Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: Two figures, beautiful, brilliant, frightening, perverse, virtually identical on the surface, set apart from one another by differences that slowly emerge until they are consumed. This description works for Doctors Beverly and Elliot Mantle, the lead characters of Dead Ringers — in both director David Cronenberg’s 1988 movie masterpiece of psychological/body horror and showrunner Alice Birch’s gender-flipped 2023 television remake for Amazon’s Prime Video (both of which are loosely based on the true story of Stewart and Cyril Marcus, twin gynecologists who died under strange circumstances). But it also describes the two versions themselves.
The miniseries that hit streaming this month is far from a remake in name only: It looks and feels much like the original, driven by many of the same aesthetic, narrative, and philosophical preoccupations. But it also stands on its own as a separate entity, bristling with its own ideas and energy. Exploring how these twinned projects are and aren’t alike is a revealing process for remake and original alike.
First, the similarities. Some are obvious, of course, starting with the lead characters, a pair of posh pioneering English gynecologists named Beverly and Elliot Mantle. Beverly is meek and dedicated, as in the original; Elliot is confident, outgoing, and enormously sexually attractive, as in the original. Additionally, many of the core themes and plotlines are carried over: addiction, obsession, deception, emotional incest, insanity, the way doctors play God with women at their most physically and emotionally vulnerable.
The trademark blood-red hospital scrubs return as well, as do several key moments and scenes: an attractive access who takes up with Beverly and comes between the twins, the initial seduction of said actress by Elliot in Beverly’s place, the swapping of one twin for another to deal with difficult patients, an emotionally fraught awards banquet, a horribly botched surgery, a final act of shared madness.
But the Birch/Weisz Dead Ringers doesn’t just recycle these elements from the Cronenberg/Irons original — it remixes them. For starters, obviously, the twins are now women (played by Rachel Weisz) rather than men (Jeremy Irons), a change that has far-reaching effects. (We’ll get to them later.) Beyond that, the twin who speaks at the fateful banquet is different, as is the nature of the speech; it’s now meek baby sister Beverly rather than alpha sibling Elliot. So is the twin who botches the surgery, and who is initially afflicted by addiction and severe mental illness, and who commits a lethal act against the other at the climax; it’s Ellie who first completely loses her shit and fucks everything up, not Bev.
The shifting role of the actress love interest is especially interesting. For one thing, her name has been changed from Claire to Genevieve — undoubtedly a tip of the hat to Geneviève Bujold, who played Claire in the original. Unlike Claire, Genevieve is a stable figure, almost to a fault. Claire was a promiscuous drug addict who got her Beverly hooked on pills; all Genevieve gets Beverly hooked on is the simple pleasure of being in love with a kind, beautiful, talented woman who loves her back. And there’s none of the phone call-mixup business that led the original Beverly to believe his actress was cheating on him, leading directly to his downward spiral. (This has always been my least favorite part of the film, even though the case of mistaken identity eventually gets cleared up.)
Kink also plays a much less prominent role, both between Beverly and Genevieve and between Beverly and Elliot. It’s true that Elliot remains the sexual dynamo of the pair, and indeed you see a lot more of Elliot’s sex life — promiscuous and often semi-public — in the show than you do in the movie.
But in the film, the actress initiates a trepidatious Beverly into the world of BDSM and medical fetishism; the sexual intensity of these acts helps drive the plot. So too does Elliot’s barely concealed incestuous desire for his brother, culminating in an incredible, taboo, extremely hot scene in which Elliot attempts to initiate a threesome with his fuckbuddy and his brother to the tune of “In the Still of the Night.” “Stay with us,” he implores a suddenly horrified Beverly. “Stay with me.” The implication is unmistakable.
Importantly, the relationship between Beverly and Genevieve is jumpstarted by Elliot in Beverly’s place, as it is in the film, but merely with a kiss, rather than with a night of passionate sex as in the film. The movie makes this a recurring feature of Ellie and Bev’s relationship, the former fucking women first to break them in for his shy baby brother to take over; the show implies that this may have happened in the past, but Elliot’s failure to fuck Genevieve is a significant source of her envy and rage.
Gone too are the iconic “gynecological devices for operating on mutant women,” the Gigeresque steel monstrosities designed by Beverly in a haze of drug-fueled delirium as he becomes convinced there’s something going wrong with all of his patients’ bodies. It takes guts to jettison arguably the most instantly recognizable visual from the film, with the exception of the red scrubs; my guess is that Birch felt the devices were too quintessentially Cronenbergian to replicate.
But the show contains much that the film lacks in turn. Simply by virtue of having to fill six hours of screentime rather than two, it paints its picture using a much broader canvas than the movie.
Cronenberg essentially presents a three-person show Elliot, Beverly, and Claire, with Elliot’s casual partner turned only real friend Cary (a deeply underrated Heidi von Palleske) playing the only significant supporting role. Birch fills the show with major players beyond the core trio, some of whom — the inhuman pharmaceutical magnate Rebecca (an incredible Jennifer Ehle), the obsessive and mysterious maid Greta Leung (Poppy Liu), the cutting and motormouthed homeless woman Agnes (Susan Blommaert), the embittered and relentless journalist Silas Jordan (Ntare Guma Mbaho Mwine), the pompous and aristocratic old-school ob/gyn Marion James (Michael McKean) — serve as borderline antagonists, adding new angles to the conflict between the twins themselves.
We also get to know their colleagues, like researcher and Elliot fanboy Tom (Michael Chernus) and dogsbody business agent Joseph (Jeremy Shamos). Patients are far more frequently given voices, even scenes, of their own. Hell, we even meet the Mantle Twins’ Mantle Parents, Alan and Linda (Kevin R. McNally and Suzanne Bertish) — a true puncturing of the claustrophobic twins-only world. None of this is present in Cronenberg’s original.
But the biggest difference by a country mile is the show’s focus on pregnancy, childbirth, and babies. In the film, the Mantles’ practice is focused solely on fertility treatments. As the twins insist, to an almost neurotic degree, their job is to help women get pregnant, period, end of discussion; they have, and want, nothing to do with what happens afterwards.
In the show, the safe, comfortable delivery of babies is Beverly’s primary professional preoccupation, to the near-exclusion of every other facet of the Mantles’ business. (The research, the experiments, the growing of fetuses in tanks, the attempts to prevent menopause, the desire to make a ton of money doing it — that’s all Elliot.) Childbirth scenes are frequent — and frequently harrowing — to a degree that makes the controversy over similar scenes in House of the Dragon seem quaint by comparison. They are presented in unflinching, graphic detail, with babies emerging from visible vaginas or being pulled from sliced-open bellies.
Most importantly, Beverly herself spends the show trying, and eventually succeeding, to get pregnant, first with Elliot’s help and then on her own. Elliot, meanwhile, grows the aforementioned fetuses-in-tanks using Beverly’s eggs, specifically to provide her sister with the children they both believed she could not carry to term on her own. The show’s horrific, enigmatic climax centers on the delivery of Bev’s babies — twins, naturally — against the backdrop of the ones created by Elliot.
In short, the show is about pregnant women, and the legal, medical, ethical, moral, and political issues that swirl around them. Needless to say, this significantly shifts the framework of the original. Jeremy Irons’s Mantle twins are misogynists who see women as both sexual playthings and medical tools against which they can sharpen their genius. The misogyny present in Rachel Weisz’s Mantle twins, as well as in characters like Rebecca and her ghoulish circle of rich women, is internalized, though it’s no less present for that.
In both versions, the female body is a commodity to be experimented with, and on, but changing the gender of who’s doing the experimenting changes almost everything else. But only the TV show expands this into a multifaceted feminist critique of the economic and political forces surrounding the issue: America’s murderous for-profit healthcare system and the women who’ve girlbossed their way to its apex; racial and class discrepancies in maternal healthcare outcomes; the fascist anti-abortion movement’s pas de deux with advances in care for premature infants; the objectification and infantilization of women during the process; and probably more I’m missing. All of this emerges naturally through story and character, which is a pretty staggering achievement in itself.
In the end, isn’t that what you want from a reboot/remake/reimagining? A project inspired by the spirit of the original, retaining key themes and recognizable details while making intriguing changes, expanding the scope and shifting the focus while still remaining true to what attracted viewers to its predecessor in the first place. Dead Ringers is the very model of a remake. It should be studied in a lab, preferably by people wearing blood-red scrubs.