Rarely do book-to-film adaptations do their job. Even more often, they fail to truly adapt the book to the audience who will see it. “The Beguiled,” however, is an adaptation that aims higher than most.
The film is the second adaptation of Thomas Cullinan’s book. The story is set three years into the Civil War in Virginia and tells of a school for girls in which one student stumbles across a wounded Union soldier. She invites him to come to the house where he is greeted hesitantly by the other women. While at first he seems gentlemanly, he soon turns volatile after he sustains a life-altering injury from one of the women.
The first adaptation, in 1971, is overwrought with sexism. The new adaption, directed by Sofia Coppola, while similar to the first adaptation, differs in several key parts, which lend themselves to the film’s current audience and political climate.
Race is one of those key points. In the original story, Cullinan has one African-American slave and another biracial character, but in the current adaptation, the cast is completely white. The directorial reason for this, Coppola said, was that she didn’t want to depict women of color in the same troubling light that characters in the film found themselves, especially because of the impressionable viewers who will watch the movie.
In an article on Vulture, Angelica Jade Bastién, an essayist, critic and woman of color herself, tackles the issue of race in the film with the line, “There’s a way to speak to racism and race itself without necessarily depicting the subjugation of people of color and the brutality we’ve experienced.” Bastién didn’t laud Coppola for her choice or call her film honest in its history; she identified the story as a “white fairy tale that deserves to be examined closely.”
Another issue the film tackles is that of female empowerment. With an almost all-female cast and a female director, the role of feminism in this film should not be overlooked. The difference in the new film is that instead of turning on each other, as in the original, the women unite to keep each other safe when the soldier’s charms turn to violence.
You can’t talk about this film without mentioning the pervasiveness of sex within it. Sex has a palpable presence within the film. Between the Union soldier’s seduction and the coyness of the women, sexual tension mixed with Southern manners creates an internal tug of war between base desires and convention.
“The Beguiled” is a slow burn that sometimes drags out pseudo-excitement and masks it through blaring gunshots and slamming doors. The film’s story depicts a fairytale, but its focus on unity among women is anything but fanciful.