Sam Peckinpah’s 1971 film Straw Dogs starred Dustin Hoffman and Susan George as David and Amy Sumner, a married couple tormented by the local townsfolk in a remote Scottish village in which they reside. At the time of its release the film was quite controversial in its depiction of violence and sexual assault. Even today, the film remains disturbing. Forty years later, a 2011 remake, starring James Marsden and Kate Bosworth as the married couple, attempts a slightly different take on the story. Despite some interesting changes, the update fails to pack to the same punch as the original. Though it is fairly entertaining it ends up being a more conventional thriller than its predecessor.
The 1971 Straw Dogs was based on the 1969 novel The Siege of Trencher’s Farm by Gordon Williams. There are quite a few differences between the novel and the film, including the fact that the married couple had an eight-year-old daughter in the book. Rather than return to the source material, however, the 2011 Straw Dogs is strictly a remake of the film. All of the elements that were changed for the 1971 film are included in the 2011 remake, with none of the missing elements from the novel being explored. It’s a shame because the novel had some intriguing differences that could have further distinguished the remake.
Despite the overall similarity, there are some differences between the 1971 and 2011 versions of Straw Dogs. One of the main differences is the setting. Rather than the rural Scottish country side of the original film, the update takes place in the American south. Hoffman’s David is mathematician, while Marsden’s is a screenwriter. George’s Amy is almost childlike in her naiveté, while Bosworth’s Amy is tougher and smarter. The basic premise of both films is the same with the differences being the characters’ personalities and the way they react to their situations.
In the 2011 Straw Dogs David and Amy Sumner move to the small southern town where Amy grew up. Both of Amy’s parents have passed away so the couple moved into their rural house, which lacks some modern features like cell phone reception. David believes the solitude of the location will help him complete his screenplay about the WWII Battle of Stalingrad. The battle, where Russian forces triumph over the seemingly more powerful Nazis, serves as an allegory for the story. David is clearly an outsider in the town where the locals worship football, God, beer, and hunting (pretty much in that order). David considers himself to be an intellectual, favoring brains over machismo. This sets him at odds with the locals, particularly Amy’s ex-boyfriend Charlie (Alexander Skarsgard).
Despite the obvious rivalry, David inexplicably hires Charlie and his friends to fix his barn roof. In the original Straw Dogs Hoffman seems naively unaware of Amy’s past with Charlie. In this version Amy basically tells David she and Charlie had great sex. While most men might want to steer clear of this past relationship David welcomes Charlie onto his property. David tries to fit in with the locals by drinking at the local bar and going to football games, but trouble is clearly brewing between the Sumner’s and Charlie. Charlie takes David’s lack of machismo for weakness, and believes Amy couldn’t possibly be satisfied with such a wimp. Tensions escalate to a boiling point, which culminate in a battle between David and Charlie. The essence of Straw Dogs is the exploration of whether a man like David can abandon intellect and be driven by primal violence.
I did not buy James Marsden as someone who could not stand up for himself. His David came across as arrogant and smug, and seemed like someone who thought he was a lot smarter than he really was. Though he might have preferred to not engage in physical altercations, he seemed capable if it was necessary. The effect of this was that the climactic battle was kind of generic. It was something that could have fit into any number of thrillers where the heroes must fight the bad guys. In this film David’s response to his tormentors seems reasonable given the increasing danger of his situation.
The original Straw Dogs was an uncomfortable and almost surreal experience of watching someone try to survive in a place where they clearly should not be. What bubbled under the surface was a cauldron of tension, resentment, and xenophobia that was destined to explode right from the start. David and Amy’s isolation in the rural Scottish countryside took on an inescapable permanence with fighting being the only way out. Hoffman observed his tormentors at first with a morbid curiosity and at last with hatred that could only be quelled by his defeat of them. David’s hatred and unwavering desire to get the better of them blurs the line between right and wrong. David becomes so wrapped up in the game he loses sight of what his purpose even is.
That is the essence of the original Straw Dogs. That boiling tension of the original is mostly missing from the remake. It becomes a fruitless effort to endlessly compare the two films, which are the same at the surface but so different at their core. Taking the remake on its own, it is an entertaining thriller with a bigger reach than its grasp. It attempts some of the same character exploration, but hardly offers anything new. The 2011 Straw Dogs ends up being ordinary in the end. It is not a bad movie, but it won’t be a remembered movie.
The DVD of Straw Dogs contains an audio commentary by the film’s writer and director Rod Lurie. Also included are four informative featurettes, the best of which is “Courting Controversy: Remaking a Classic.” As the title suggests, this featurette addresses the perils of trying to update a highly respected film. The other featurettes are more technical in nature, dealing with the film’s casting, stunts, and production design.