The opening shot of the 2004 French film, Les Revenants (US title: They Came Back), shows a herd of people slowly exiting a cemetery gate. It turns out these are just some of the 70 million deceased people worldwide who have inexplicably returned to life. But these are no ordinary zombies. They are fully conscious and healthy, with no desire to eat human brains. They simply want to return to their previous lives. The problem is, of course, that the world has moved on in their absence.
This concept has become fertile ground for the entertainment industry since the movie was released. In 2012, an 8-episode French supernatural drama television called Les Revenants (The Returned) first aired. In 2013, Jason Mott wrote a novel also called The Returned, which was based on neither the movie nor the TV series, but was nevertheless suspiciously familiar. From that book, ABC created its series, Resurrection, which first aired in early 2014. And now, A&E has produced an American remake of the French series, also called The Returned.
Confused? To help a little, let’s remove the book and the ABC TV show from the mix. I haven’t read the book and I quickly gave up on Resurrection, which I found to be tedious. We’ll just pretend they exist elsewhere in an alternate universe. Instead, I’m going to write about the superior original movie, the French TV series it inspired, and the upcoming remake. For those of you familiar with our columns on Downright Creepy, this will be a sort of Remake Rewind/Scream-O-Vision mashup.
They Came Back
The original movie takes an extremely scientific approach to the phenomenon of the dead returning to life, and it’s very particular about its “rules:”
- Only men and women recently deceased (10 years or less) return.
- The returned “show symptoms of aphasia, but motor functions are not affected.”
- Their temperatures are 5 degrees lower than normal.
- They are migratory and their patterns can therefore be tracked.
It’s a cold movie, almost emotionless. Instead of focusing very long on individual stories, the story expands to study the big picture. Society seems to welcome the returned, treating them like refugees and placing them in a community center until they can be identified. Everyone agrees that the returned have the right to resume their lives, so there’s really no conflict. However, when it becomes obvious that they can’t innovate, their integration must be treated differently.
I’d barely categorize They Came Back as a horror movie. It’s not in the least bit scary, nor is it intended to be. But it is creepy as hell. The returned tend to wander; almost any scene outside shows random people simply wandering aimlessly. They may be healthy, but they’re restless. They pretend to sleep, but are really active all the time. The must find some type of comfort among themselves, though, because they tend to meet in small groups, and that scares the officials monitoring the situation.
There are three stories of specific returnees and their loved ones, but they truly take a back seat to the facts of the matter. I didn’t identify with, or even relate to, any of them. The mayor’s wife returns. A married couple’s 6-year old son returns. A woman’s husband returns. It’s funny that the human factor is so minor in the movie, because it becomes the driving force of the subsequent TV series. The movie is certainly intriguing, but I’m not sure how entertaining it is.
Other than having the same set-up, the French TV series, Les Revenants, bears little resemblance to the movie on which it’s based. There’s no science, there’s no study. The story is instead intimate, driven by individual personalities and human emotion. In this way, it reminds me of Lost. Both series present fascinating premises, yet don’t always focus on them. They focus on the people. This sometimes angered Lost fans, but unanswered questions aren’t really as much an issue in Les Revenants.
Although each episode is titled with the name of one of the returned, they don’t deal with just one of them solely. All the stories advance over the course of an episode. More drama is mined from any one of the characters than the three characters from the movie combined. It’s hard to write much about them because the way the show reveals their deaths and their lives, past and present, is surprising, sometimes shocking. I don’t want to spoil a single moment.
Each episode begins with a flashback depicting the death of one of the returned. It may be a girl whose school bus crashes (not a spoiler; it’s the very first scene of the very first episode), a man who disappears on his wedding day, or a child who was victim of a gruesome murder. The center of each episode deals with the reactions of friends and family and the integration of their loved ones back into their lives. The end of each episode delivers a surprise, usually by revealing relationships among the other characters and stories. Oh, and did I mention there’s a serial killer running around?
I love this series! It’s expertly crafted, heartbreakingly suspenseful and intellectually rewarding. Plus, it has a style that simultaneously contributes to, and is a result of, the subject matter. It seems like sacrilege to remake it, even though Americanizing it might introduce it to a larger audience. But with the ease of watching (and binge watching) unique TV series these days, it still seems superfluous to me.
I’ve seen the first four episodes of the aforementioned Americanization. The fact that it is indeed superfluous does not disturb me as much as the fact that it’s such a pale imitation of the original. There is nothing new here. Each episode of The Returned is nearly a shot-for-shot retelling of the same episode of Les Revenants… except you don’t have to read subtitles. I’ve considered the idea that my opinion is tainted because I’ve already seen the original. What would I think about it if I hadn’t?
But then, I examine the little details that are missing from the remake and I realize I might like The Returned a little more if I hadn’t seen Les Revenants first, but I never would love it as much. For example, there’s a scene in the original where Simon (Pierre Perrier) has no money to eat and resorts to beating up the owner of a diner. While violence explodes around her, a woman customer continues to eat at her table, barely acknowledging what is happening.
In the remake, Simon (Mat Vairo) makes an anti-violence statement by simply dining and dashing from the diner. Not only does that eliminate an offbeat Twins Peak-like moment, but it lessens the subsequent drama. It makes a lot less sense for the police to be hunting for Simon because he dined and dashed than it does for them to be hunting him because he attacked someone. This is a perfect example of how this remake waters down the source material.
What’s even more disappointing is the fact that the Executive Producer (and writer of the first episode) is Carlton Cuse (Lost, Bates Motel). With the Lost-type structure of Les Revenants, it’s easy to imagine why he would be interested in developing the series for American audiences. However, he takes no creative liberties in making The Returned our own. Since the French series took an entirely different approach from the original movie, I would have hoped the American series would take an entirely different approach from the French series.
At the very least, Cuse could have created his own characters and stories for The Returned instead of simply recreating the ones from Les Revenants. I’m interested in knowing the thought process behind his decisions. Sometimes an episode of The Returned changes the order of scenes that appeared in Les Revenants. Why? Did Cuse and the other writers think doing so makes the story more impactful? Well, it doesn’t.
The Returned isn’t horrible. It features many familiar TV faces, like Mark Pellegrino (Lost), Kevin Alejandro (True Blood), Jeremy Sisto (Six Feet Under) and Michelle Forbes (The Killing). But maybe that’s the problem: it’s too familiar. It doesn’t do enough to be original. Perhaps it all comes down to the budget for a basic cable TV series, or the lack of one. I’d like to see what someone with a blank check could create from the source material. Then again, that’s not even needed when the original is so perfect.
Regardless of how I feel, The Returned premieres Monday night, March 9, at 9:00/8 Central (following Bates Motel) on A&E.