Finding myself unsatisfied with the partially completed U.S. version of The Returned, I started in with the French version. While The Returned was removed from Netflix streaming, Les Revenants remains available.
At this stage, I am just wrapping up the first season. To a point, the stories track each other nearly identically, so there is little in the way of surprises. Within the first six episodes, while the story remains the same, there are small differences in the details between the two versions and I think many of those differences are enlightening.
One obvious fact up-front is that they are all different actors. In some cases, there is a strong resemblance between the original French actor and the American (mostly) actor chosen for the A&E series. This, however, is the exception, not the rule. What is consistent is that the American actors are, in almost all cases*, much prettier people than the corresponding French actors. It’s not that the French actors are actually ugly – they are probably still better-looking than the population as a whole – its just that they look more “average.” There is something to be said for this. It is strange enough that there is this small town that has its dead returning from the grave. What are the odds that it is also populated by the most beautiful residents this side of Hollywood? On the other hand, we in the U.S. have got pretty used to watching beautiful faces when we zone out in front of the TV for an evening. Is that really so wrong? In any case, to Americans it is probably the French actors that look not quite right, not the overly-beautiful Americans.
Once I got over that, I began to notice other little differences in the story line. In almost every case that nuance added to the story (or took away, given that the American version is the derivative one). As an example, one of the returned, Simon, seeks out the woman he was to marry before he died. After his death, she moved on, at least for the most part. As the series starts up, she is about to marry the chief of the police (a County Sheriff in the American version and a Captain in the Gendarmerie in the French). Said chief attempts to pin murders on Simon, first to keep him away from his fiancee and, later, to justify his shooting the unarmed Simon near (or in, depending on the version) his home. In the American version, finds himself unable to pay for lunch (and the dead, you should know, are always hungry), Simon is guilty of a dine-and-dash. In the French version, Simon viciously assaulted the manager at a diner upon said manager’s refusal to sell him something suitable for the change he has in his pocket. The French crime creates a plausible deniability for our Captain; the known assailant in an assault would, indeed, be a top suspect in another, unsolved, assault. It also poses a question about whether Simon lacks the humanity, after his return, that he had before he died. This is just an example of many small changes, many of which point in this same direction. The French version seems to involve more consistent expression of these themes as well as, honestly, making a little more logical sense.
By Episode 7, however, the two stories depart from each other in major ways. I can no longer hold out the hope that the French series will answer the questions left open by the unfinished American series. It seems clear that, whatever answers are to be had, they will be different between the two. On the original French track it is again this focus on particular themes that would set it apart. The “zombie” genre themes are there; us versus the other and what makes us human and them inhuman seem to be more important in the French. The breakdown of polite society and the survival thereof is also introduced. There also seems to be more importance attached to the meaning of the returns, even if they remain a mystery to the viewer.
Another apparent theme, at least to my American eyes, is the nature of the surveillance State. In both versions, a key plot element is that fact that the police chief has placed surreptitious video cameras in his house to watch his girlfriend/fiancée when he is not home. In the French, version, however, the police also have public cameras throughout the town, manned constantly by police officers. They police can track the comings and goings of anyone they want at any time they want, and yet have trouble finding and catching certain “criminals,” who also happen to be the returned dead. Is this element part of the show because it is normal to have constant surveillance in every small town in France? Or is this a statement about the nature of the police state and its dehumanizing effects? Or is, perhaps, the “eye in the sky” an allegory for something else? Without understand French life in the twenty-teens, I don’t think I can answer that question. Unless it becomes more explicit in Season 2.
With the American version having ended without having gone anywhere particular, it is difficult to compare and contrast. For the most part, the pieces of the French version that A&E left out seem to have detracted from the experience rather than streamlined it. On the other hand, getting away from the more traditional “zombie” aspects of the original should be worth something. Aren’t we all starting to get a little zombied out? Maybe, but let us see where the French series takes us, shall we?
*An exception to the rule that I’ll remark upon is that the “Lena” actress (the present-day Lena) has grown up to be better looking, and better looking than her younger-self. In the A&E version I, at least, found her less so. It seems important to the story that she actually grew up to be beautiful rather than just have that something that her sister says to her. Then again, beauty may be in the eye of the beholder; others may find the American Lena to be more attractive than I did.