books, feature film, Uncategorized

Five Things I Never Realized about Papillon

papillon papillon movie papillon book

So I saw the new flick Papillon, and liked it so much I decided to reread the book, which I had read years before as a teenager.  That didn’t disappoint either.   So this is blog  post about both the book and the recent film.

An earlier edition of the film was released in the early 1970s, starring Steve McQueen and Dustin Hoffman. Their star power created a combustability that cannot be repeated, but the new film is still good. Just perhaps not as explosive. This time, the stars are Charlie Hunnam and Rami Malek, and they are satisfying characters.

Papillon Dustin Hoffman Steve McQueen 1973
Dustin Hoffman and Steve McQueen in Papillon, 1973

For the uninitiated, Papillon is the French word for butterly, a butterfly that was tatooed on the chest of the leading character. He is a French thief framed for murder who is transferred to a prison in French Guiana in South America in 1932. After many years, he escaped from the hitherto unescapable Devil’s Island. But that is not before many failed escape attempts.  He has boundless spirit and enough faith to ensure that eventually he gets away.  The writing in the book is tremendous, and it’s hard to believe a man with no advanced education wrote it. Some of the incidents in the book are unbelievable, too. But the author, Henri Charriere, always claimed every bit of it was true, as best as he remembered it.


Five Things I Never Realized About Papillon

So there were many things I’d forgotten or never realized about Papillon

1. First off, it’s a very personal book. Papillon takes us into his world immediately. He deals with all sorts of people, of different races and religions, and treats everyone with an even hand. Everyone seems to like and respect him. It took a special man to escape from Devil’s Island, and he was indeed that special man.

2. Papillon was interested in everything around him. He was a good judge of human beings — who was his friend and who wasn’t. He was also engaged with nature. On one of his escape attempts, for example, he becomes engaged watching a group of ants work, and wonders about how they divide their labor so efficiently. We see his mind at work in every way.

3. Terrible Conditions Existed in Prisons. Papillon is kept in solitary for an extended period of time in both the book and the movie. In the book, he is also imprisoned in other South American countries. One prison is worse than the other. In the book, Papillon is kept in one prison cell that floods when the tide rises. Everyday he is soaked, not only with seawater but with crustaceans and other creatures of the sea that come in with the tide.

4. Prison stories are great. It’s been a while since I’ve read one. While they can become repetitive, if you’ve seen the movie too many time (a la The Shawshank Redemption) there’s something about tales of the endurance of the human spirit that compel.

5. Women aren’t really necessary. Usually I complain if there aren’t enough strong female characters, but in this case I make an exception. There are females in the story, and the book in particular, shows how Papillon relates to different women in his life. But they are absent for most of the story and aren’t really missed.

The Papillon movie is still in theaters. The original Papillon film is available on Amazon Prime — $2.99 to rent if you’re a prime member. And the book, which you’ll definitely enjoy, can be purchased below.

Grade: A

Here’s a look at the new movie.

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1 thought on “Five Things I Never Realized about Papillon

  1. I should point out that there were never any records to show Henri Charriere was ever incarcerated at Devil’s Island. In fact, the book bares a striking resemblance to that of a previous prisoner who escaped. His name was Rene Belbenoit, who eventually became an American citizen. His books, ‘Dry Guillotine’ and ‘Hell on Trial’ were written before ‘Papillon’ and it is said Charriere wrote his book after reading Belbenoit’s account.

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