Special Op: A Postwar Tale Retold
THE director Jim Sheridan approached his new film, “Brothers,” with a Hippocratic attitude: “Do no harm,” he said with a laugh. “Like a doctor, you know?” Fitting enough, since he was delivering a twin.
The movie, which opens on Friday and stars Tobey Maguire, Natalie Portman and Jake Gyllenhaal, is based on the 2004 film “Brodre” from the Danish director Susanne Bier, best known to American audiences for “After the Wedding” and “Things We Lost in the Fire.” As translated by Mr. Sheridan, it focuses on a Marine captain, Sam Cahill (played by Mr. Maguire), who returns from Afghanistan having undergone an unspeakable experience only to find that he’s been reported dead.
In his absence his ne’er-do-well ex-convict brother Tommy (Mr. Gyllenhaal) has made a place in the hearts of Sam’s wife, Grace (Ms. Portman), and his two daughters. Sam imagines himself betrayed and reacts violently.
“I think the war is just background to a situation involving people who have been around since ‘The Iliad’ and Achilles,” Mr. Sheridan said in a telephone interview from his home in Dublin.
“If you read that book ‘Achilles in Vietnam,’ ” by Jonathan Shay, he continued, “you see that in ‘The Iliad’ Achilles was just a person with post-traumatic stress. So the greatest poem in the Western world is about that same subject.”
With a plot virtually identical to Mr. Sheridan’s film, “Brodre” was critically acclaimed but made only a small impact in the United States. “If the critics had paid their way in,” Mr. Sheridan said, “it would have made $350,000 instead of $250,000.”
“I said, this could be remade in America, and if there are stars in it, I can get more people to see it,” he continued. “I can rant about this, but first Hollywood kills European cinema, and now it’s eating away at American independent cinema, so we’re in a time when these movies are very hard to get to the public. I think, for me, part of my brief was to get Susanne’s movie to the American public.”
The rights to “Brodre” were being sought simultaneously by the Hollywood producer Michael De Luca and Sigurjon Sighvatsson of Iceland, who eventually partnered and took their project to Ryan Kavanaugh of Relativity Media. “We showed Susanne’s film to crowds before we shot one frame of ours,” Mr. Kavanaugh said. “We wanted to see what audiences took away from it, what their feelings would be, and what we could learn from that.”
What they learned is that the remake could largely stand on its own. The structure is virtually the same. Some shots are identical, including a scene of the young wife in a bathtub or a sequence on an ice rink.
But there are significant adjustments. Principally, the characters are younger: Mr. Sheridan’s stars are in their late 20s or early 30s, while the actors in Ms. Bier’s movie are about a decade older. “Go to Pendleton, any place where they prepare Marines, and they’re 22,” Mr. Sheridan said. “The wife who gets left behind is 21 and has three kids.”
Other differences are cultural: When the ex-con brother in Ms. Bier’s film calls the wife at 4 a.m. to pick him up at a bar, she leaves the kids and comes to get him; in Mr. Sheridan’s almost identical scene, the wife brings the kids with her, despite the hour.
“Having a kid, I just sort of wondered where they were,” said David Benioff, who adapted the screenplay written by Ms. Bier and Anders Thomas Jensen. Mr. Benioff also made the Cahill family a military one, with the brothers’ father, played by Sam Shepard, a taciturn, spit-and-polish lifer.
“Once we had Sam on board, you wanted to give him as much as possible,” Mr. Benioff said. “But from the beginning it was thought that if Tommy comes from a military family, it makes him much more the black sheep. Actually that character was the one I loved best in the original.”
Mr. Benioff, whose screenplays include “Troy,” “The Kite Runner” and “X-Men Origins: Wolverine,” said that he’d never done a film adaptation, and that he found the process unsettling.
“Sometimes you feel it’s sanctioned plagiarism, because you’re writing these scenes off the original, and in many cases I wanted to keep them just as they were,” he said. “I’ve done adaptations of books, but in that case you’re trying to figure out how to convert the workable structure for a book into a workable structure for a film. In this case we already had a workable structure for a film.”
He added that many changes “just seemed to me basic, and a lot of it was just kind of instinct.”
When he heard the film would be made by Mr. Sheridan, the director of “In America” and “In the Name of the Father,” he said, “it was a great relief, because he can handle material which in another director’s hands could be hyperbolic.”
Mr. Kavanaugh went a step further. “I told Jim, ‘You’re the only person who can direct this movie,’ ” he said. “While the script is great, it’s not about what is said, but what’s not said. And that’s about being able to bring the emotions between characters to life without words. There are not a lot of directors who are great at that. But as you see in ‘In America’ and ‘In the Name of the Father,’ Jim is incredible at bringing people together and creating emotion. I thought that would be the life or death of this movie.”
Reached on the set of her new Danish film “The Revenge,” Ms. Bier said that watching Mr. Sheridan’s version was “a strange situation, like watching your baby being brought up by another parent.” But she called it “a very personal and sincere film.” For his part Mr. Sheridan said that when he watches Ms. Bier’s films, “I see stories about love and redemption that are kind of about inappropriate love, but they never go so far as immoral love.”
“Her ‘Brothers’ is a kind of inappropriate love story,” he added. “Mine is kind of about putting the family back together. So I think they’re different stories. Even though they’re close.”