Wednesday, August 17, 2022

Recasting 1986 (supporting): "The Clan of the Cave Bear"

I warned readers at the start of this supporting recasting project that some of my choices were going to be a bit obscure. My pick for 1986 is one that I suspect few, if any, would've ever guessed. But I seemed to have had this movie in mind rather early on in my selection process. And while it may leave many of you scratching your heads, I'll make an argument for while it would've been a fascinating take for Meryl. 

The Clan of the Cave Bear is the first novel in author Jean M. Auel's Earth's Children series, which depicts interactions between early modern humans and our close relatives, Neanderthals. While I never read the books, I can remember distinctly as a child being drawn to the story of Ayla, a Cro-Magnon girl who is adopted by a clan of Neanderthals somewhere around 30,000 years ago. The draw was less about Ayla herself as a character, but the world. The world that was so long ago that it seemed and still seems like a fantasy. Films around the same time like Legend, The NeverEnding Story and Willow conjured a similar feeling--perhaps naturally, as they're all fantasy films. But I always knew that Neanderthals weren't puppets or fairies or flying pink dragons. They were real. Evidence of their existence remains today. We could hold them in our hands. And it was the first time that I can remember watching an entire film that keenly attempted to showcase what it was like for people in times earlier than my brain is capable of comprehending or contextualizing. 

Daryl Hannah stars as Ayla in the film version, directed by Michael Chapman (All the Right Moves). As a young girl, Ayla is separated from her mother during an earthquake. She is found by Iza (Meryl's recasted character, originally portrayed by Pamela Reed), the sort of medicine woman of a Neanderthal clan. Despite protests from her brother Creb and others, Iza takes Ayla into their clan. It's sort of a big deal for them, as Ayla is clearly one of the "others," meaning a modern human. This spells trouble at times, as Ayla's seemingly superior intellect tends to antagonize some members of the clan. Worrying that Ayla will struggle to find a mate, Iza trains Ayla in her healing ways.    

By today's standards, the costumes and makeup almost look a bit silly. But for almost forty years ago, it's not bad, in fact having earned an Oscar nom for makeup. It has to be said that this film did very poorly with critics and the box office. It's always perplexed me a bit, even as I watch the film again as an adult. There's a quote on Wikipedia taken from The Encyclopedia of Fantasy that reads: 

It is hard to see why TCOTCB has drawn such critical contempt, unless for its tacit feminism: although the narration is overexpository and the equation of mental versatility with leggy blonde Cro-Magnons, as opposed to shabby Neanderthals, is a cliché, the movie is beautifully shot, well scripted and finely acted.

I tend to agree with this sentiment. One thing I find interesting about the film's story is that the interactions among the clan, and even among the clan and "others" isn't all that different than how modern life is in regard to class and group identity. Recent studies suggest that Neanderthals were likely closer in intelligence to modern humans than is historically perceived or depicted. That long-held assumption is of course perpetuated for the most part in this film, with Ayla being better at math as a child, finding the clan a cave, and figuring out a way to survive after giving birth all alone in harsh conditions. So while the comparisons between the two groups may not actually be accurate, the relationships Ayla develops are no different than any adoptive mother and daughter or sister would be nowadays. 

One has to admit, playing a Neanderthal would be unlike any character Meryl has come close to playing. Iza is a complex woman in her own right. And even for a character existing 30,00 years ago, having her own "profession," she's a person of importance with some independence in her community, which carries its own sort of feminist sentiment which I feel Meryl would've appreciated. There's of course the language (made up of course) that is a combination of signs and verbal communication, which I always enjoy watching Meryl tackle. 

It's difficult not to draw comparisons to this film with one released five years earlier, Quest for Fire. Both attempt to tackle the tricky task of depicting a prehistoric culture of our early ancestors. While Quest was far-better reviewed and did better financially, it's not without its criticisms. One being that historically it's absurd that there would be multiple species of early human of varying degrees of evolutionary advancement all living within close proximity of each other at the exact same time. But the premise works greatly in making us ponder the world at a time like that. While I concede that Quest is the better film, this inability to avoid wanting to examine our origins was something I experienced in watching both films. I would've loved to see The Clan of the Cave Bear directed with a vision just as clear and with execution just as consistent as the former. Still, I maintain that it's worth a watch. 


  1. Following my usual declaration, I have neither seen nor heard of this movie Jeff! What an usual and interesting choice :)

    My 1986 pic will be the damsel in distress Sue in the classic comedy "Crocodile Dundee"! Although technically a co-star, the actress was bumped to supporting contention for awards consideration. Still a family favourite for us and a great success

    1. Oh wow I haven't seen Crocodile Dundee in ages! Such an 80s movie. Great choice!

    2. One of my favourite choices you made for the reimagined Lead project was "Romancing The Stone" which just clicked so perfectly for me! "Crocodile" is in that vein too, a fun action picture with some great lines and interesting locations!

      In my comment I meant to say "unusual choice" for your selection :)