Playwright James Goldman's "The Lion in Winter" bombed when it premiered on Broadway in 1966 with its depiction of a tense but funny 12th century yuletide family reunion headed by King Henry II and his estranged wife, Eleanor of Aquitaine.
A 1968 big-screen adaptation starring Katharine Hepburn and Peter O'Toole was a smash, however, raking in a box-office fortune and earning Oscars for best actress Hepburn, Goldman (for adapting his own play) and John Barry for his musical score, along with additional nominations for O'Toole, director Anthony Harvey and the overall best picture award.
In fact, "Lion" ranks among the top 250 movies of all time at the Internet Movie Database, as determined by online voters.
That's why Patrick Stewart, the executive producer and star of a new Showtime production using Goldman's original screenplay, anticipates the big question even before an interviewer asks it.
"Why remake it?" Stewart asks rhetorically about the new version, which will be shown Sunday, with Glenn Close in the role of Eleanor of Aquitaine.
"When you have a fine piece of writing, an outstanding script such as this one, it is something that demands to be revisited," Stewart says. "Fine work can always be reinterpreted. When something is ordinary, very often there is only one way of doing it. But if it is complex and rich, as James Goldman's script is, there are always alternative interpretations. We strongly felt this was such a screenplay, with many options for re-exploring."
The Showtime version, directed by Andrei Konchalovsky ("Runaway Train"), takes a little getting used to in its idiosyncratic differences from the 1968 classic, but its more intimate explorations of this royally dysfunctional family is satisfying in its own right.
After a new prologue depicting Eleanor's last campaign against Henry with sons Richard (Andrew Howard) and Geoffrey (John Light), the Goldman screenplay unfolds in familiar style, charting the vehement power plays between Henry and Eleanor during a Christmas reunion when Henry's favorite, youngest son, John (Rafe Spall), and his beautiful lover, Alais (Julia Vysotsky), are pawns, along with Alais' visiting brother, Philip II of France (Jonathan Rhys-Meyers).
Still vital at 63, Stewart casts a distinctly older impression as Henry compared to O'Toole, throwing into relief the character's central conflict.
"Part of the despair of this character is that he comes to understand that while you may be the most powerful man in Europe, you cannot rule from the grave," Stewart explains. "He hears a ticking clock, and he cannot have peace of mind while the future of his kingdom is uncertain. He doesn't want to fight anymore, so he is struggling to find a rapprochement in this family, one that he can also swallow -- and there's the rub!"
Eleanor has a different set of priorities during this forced reunion, Close says, something heartbreakingly personal.
"Eleanor's primary motivation is to get Henry back," Close says. "She loves him. It's 'can't live with him, can't live without him' to the nth degree. This is such a great piece, and it tells such a great love story.
"To me, there are kind of intimations of 'Dangerous Liaisons,' with these two people who are really meant for each other if life had done its work. Underneath all the cruelty and the taunting and the politics lies the unshakable fact that these two characters cannot [stop loving] one another."
Unfortunately, this family feud between Henry and Eleanor comes at a steep price for the younger characters in the piece, none more so than Geoffrey, the conniving middle son. Light gives a fascinating performance in this fiendishly difficult role, but Close confesses that she is appalled by the way Eleanor and Henry exploited their children so methodically.
"The tragedy of this family is that Richard is right when he says that the children have been used as pawns," the actress says. "There's that tragic moment between Henry and Richard in Philip's bedroom when ... you realize how cruel Eleanor has been in sending [Richard] to Philip, to get at Henry.
"Eleanor raised Richard, and Henry doted on John, but poor Geoffrey was the capable yet ignored middle son. Johnny [Light] does an amazing job of making you feel that character's very deep hurt."
"We wanted to make a serious attempt to present what 12th century life in France was like for the most powerful couple in Europe," Stewart says, summing up the approach of the creative team. "We wanted to give it a grittiness, a real sense of people living their lives. The original movie, fine though it was, was rather like a costume drama, actors in fancy dress.
"We also thought that we could bring out more of the comedy in Goldman's screenplay, which is brilliantly funny. That's part of the richness of these characters, that even in the most horrible situations, they can find some ironic twist on the situation. The whole family, not just Eleanor and Henry, have a view of themselves in this story which is beautifully comic and ironic at times."
While some viewers may resist any departures from the admittedly grand production that was "The Lion in Winter" circa 1968, others will embrace the abundant pleasures of this new presentation, a lavish (for television), passionate depiction of a story that deserves retelling on a regular basis.
John Crook writes for Tribune Media Services.
"The Lion in Winter" will be shown at 7:30 p.m. Sunday on Showtime and is rated TV14-DLSV (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 14, with advisories for suggestive dialogue, coarse language, sex and violence).
The cover photograph is by Egon Endrenyi.