to be a weaker Asian culture.
One glaring difference between the written word and the film,
though, is the rich characterization featured in Hwang’s play-with Song,
in particular. In
Cronenberg’s version, Song appears merely as a pawn in a complex game of
espionage. When the truth of
her identity is revealed at the end, she, for the most part, appears
apologetic about deceiving her former lover.
In the book, however, after coming clean, Song is not only
unapologetic, but at some points, she nearly gloats over her masterful
deception as well as Gallimard’s uninhibited acceptance of said deceit.
But even with these differences, both the film and the play
maintain the role ambiguity necessary to maintain
the story’s integrity.
The third, and arguably most essential, difference
between Hwang and Cronenberg’s respective visions is found in the
closing scene-Gallimard’s physical manifestation of his ideal woman-as
well as his subsequent suicide. Though
there are some other more trivial differences, the actual execution (no
pun intended) of the film‘s finale proves lackluster when compared to
the original; Specifically, in place of performing seppuku, Gallimard,
instead, slits his own throat with a shard of broken glass.
Considering the circumstances for his drastic actions, there is
some poetic irony when Gallimard kills himself in a traditional Asian
ritual. Cronenberg opts to
not only change this minor detail, but to also focus on gratuitous gore-a
trademark of his earlier work. In
the play, the story comes full-circle when Song reappears in the final
scene and addresses Gallimard’s corpse as “Butterfly.”
Sadly, this too is missing from the film.
In conclusion, if having to pick the stronger of
the two, the natural choice would
be Hwang’s play-an intriguing piece of literature that tackles the
complex ideas of gender, love, identity, and perception.
But Cronenberg’s Butterfly, though flawed, is a fine work in and of itself.
Adequate storytelling and beautiful visuals are enhanced by superb
performances from Jeremy Irons (Gallimard) and John Lone (Song).
Though the differences between the two mediums are grievous-the
method of storytelling, characterization depth, and the subtle differences
in the finale-if viewing Cronenberg and Hwang’s work as separate
entities, there is something to be gained from each.
-- Copyright © 2000 by J. Bannerman