Papillon As A Debate Around Freedom English Literature Essay

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The film Papillon presents a progressive dialogue of human freedom in comparison to most prison films of the twentieth-century. Released in 11th March 1973 [2] , the film credits Steve McQueen and Dustin Hoffman in the lead roles. By inviting the audience to identify with both roles; Papillon and Dega, the film diverges from classical prison plots which typically centre round the escape attempts of a sole prisoner-hero. The film Papillon, named after McQueen's character, employs Dega to present a second perspective on imprisonment rarely examined in other prison films. Who is Dega? What is his principal objective in the film? How does he perceive 'freedom' differently from Papillon and other heroes in prison films?

The script's deviations from the original novel are central to recognise the progressive nature of the film. The film extends beyond the familiar pursuit of justice by one individual to become a dialogue of how to pursue freedom.

Through comparing Dega to Papillon, the essay will examine how the film creates a polarised debate around human 'freedom'. Moreover, the essay will analyse how the film's narrative favours each side of the debate respectively. It will study both perspectives of 'freedom' as conditioned by either 'a place' or 'a journey'. It will conclude by answering whether 'freedom' applies to geographical place, a journey to a place or both.

At this point, two criticisms emerge: (1) Despite the films negation of the validity of its penal system, it is incapable of affirming 'positive' against 'negative' freedom. (2) Through the analyses of Papillon's role alone, the film falls short from being a novel narrative revolving around imprisonment.


In prison films of the twentieth-century, escaping from unjust imprisonment serves to resolve the audience's contradicting empathies towards the legitimacy of the penal system. We are asked to identify with the struggle of 'innocent' heroes who are often not guilty of the crimes they are imprisoned for, e.g. The Shawshank Redemption (1995). Or their crimes are relatively pitiful such as in Sleepers (1996), I Am a Fugitive from a Georgia Chain Gang! (1962), Cool Hand Luke (1962)and The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner(1962). [3] Despite the films maintaining that these heroes have the right to fight for their freedom, the prison's existence is contradictorily justified. Jan Alber explains that most of these narratives 'argue in favour of imprisoning the guilty' by portraying 'real' criminals that are presented as dangerous to society. [4] Prison films, thus, juxtapose between sympathy to a prisoner and the validity of the penal system by two underlining narrative techniques.

Firstly, they attempt at isolating the main identificatory figures from the rest of the prison population. These figures tend to respond to their imprisonment by becoming asocial with minimal interaction with others, e.g. Andy Dufresne in The Shawshank Redemption. Alternatively they are repeatedly and extendedly imprisoned in solitary confinement such as Robert Stroud in Birdman of Alcatraz. Secondly, 'other' prisoners in these films are presented as a permanent danger to the public, and often are guilty of several sadistic crimes in comparison to the characters we identify with. In addition, this class of prisoners rarely show any reform or remorse, underlying a 'subtle pro-prison propaganda' as prisons become instruments for serving social justice. [5] 

Isolating the main hero from the rest of the prison population, thus, enables the audience to support both contradictory premises; the hero's pursuit of personal freedom against the prison authority, and the prison's purpose of keeping dangerous criminals imprisoned. Terri Schauer [6] , similarly to Paul Mason's analysis of the prison genre in The Screen Machine [7] , reaches the conclusion that questioning the prison role in society is avoided by the 'conventional set-up of a Cowboy-hero against the prison-as-machine'. Precisely because the 'Cowboy-hero' figure serves to limit the triumph against authority to an individual's battle, and the prison, like a machine, is inculpable of the human misery suffered at prisons.

Two primary differences between the film and the original novel by Henri Charrière provide a basis for a counter reading from a typical prison narrative. Firstly, the transformation of Dega's role from a minor to a central role creates two identificatory figures for the audience. The novel, written from a first-point perspective, narrates a partially fictionalised [8] account of the writer's imprisonment in the French colonies. Out of hundreds of characters introduced in the novel, Dega's role is minor [9] in comparison to his role in the film, which was 'custom crafted' for Dustin Hoffman. [10] Rather than centring on an individual fighting authority, the narrative includes a character that submits to authority. In describing his role in the film, Hoffman states:

"Papillon is the resistor; I am the opposite of... It's interesting because I always thought of my character, though he's a criminal, a forger, he's a very conservative man he's an establishment man." [11] 

Therefore, Dega in the film is the voice of the establishment, the prison's will, antithetical to what Papillon stands for. Secondly, the film completely omits the final two chapters of the novel where Henri Charrière, or Papillon, resolves his years of imprisonment by replacing France with Venezuela; he asserts that he 'found the Venezuelans so appealing; (he) decided to join (his) fate to theirs.' [12] Instead the film settles with the final escape from Devil's Island as a resolution. The two lead roles transform the film to a polarised vision of human freedom, while the second transforms our understanding of the film from conforming to the 'prison genre' [13] to an exceptional examination of 'freedom' as a 'journey'.

The adaptation's divergence from the genre's typical focus on innocent heroes emerges from Dega's role in the film. Rather than initially relating to Papillon, the audience are more likely to sympathise with Dega. The film introduces Dega in an early scene, as his wife, a well-dressed rich woman motions farewell. This indicates Dega's wealth to the other prisoners which soon makes him the target of opportunistic prisoners in the transportation ship. Hoffman's frail looks, emphasised by large round glasses, invites us to sympathise with his struggle for survival. His physical inferiority is stressed throughout the film, engaging our attentive side in a mother-child like relationship.

Through the combination of an external threat and physical powerlessness, Dega's objective is reduced to survival alone. This leads to him agreeing to form a survival pact with Papillon in which Papillon would 'keep (him) alive', and Dega would provide the financial means for 'any escape (Papillon) care(s) to arrange'. [14] On being asked on how long he wants to live, Dega answers that he wants to live for 'a long time' and he states that he has no 'intention of even attempting an escape ... ever'. [15] Similarly, in the novel Papillon offers to protect Dega from 'the other cons' while imprisoned in France in return of 'dough'. [16] Hoffman's character, child-like and incapable of defending himself physically, requires the existence of external forces to provide him with security. Therefore, the film starts by placing the viewer and Papillon in a similar protective relationship of Dega.

Still, Dega and Papillon's relationship extends beyond a mutual exchange of money and protection. Throughout the film they develop a lifelong friendship while maintaining contrasting judgements on their imprisonment. While Papillon refuses to submit to society, Dega depends upon society for his survival. Both the film and the novel present Dega as a clever man; he constantly finds ways to benefit from the flaws in the system for his own advantage. The novel explains that, prior to imprisonment; Dega made millions by forging National Defence bonds. [17] Dega's plans to live a long time involve paying for the 'close physical protection' of Papillon until they arrive at the colonies 'with bribe-able guards'. [18] When Papillon returns from solitary confinement, he asks Dega how he got out of the 'kilo' [19] , to which Dega answers that 'It was the rankest sort of corruption' in which he buys the Warden a new house. [20] Dega's potency, in prison and real-life alike, relies on exploiting a system, to which he also submits, which is in sharp contrast to Papillon's struggle for autonomy.

Both characters' physical attributes are symbolic manifestations of their objectives in searching for 'freedom'. Papillon's physical strength represents his search for complete self-assertion, while Dega's physical weakness becomes a metaphor for his dependency on a social structure. Consequently, the film presents two arguments for resolving imprisonment: (1) Papillon's relentless fight for complete autonomy, and (2) Dega's compliance with the inevitability of social authority. Both can be understood through two contrasting notions of 'freedom'.

First, one needs to attend to Dega's notion of 'freedom' as an externally governed state that is conditioned by the idea of 'place'. The film presents Dega as constantly awaiting to secure his release. His sole concern, survival, assures his end goal of returning to France and his 'beautiful' wife; representations of the circumstances that preside over his 'freedom'. He declines to join Papillon on a second attempt as his 'wife is arranging for (his) release' but that 'a letter from her is overdue', clearly refusing to take control of his own destiny. [21] The 'freedom' Dega strives for in this sense is not a 'positive' freedom; or the presence of his own will to obtain his liberty, as he is constantly subjected to the presence of external authority. It is interesting that the external agents, his wife and lawyer, who provide Dega with the hope of 'freedom', are geographically remote in France. France, his homeland and original point of departure, becomes his destination after what he perceives as an eminent release. Contrary to Papillon's logic, Dega's follows a binary differentiation between France and French Guinea as 'freedom' and 'incarceration'. To explain, Dega's freedom is subject to the absence of 'external impediments to (his) will'. [22] He lacks an internal conviction to his right to self-sovereignty, and therefore accepts and relies on the presence of authority, additionally; he lacks the imagination of other possible conditions. Consequently, his 'freedom' is subject to two options; France and French Guinea, and therefore 'freedom' is in France rather than French Guinea.

The first half of the movie seems to favour Dega's premise while denying Papillon any positive outcome for his attempts at escape or self-autonomy. Dega speaks with confidence of how his wife 'convinced certain members of the Ministry of Justice that (his) sentence was a bit harsh'. Additionally, while the viewer is presented with Papillon's torment in solitary confinement, Dega manages to secure a good job in prison. At this point, we have a firsthand experience of Papillon's dilemma, which is presented by the warden in his introductory speech to the prison:

"Welcome to the Penal Colony of French Guiana whose prisoners you are and from which there is no escape... Make the best of what we offer you and you will suffer less than you deserve." [23] 

By attempting an "escape" he subjects himself to severe punishments, adding 'two years in solitary to (his) existing sentences. [24] Despite the punishment, Papillon sees escape as the only means to 'freedom' and is constantly deliberating such escape. In the original novel, however, Charrière is constantly deliberating revenge while imprisoned in France, and once he escapes he would 'make it back to Paris' in order to kill all the 'informers' that have placed him in prison. [25] He states:

"Inside me I carried my life, my road to revenge. For that's what was on my mind. Revenge. That's all that was, in fact." [26] 

Therefore, in the novel Papillon's primary purpose, revenge, is simultaneous to his freedom, and the object of his revenge is figures of authority - external forces that caused his imprisonment. Papillon's personal revenge against individuals is hinted on in the in the film in which Dega tells of how Papillon 'had the bad taste to tell the prosecutor (he) was going to escape and kill him, too.' [27] Otherwise, the film's treatment of Papillon deemphasizes personal revenge as a motive for escape; instead, similarly to other prison films, escape and revenge become identical. Papillon, or the prisoner-hero, symbolically defeats the system's absolute tyranny by a successful escape or even by just attempting an escape. The archetype of this hero is one who is fighting for asserting absolute control over his destiny, thus, by escaping he seizes to be the property of the prison, and by extension any other authority. [28] Papillon's motivations for freedom in the novel and the movie are internalised; e.g. revenge, yet the efforts to subdue his right for 'freedom' are external. Therefore, every escape becomes a testimony of his 'free-will', and a successful one is a prevailing resolution over authority.

Despite the film's preferential treatment in the first half of 'negative' freedom, voiced by Dega, it ultimately reverses our focus from Dega's to Papillon's pursuit of freedom. The film initiates resolving Papillon's paradoxical 'freedom' by employing several narrative techniques. Initially, the film's analysis of pursuing a 'positive' freedom is characterized by severe punishments for little outcome. For example, Papillon's ordeal in solitary confinement nearly impels him to give in to authority. [29] More importantly, this intense focus on Papillon also functions in drifting our attention from Dega, and the prison as a whole, to Papillon's individuality.

Rejected by France, 'Reclusion' comes to represent a further isolation from the main prison population. [30] The camera introduces the 'hole' through an overhead shot, crossing from behind an elevated guard to focus on Papillon in his new cell. Blandford et al. identify this camera position with the implication of "fate or entrapment", [31] which becomes a battle scenario for Papillon's independence and self-determination against the prison's regime of recursive punishment. The architecture of a solitary cell becomes the representation of a 'prison-within-the-prison', [32] where punishment, imprisonment and authority are twice intensified, bringing the narrative to focus on Papillon's struggle to maintain his convictions. Isolated in a dark cell, imprisonment is reduced to mirror Papillon's self, and particularly here the film exposes Papillon's internal conflicts which are manifested in dreams or hallucinations as possible resolutions to his being. For example, in a dream Papillon admits to being guilty of 'a wasted life', to which the judge responds 'the penalty for that is death.' [33] But when he is on the verge of dying, he hallucinates of a victorious return to France with Dega, symbolised by French flags and a musical band. At this point, he visualizes running towards Julot and a dead young man, except he awakes upon realising that he is meeting "death". He responds, 'You're dead' figuratively declining both the triumphant return to France and death. [34] Therefore, in solitary confinement, Papillon demonstrates that his 'freedom' is not threatened by social alienation, food deprivation or even dying and he rejects mortality, society [35] and purposeful living as resolutions to his life. Alone, alive while leading a worthless existence to society; time in 'solitary' renders Papillon as the paradigm of an autonomous ego in control of its own existence. And by this, his sole objective in the rest of the film is reduced to maintaining his sovereignty over his own life. To summarize, the film employs the first sentence in 'Reclusion' as a device to centre our attention and answer some of Papillon's predicaments surrounding 'freedom'. On the other hand, Dega becomes secondary to the narrative, to which the 'coconuts' act as occasional reminders to his role.

Despite the film's new focus, it delays switching its preference from Dega's 'freedom' to a later point in the narrative; a meeting in the prison's courtyard. A dialogue between the two protagonists marks out the collision between the two freedoms; Papillon's and Dega's, the 'positive' and the 'negative', internalised stimuli and externally enforced consent. At this point, Papillon is preparing a second escape during a concert, to which Dega is serving 'refreshments'. He attempts at convincing Dega to join him on a second escape attempt, not for the prospects of returning to France but for the value of escape in itself. When Dega refuses to join Papillon as his wife will secure his release, Papillon challenges him with the fact that his wife would pay nothing to get him back. He concludes that that's the reason 'why (Dega) should run... while (he's) got a chance', but Dega answers, 'But I have a chance without running.' [36] The turning point is when Papillon confronts Dega's ideology with the films seminal statement:

"Me, they can kill... You, they own."

'Running' is the metaphor of an internally motivated act which signifies 'positive' freedom [37] , and only by running, the new 'freedom' is attainable. 'They' are external entities, 'others', that threaten to subdue Papillon's freedom but coerce Dega's course of actions. 'Can' signifies the possibility of Papillon being killed, while they 'own' Dega in a definitive implication. Between the definitive and the possible, the film abets Papillon's 'freedom' and foreshadows the film's resolutions.

Defining this central motif as the turning point is also supported by the narrative's transition from events inside the prison to external adventures on the coastal line of the French colonies. The cinematography also crosses between depicting the dark internal conditions of incarceration to filming the scenic shores and jungles of South America.

This point, in turn, marks the transition in the narrative's focus from incarceration to the prospects of freedom. Following and prior to this, the film is characterized by two escape attempts each resulting in a solitary confinement. As a punishment for a futile and short lived escape, we witness the immediate impact of the first confinement in gruesome details, at which Papillon is exhibited like an animal, crawling on the floor for protection and reduced to consuming insects for survival. On the second attempt, however, the camera ventures with Papillon, Dega and Maturette to the sea, and with Papillon to Venezuela and the primitive village, but cuts directly to his release after his second arrest and time in solitary. By avoiding filming the second confinement in favour of scenes of temporary freedom, the narrative and the cinematography correlate to an alternative message of 'freedom-as-a-journey'. And with the majority of the events and incidents, thereafter, happening at sea and through landscapes outside the prison walls, the film yet again transforms the notion of 'freedom' from fixed points in cells and prisons to 'journeys' across South America. The 'positive' freedom in the wilderness versus 'negative' freedom in the interior spaces of prisons become 'contrary opposites' on two sides of the real and metaphorical prison 'wall'. [38] 

Papillon's new found freedom in the film, contrary to Dega's and Papillon's in the novel, is not conditioned by external circumstances, nor is it conditioned by the notion of 'place'. He does not associate this 'freedom' to returning to France but with travel vessels; a boat or a sack of coconuts. He asks Dega for 'a boat' instead of the prospect of getting out of jail in three years. He responds, 'Too long', which seems naive when Dega offers to bribe a witness in Papillon's case to 'change his story', and indeed his second attempt lands him in 'Reclusion' for five years. But by constantly and repeatedly attempting an escape, Papillon retaliates against authority to confirm his sole sovereign over his fate which manifests itself in the form of travel adventures. Nevertheless, the condition to Papillon's freedom, to triumph over any authority's effort to suppress his individuality, can only be resolved by rejecting any 'place'.

In the second escape, the travel vessels, or 'boat's, Papillon is searching for increasingly morph to embody this rejection of 'place'; a cracked boat, a bamboo raft, a sailboat and eventually a sack of coconuts. The cracked boat, stationary and immobile, is fixed in place signifying the broken dreams of floating to 'freedom'. The bamboo raft floats but requires propelling by thrusting a pole against the bottom of the river, yet again earth-bound. Propelled by the wind, the sail boat finally gains self-sufficient power. The final resolution is manifested in 'bags of coconuts tied together' and with which Papillon would 'just drift with the current.' [39] The coconut raft became a self-contained entity; a piece of land, floating in the sea and as the novel explains, 'the pulp (of the coconuts) would take care of thirst as well as hunger.' [40] 

The travel vessels start from the ship - raft - boat - coconut sack

The ship's treatment of the movie is a place as well as a ship, its a prison within the prison but also a prison in the dual sense of ship-prison. It's both and either? Is it both and or? But it is commitment to geographical ports is strong.

The raft accommodates three, and made out of bamboo and needs the pulling. Its flatness and the weakness as a travel vessel renders it land like slow and short reaching.

A boat, longer journey and self propelling, internally powered, it is a boat and not a floating land


The reasons supporting that its not place its a journey:

The travel vessels become smaller and smaller

The times in the hole becomes shorter in depiction - even the prison is a journey

The stops and events are not essential elements but added on as signals of possible 'memorization'

The implication is therefore that Papillon is a travel narrative and we can plot these on a geographical map. Is circularity implied?

Papillon does not conform to the same evasion techniques; rather it fully refutes the penal system it addresses, which might be explained by the film's distinct context. The film's rejection of the penal colonies is stated clearly in the final scenes, which show the actual prisons of French Guiana in a state of ruin after their disposal. The architectural ruins become symbolic of the defeated establishment, as a narrator presents the following statement:

"Papillon made it to freedom.

And for the remaining years of his life he lived a free man.

This, the infamous penal system in French Guiana, did not survive him." [41] 

Mainstream British and American prison films in the twentieth -century stop short of such open rejection of the penal systems they address. Despite the hero's triumph in his struggle against authority, such as in Birdman of Alcatraz, The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner and The Shawshank Redemption,┬áthe penal establishments themselves are implied to continue. [42] A major difference being that the majority of these films deal with existing forms of penalisation, namely the modern prison, while Papillon addresses the French penal colonies in French Guiana. Situated on the north coast of South America, the first transportation of convicts to French Guinea took place in 1852 and came to a halt in 1952. [43] The remote context of the film; a distant geography and a foreign past, helps explain part of the liberty in which the film denounces support of the French Guiana's prisons. Simultaneously, Papillon's objective in the film follows a new agenda; not solely to escape or evade authority but to defeat it.

Link Dega to place and then discover how the changes in Papillon's understanding of freedom brings a new understanding of journey.

The turning point

Papillon is after a journey:

(1)When he's asked by Dega what he wants... he says he wants a boat

(2) he is guilty of a wasted life? A life that has no purpose? No object of its purpose

(3) when asked by the nun how would you use your freedom he answers that he hasn't though about that yet

Papillon's search for freedom is internally motivated and conditioned by the journey to freedom not the place where freedom takes place; Dega's freedom is governed externally and conditioned by place or the society at which it happens.

The Ship as a Prison - The escape vessel 1 - Escape Vessel 2 -The beans

Prison 1- Extended time in the hole 1 - extended time in the hole 2

Characteristics: (1) the vessels become smaller (2) the prison time despite being larger becomes smaller in representation

Retrospective understanding: (1) the ships are not places but journeys - They are moving points between one point to the next (2) the prisons themselves are not places but journeys

The Film as a place

Arguments regarding freedom:


Freedom is impossible; therefore the best one could do is constantly striving towards it or find peace by accepting their endless imprisonments.

Is it possible to argue that freedom itself is a journey?

1. The neutrality of being on a journey between two nodes 2. Freedom from the place you're at but governed by a secondary authority of the places you've been and the places you're heading and direction and speed you move at.

One can resolve both premises. Either once moving is a possible freedom or moving is not enough because it is still governed by something. And as nothing is completely static. Then one is journeying faster is either more free or closer to freedom.

Establish the difference between the film and other prison films

Two point 2. Ending

The first creates two voices the second rejects the notion of place

The argument that's left is freedom is not bound to place but is rendered as a journey.