Book vs. Movie: The Manchurian Candidate
By Kim Hollis
August 16, 2004

I hope she chooses Bachelor #3!

If movies like Freddy vs. Jason, Godzilla vs. Megalon, Alien vs. Predator, Godzilla vs. Mothra, Kramer vs. Kramer, Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah, Ecks vs. Sever, Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla and King Kong vs. Godzilla have taught us nothing else, it's that everything is somehow better in battle format. We here at BOP recognize this fact, but at the same time realize that our breed of super-smart readers sometimes yearns for a touch of the intellectual at the same time. And since Hollywood has a certain obsession with turning literature of all types into big screen features, we're afforded the perfect opportunity to set up grudge matches galore.

And so, whenever the Tinsel Town hotshots decide that it's a great idea to turn the little-known Herman Melville classic Redburn into a theatrical event film, we'll be there. Whether the results are triumphant (see: The Lord of the Rings trilogy) or tragic (i.e. The Scarlett Letter), we'll take it upon ourselves to give you the verdict and spark the discussion.

The Manchurian Candidate

Today's special edition features an all-out brawl between the 1959 Richard Condon novel, the 1962 John Frankenheimer film and the 2004 update from Jonathan Demme. All three give darkly cynical examinations of politics and the people who work in that arena, using two central characters who have been brainwashed to propel the action. Those focal characters are Raymond Shaw, the son of a power-hungry woman who will stop at nothing to further her own ambitions, and Major Bennett Marco, Shaw's former commanding officer and sole friend in the universe.

The Book

Despite the fact that the book is 45 years old, it still seems frighteningly topical today. Exceptional use of metaphor and casual but obscure asides serve to complement an intricate plot that twists and turns precariously to an abrupt, impacting climax.

The story revolves around Shaw and Marco, two men whose lives are inextricably connected due to the fact that they were both members of an Army unit that disappeared for a few days during action in Korea. Both men remember that the group became involved in heavy combat, with Shaw emerging as the hero who saves the entire troupe, with the exception of a couple of casualties. As a result of this bravery, Marco recommends that his subordinate receive the Medal of Honor, a tribute rarely awarded in modern warfare.

Alas, all is not as it seems. Marco and another member of the unit are having nightmares that are practically identical. These disturbing dreams involve the men of their army unit sitting in a line on a stage in front of numerous high-ranking Soviet and Chinese officials. Though they somehow have the impression that they are supposed to have been at a ladies' flower club, the dream tells them that they were actually the subjects of a long-forgotten experiment. During the course of the presentation by the Chinese experimenter, their compatriot Shaw is ordered to kill two of their own men - not coincidentally, the two men who are remembered to have perished in combat.

Meanwhile, Shaw's existence in the world is not an entirely happy one. He loathes his mother and stepfather, two of the most powerful people in the country, and possibly the world. His stepfather is Senator John Iselin, a doddering, drunken fool who is completely under the thumb of Raymond's mother. Motivated to succeed in the realm of politics from her very childhood, she essentially creates her husband in her own image - a man who uses fear, misrepresentation and an "aw-shucks" everyman mentality to forge his area of influence.

All of these people are on a collision course, as Raymond turns out to be much, much more than what he seems to be on the surface. Brainwashed like the other men in his unit, he has no nightmares. The "hardware" implanted in the Senator's stepson goes far deeper, and when various world leaders are assassinated, Shaw's connection to the crimes becomes impossible to ignore. In the end, it's a question of whether Marco and his associates can work together to help his young friend, at the same time preventing the possible pollution of the very electoral process that is the foundation of the United States of America.

The Movie (1962)

The original, John Frankenheimer-directed film is a very faithful adaptation of the novel. The movie has only a few minor alterations that primarily seem to serve the interest of speeding the action along.

Frank Sinatra is the ostensible star here, though his role as Major Bennett Marco is closer to a supporting performance than a lead one. The film more or less splits time between Marco's activities and those of the infinitely interesting Raymond Shaw, here portrayed by Laurence Harvey. Harvey does a marvelous job of representing the various unusual aspects of Raymond - he's not a particularly likeable character, but at moments he does have a vulnerability that reveals something deeper. Inscrutable and stoic, Raymond's extraordinary darkness is strongly evident through Harvey's understated performance.

The real revelation in the film, though, is Angela Lansbury as Raymond's mother, Mrs. Iselin. She's lovely and cold, steamrolling and driven. Her interpretation of the character embraces the terrifying nature of a woman who has been all-too wrapped up in her goals and aspirations, a woman who will pay any cost to obtain exactly what she desires.

One of the movie's real strengths is its ability to perfectly capture the mood that the novel was trying to convey. Though the scene involving the Soviets and Chinese should theoretically be horrifying, it's instead handled with extreme black humor, which really serves to exemplify the shocking nature of the proceedings. Frankenheimer was wise enough to understand that treating this subject matter with total seriousness was simply the wrong approach - at the time the film was released the Communist witch hunt detailed in the film's background was real. Inserting just a bit of levity into the situation revealed ridiculousness where it was necessary, yet at the same time Frankenheimer seemed to innately understand when a more solemn approach was appropriate.

The Movie (2004)

Jonathan Demme gives the story almost a complete facelift for this "re-imagining," though the essential elements remain the same. Putting the plot into a 21st century context allowed the complete elimination of Senator Iselin. While in 1959/1962, a woman senator would have been unthinkable, in the modern version Meryl Streep is just that. Eleanor Shaw has taken over the seat that her husband left empty when he passed away, and she will do everything in her power to see her son ascend to even loftier heights.

Where Raymond Shaw was a newspaper man in the novel and original film, here he is a homespun Congressman. After his mother wrangles him a spot as the Vice Presidential candidate, we're off to the races.

Major Ben Marco (Denzel Washington) is suddenly forced to recount his own past when he encounters one of his former soldiers, who approaches Marco to tell him about the nightmares he's been having. It's not long before Marco begins to have similar nightmares himself - and in the process, he realizes that his memory has been tampered with via a computer chip implant. He becomes convinced that Raymond Shaw, whom he had recommended for the Medal of Honor some years before for his heroics during Desert Storm, is being affected by a similar mechanism.

Marco becomes a much more central character in this version of the story, as he works alongside various secret sources to try to sort out the events that occurred in his past. We see him slowly descend toward what appears to be a form of madness, even as the sudden rise of Raymond Shaw presents an intriguing study in contrasts.

Liev Schreiber is remarkable as Raymond Shaw, and if anything, is perhaps even a bit more unreadable than Harvey, the role's originator. For this particular character, that's a plus, as it's desirable to never be certain if Shaw is aware of what is happening around him or if he is a willing pawn.

In the end, the Demme update is a smart, timely adaptation of a chilling story. Clearly, the Cold War is over and Communism is no longer the enemy, so the force behind the events that unfold is revealed as something entirely different. The result is a very topical examination of modern politics that frankly, could easily unfold as a true story.

The Verdict

While all three interpretations of the story are excellent and totally worth recommending, the book does exceed the films in a number of ways. First off, it's an extremely intelligent read with unusual allusions and references, but even more importantly, the character development of players such as Mrs. Iselin, the Senator and even Raymond himself make the tale even more fascinating - and chilling.

As for the films, they're different examinations of similar subject matter. The original film is darker and unafraid to use some humor to deflect the startling stuff that occurs onscreen. The remake, on the other hand, is consistently somber and overtly wears its own political ideals on its sleeve. Ardent fans of the 1959 version might find themselves aggravated that the update takes itself so seriously, particularly as some of the humorous scenes in the first film are by far the most memorable. Personally, I find both to be outstanding representations of the eras from which they came.