Written by Dylan Callaghan
Given recent developments in U.S. foreign policy, the new film Brothers, which tells the story of an American soldier returning from combat in Afghanistan, seems perfectly timed for American audiences. But as screenwriter-novelist David Benioff will tell you, what makes the new film starring Tobey McGuire, Jake Gyllenhaal and Natalie Portman relevant isn’t its take on current events.
This film isn’t about war in that way, really.
Brothers is actually a remake of Brodre, a 2004 film from Denmark written by Susanne Bier and Anders Thomas Jensen, also about a soldier – a Danish one – returning from the Afghan theater to his wife and younger brother.
What makes Brothers relevant to Americans is the timelessly classic, tragic, love triangle at its center. An overachieving, gold-plated hero of an older brother is thought dead but returns home unexpectedly to find his younger, screw-up of a brother has not only stood in for him in his absence but has fallen in love with his wife. Call it Shakespearian or Greek, Brothers is undeniably the stuff of both.
Benioff, who adapted both The Kite Runner and his own novel The 25th Hour, initially ignored the DVD of the Danish version that was sent to him as a possible new project. “I don’t know if it was the cover that didn’t intrigue me or the fact that I didn’t really feel like doing another ‘Afghanistan movie,’ but it sat there for about a month,” he admits. He and his wife, actress Amanda Peet, finally popped it in and, “I was on the phone before the end credits finished rolling saying I wanted the job.”
Benioff spoke with the Writers Guild of America, West Web site about this gripping story and how his job was simply to translate it, expand certain aspects and give it “an American accent.”
This film is interesting because it’s part of a mini wave of Danish adaptations. Did switching this already charged story from a Danish to a U.S. perspective change the power or trajectory of this character-driven story?
I don’t think it affected the fundamental trajectory of the script. I think we were quite faithful to the original. From the moment I first saw the DVD, I fell in love with it. My wife and I were really affected by it. I had never done a remake and never wanted to, but after seeing this movie, I wanted the job.
Photo: © 2009 Lionsgate
Tobey Maguire and Jake Gyllenhaal in Brothers.
Then I had to go convince the producers I was the right man for the job, and then we had to go sell it. In those original pitches to studios, we always made it clear that we wanted to be faithful to the original because we all love that movie. That story, to me, has always seemed like such a classical story. Even though it takes place in a modern setting, the same basic story could take place in ancient Greece. You’ve got this love triangle with a high-achieving older brother who’s a warrior, his beautiful wife, and the younger, ne’er-do-well brother. There’s nothing about that particular set up that’s dependent on it being in a particular country or a particular time.
But then there are the specifics of it. I wanted to tell the same story but give it an American accent. I didn’t want to fall into that trap that you sometimes see with remakes where it seems a little stilted in the American context, or it just doesn’t quite work.
There are some movies that just have a French essence or a Hong Kong essence or whatever it is and the transition never seems to take.
But with this one you thought it was an easier translation?
Not necessarily easy, but when you think of soldiers in Afghanistan right now, that is a more American story than a Danish one. It’s a brilliant story by Susanne Bier and Anders Jensen, but just in terms of the numbers, it’s predominantly American and British soldiers that are over there fighting right now.
It seemed to me like a story that made perfect sense for the translation. And again, their original story was such a classic love story and drama that it just seemed to work.
And what for you as a novelist and screenwriter is the handle of this story – the emotive core? What’s it about?
For me, it’s a really powerful narrative engine. You have a story about these two brothers who couldn’t be more different – one has always done the right thing and the other has almost always done the wrong thing – and, because of circumstances, their positions start to reverse. The ne’er-do-well brother starts to learn about responsibility, and to oversimplify it, growing up. Then his responsible older brother has all his certainties and confidence shattered by his experience in Afghanistan and comes back a broken man. He loses his ability to lead a normal life.
So it’s about role reversal?
Yeah, it’s about role reversal and beyond that, in a more basic sense, it’s about family and the way roles change over time and in desperate circumstances.
You know, the younger brother starts to learn what it’s all about to take care of kids and be responsible and then he falls in love with his brother’s wife.
It’s very Shakespearian.
Yeah. That’s what I loved about the original. Whether it’s Shakespearian or Greek tragedy, there’s something about it that seemed so classic. You don’t get many stories these days that are like that.
My memory’s not good enough to figure out what it is, but the fundamental concept here is similar to some famous novel or play that I can’t think of.
Yeah, and I wonder if it really is, because I’ve thought that too, but then I could never think of what it was. I wonder if it actually is or if it just has that feel.
In some ways – and I mean this as a compliment – it’s so basic and strong that I feel like someone must have thought of this before, but I can’t place whatever story this reminds me of. It has a very evocative feel. I find that about the best songs too. You hear a great song, and it feels like “God, I’ve heard this somewhere before,” but sometimes that’s just because it’s great. I remember reading an interview with Van Morrison where he said he didn’t really write his greatest songs, he just kind of discovered them – like that music has always been there, and he just put it down. He didn’t think of it as an act of creation so much as an act of discovery.
The interesting thing with this one was the act of discovery here wasn’t mine. It was Susanne Biers. Mine was more an act of translation.
You’ve adapted novels before, like The Kite Runner. From a process sense, how did this remake differ?
When you’re adapting a novel, you’re trying to fit it into film structure, especially with a longer novel. In this case, much of that work had already been done because the original Brothers is an excellent movie. It’s not a novel where some of the scenes won’t work on screen.
It was kind of a wonderful thing as a writer because it unburdened me to just try and figure out how to tell this story with American characters as opposed to Danish ones. [I was able to focus on] dialogue and getting a little bit deeper into the story of this family and the relationship between the father and the sons.
In many ways it’s a lot easier adapting an existing movie, but at the same time, the harder thing is trying to find its own distinct voice. Because otherwise all you’re doing is dubbing the first movie, and then what’s the point?
In the simplest terms, what, at the outset, were the big things you wanted to capture from the original and change in the new incarnation?
I think what I wanted to retain was the skeletal structure of the original movie that I thought worked so well. Especially with the two brothers, our film follows pretty much the same character pattern. They have the same souls that they do in the original movie.
I think it was finding places where we could go a little bit further or make certain changes that seemed appropriate.
Like in the voice and the dialogue?
Like in the voice and the dialogue and in the backstory of some of the characters. Like the Sam Shepard character, who’s now a military man. That seemed to make a lot of sense and further the sense that Tommy [the younger brother] is a real black sheep in the family because he didn’t go into the military. We wanted this family to be military going back to both sides of the Civil War – as long as there were Cahills in America.
Tommy is the first of the men who decides not to join for his own reasons, and a lot of that ended up not even getting shot. There are just a few mentions of it now, but I think it still informs the family.
Yeah, it’s back there. Whether it’s spoken about or not, it’s back there.