Premakes: 45 Years Before ‘Silence,’ How a Japanese Director Told the Same Story
Some of the most popular movies of all time are based on true stories or pieces of literature that have actually been adapted before. “Premakes” looks at the similarities and differences between a classic film and the lesser-known work that beat it to the marketplace.
The premake: Silence (a.k.a. Chinmoku, 1971), writer-director Masahiro Shinoda’s adaptation of Shusaku Endo’s 1969 novel of the same name, about two 17th century Portuguese Jesuit priests who journey to Japan to minister to an underground Christian congregation, and to search for a former mentor named Ferreira who’s rumored to have become an apostate.
The story: Director Martin Scorsese and screenwriter Jay Cocks spent over 25 years trying to bring their version of Endo’s novel to the screen, inspired by its nuanced and often troubling considerations of what religious faith actually means in the real world. In terms of plot, their Silence doesn’t deviate much from either the book or Shindoa’s 1971 film. All three are animated by the struggles of one priest in particular, Rodrigues (played by David Lampson in 1971 and Andrew Garfield in 2016), who has debates with his fellow Christians and his hostile Japanese hosts about whether it’s acceptable to renounce Jesus in order to save people’s lives.
What’s different: Both films are quite lengthy, but the newer Silence has more of an epic sweep, running a full 30 minutes longer and encompassing a lot of set-up and multiple flashbacks. The 1971 Silence limits its backstory to a brisk history lesson in the opening minutes, followed by an immediate jump to the two missionaries coming ashore (something that Scorsese doesn’t get to until nearly 15 minutes into his movie). Once the priests arrive in a remote village , the first Silence settles in, becoming a quiet and constrained drama, with limited settings and one main source of tension: When challenged by the authorities, will these men of faith renounce their beliefs?
The 2016 version, meanwhile, positions this story within the larger context of history, culture, and religious concerns. If nothing else, Scorsese and Cocks include a lot more scenes of Rodrigues desperately praying to God, asking if he’s doing the right thing — along with more scenes where he compares his mission to Christ’s, insistent that the only real way to understand the Gospels is to risk death by walking among the needy and oppressed. And when Ferreira finally does turn up (played by Liam Neeson), he openly questions the purpose of a spiritual principle that leads to innocent people getting hurt, when there are so many other ways to be helpful.
More importantly for cinephiles, the more recent Silence has more moments of lyricism and visual panache. Shinoda’s film doesn’t lack for stylistic grace-notes, but it’s primarily a delivery-system for plot and dialectics, while Scorsese looks for opportunities to slow the pace, extend scenes, and push the audience to become immersed in the environment of ancient Japan and the struggles of these Westerners who are visiting. Even in similar scenes from the two Silences, there’s more spaciousness and ponderousness to Scorsese’s.
What’s the same: The novel serves as the ultimate blueprint for these two Silences, to the extent that if someone were to write out the story beats for each on a series of index cards, they’d be almost identical. Given that, it’s the smaller similarities between the films that really stand out. Both include scenes where the priests perform mass and other sacred rites for the villagers, and a scene where the Christians are impressed by their guests’ official sacred icons. Even a lot of the language throughout is close to an exact copy.
Key shared scene: One of the major motifs of Silence has to do with how the missionaries’ courage borders on sinful pride. They’re determined to be martyrs, and don’t know what to do when the government spares their lives and tortures their congregation instead, in ways meant to make them abandon a Christianity that they may have only loosely understood in the first place. There are multiple scenes in both Silences of the priests watching helplessly as their flock is humiliated and brutalized. The most memorable image in both is of Japanese natives being tied to crosses and left to face a rising tide. It’s horrifying and moving, all at once.
Which to watch first? To Western eyes, Scorsese’s will be the easier to process, though Shinoda may have a better grasp of the setting and background for Endo’s novel. Though the Japanese version features European actors in the lead roles, it frames them more as the exotic interlopers, as opposed to the American version, which adopts the priests’ perspective much more. Shinoda’s approach feels truer in that way, while Scorsese and Cocks seem to be using the details of Endo’s plot as a jumping-off point for their own personal ruminations on religion. But it’s also because of Scorsese’s passion that his Silence makes a stronger impression overall.