Opera Meets Film: How the Murder’s Portrayal Alters the Emotional Impact of Both Versions of ‘Dead Man Walking’

By David Salazar
(Credit Javier del Real / Gramercy Pictures)

“Opera Meets Film” is a feature dedicated to exploring the way that opera has been employed in cinema. We will select a section or a film in its entirety, highlighting the impact that utilizing the operatic form or sections from an opera can alter our perception of a film that we are viewing. This week’s installment features “Dead Man Walking.”

Over the last few years, Jake Heggie and Terrence McNally’s “Dead Man Walking” has become a major staple of the international opera repertory, one of the few 21st century operas to really own such a valuable distinction.

And it isn’t hard to see why. Based on a true story, the opera tells the story of a nun, Sister Helen, who connects with a murderer on death row (Joseph DeRocher), helping him to have a spiritual awakening. Themes of love, faith, and forgiveness provide ample bandwidth for operatic treatment.

But the story had been previously adapted into a film years early when Tim Robbins directed a cast headlined by Susan Sarandon as Sister Helen and Sean Penn as Matthew Poncelet. It is an interesting experiment seeing how these two artforms so differently approach a story that they uniformly follow almost beat for beat.

That’s not an exaggeration by the way. Unlike other film vs. opera adaptations where the source material is manipulated in different ways to suit different thematic opportunities, both “Dead Man Walking” adaptations follow the very same path narratively (both works are seen very restricted narratives from Sister Helen’s point-of-view, limiting what the audience knows) hitting the same beats along the way albeit in different manners to suit the different artforms.

There is one exception – the murder. And it makes all the difference in how we experience both works.

The Murder

The opera starts off with the murder as its overture showing the audience unambiguously how Joe and his brother rape and murder a couple of teenagers. The audience immediately knows what happens, setting up the conflict in a very different light than how the film approaches it.

The film waits to introduce the murder until Helen sees Matthew for the first time. And when she gets the facts on it, Matthew insists that he is innocent. The film is playing three important cards here that are worth reflecting on.

First off, the film stars Susan Sarandon who was seen as America’s everyday mother figure; audiences had seen her as Abigail March a year earlier in “Little Women” among other similar roles that expressed her qualities as the all-good heroine. The film needed to make audiences connect with her and justify that this woman would be willing to side with such a monster. If we know that he’s a monster straight up, it undercuts the ability to connect with her character on a subconscious level; it doesn’t fit into the character archetype people have built of Sarandon through her onscreen personas.

But Susan Sarandon defending a potentially innocent man? That is not only something audiences can definitely get on board with (Heggie and Scheer don’t have to worry about the bias of onscreen personas because music tells us everything we need to know about the character. As such, Sister Helen first appears singing a hymn that will bookend the opera, expressing her purity and moral goodness right away).

Secondly, the film’s choice serves an essential  thematic function as it asks questions about the death penalty and whether it is right or wrong to commit it. The opera asks the question, but doesn’t explore it quite as fully as the film does (then again the opera’s thematic interests lie in a more spiritual pursuit).

Thirdly, it serves a narrative function that affects how audiences experience the other two points mentioned. The choice to withhold the information of Matthew’s guilt or innocence leaves the audience in suspense with a lot of questions, allowing for more narrative longevity as Helen seeks to find out the truth and save his life. If he is innocent, then we feel the ticking clock as the hearing approaches and he runs out of time on death row. We care more about him. Every minute in the story counts. As such, the film’s first half becomes about saving Matthew’s life before shifting to saving his soul in its second half when Helen is elected as his spiritual advisor for his final days on death row.

The opera is never about saving Joe’s life with Helen’s mission to be a spiritual advisor for the man’s upcoming death firmly established very early on. He does have a hearing in the opera that could change the tides, as he does in the film, but the event is never built up the way it is in the film’s version. And in many ways, the audience’s experience with Joe is more ambiguous. Joe’s music, which is ragged and rhythmic, comes off as aggressive, but full of pain. That’s not to say that you never empathize with his plight, but we never quite love him as much as the film so openly asks us to align emotionally with Matthew.

As such, the film is deeply human in its purpose and impact, while the opera operates on deeply spiritual level.

And when the two men eventually confess, the revelation has differing impacts.

Differing Impacts

Joe’s revelation is violent, the music crescendoing as he narrates how he gave into his sexual drive and the embarrassment of feeling rejected by another woman. Once he’s admitted his crime, Heggie’s music erupts with lyricism, transforming the incessant leitmotif (a personification of fate that permeates the opera) into melodic rapture; it almost feels like a massive release of tension that has dominated the music of the opera. It’s a transformative moment in the opera and a payoff to something the audience has been waiting for all along not only narratively, but even musically with that leitmotif that opened the opera and has returned time and again in haunting fashion. In this musical and narrative light, redemption feels very real for Joe. The music expresses the spiritual transformation.

This is only furthered in the ensuing scene when Joe is to walk to his death. The two versions depict the same imagery of Helen holding onto the murderer, but in the film it really highlights the bond between these disparately different people, uniting them emotionally in this moment.

But the opera does something more momentous. As they walk to the big moment, Heggie orchestrates a massive choral passage centered on the prayer “Our father who art in heaven .” All the major characters joins the Father Grenville in reciting the prayer, the music building to an apotheosis. But layered over that recitation is a separate hymn – “Do not be afraid, I am with you,” sung by Helen to Joe.  The impact is breathtaking, adding to the sense of transcendence going on not only for Joe in this moment, but for all the characters, who are united as one voice in prayer. As such, this moment gives Helen a sense of fulfillment in her mission to bring some degree of solace and unity to all affected by the murder.

Conversely, the film’s revelation, in keeping with its intimate nature, is far more subdued in its portrayal, but more painful for the audience to bear in some respects because as noted Robbins works very hard to make the audience become attached to Matthew. We spend a lot of time with him throughout. We see him at his worst when he makes racist comments on television, but then we see him feel guilty and stupid about it. We also get a chance to see him with his family at his very best. This is crucial also to the film’s aim as the idea of losing Matthew underlines the questions of whether he deserves to die via legal injection. We shouldn’t want to see him die. And if this is in fact the case, then we need to question not whether what he did was right or wrong (the film never questions that), but whether his punishment is.

His confession is thus offered up as a moment of utmost tragedy.

Tragedy because the viewer is seeing the entire scene through Helen’s perspective, the camera cutting to pointed closeups of Sarandon’s Oscar-winning performance, the relief and anguish on her face simultaneously as Penn’s Matthew confesses. We feel the relief of the truth through her. But then we feel the pain through Penn’s performance as he cries his way through the confession, disappointed in himself for how’s he messed up his own life. And all the while, you wish you could give this guy, this murderer, a hug and release him from the fate he’s about to endure.

Helen also sings the same hymn, but its only for Matthew, bringing comfort on a deeply interpersonal level. This moment is only for the two of them.

For the audience this scene is full of contrasting emotions, but like the opera there is a sense of release, albeit of a different kind of emotional tension.

To punctuate it all, the film finally reveals the murder in its true form while Matthew is being injected.  We see Matthew in his most monstrous moment contrasted with him in the most vulnerable, almost like the poor teenagers he killed. The film is almost asking, isn’t the execution of this criminal as horrifying as the murder of these two teens? Moreover, the music, a vocalise, gives us a similarly ambiguous feeling about the entire experience as it is both mournful and yet transcendent.

Contrast that with how the opera musically describes the murder – for the first time in the work, Heggie turns to pure silence; four measures of prolonged rests. In opera, silence is also music. And it expresses a tremendous void for the listener, matching the film’s own sense of loss when Matthew dies. But then Helen’s hymn enters, providing respite for the lost soul, giving him, maybe, another chance in a better place.

In the end, both manage a similar poignant impact in very different ways.


Opera Meets Film