Who Played It Better: 10 Literary Roles Filled by Multiple Actors


Now that the ever-so-eagerly anticipated David Fincher adaptation of Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is out in theaters, fans of Stieg Larsson’s trilogy have had the chance to see how Fincher’s take stacks up — not just against the books, but against the previous Swedish film version, and more specifically in the representation of iconic heroine Lisbeth Salander. The role was played in the original films by Noomi Rapace (currently appearing in Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows); for the American films, Rooney Mara takes over.

Who’s better in the role? It’s a tricky question — and one that comes up every time multiple actors take their turns playing a beloved literary character. The critics have weighed in on who plays Lisbeth better, but after the jump, we’ll take a look at ten previous cases of “different actor, same role.”

ROLE: James Bond WHO PLAYED IT: Sean Connery (Dr. No, From Russia with Love, Goldfinger, Thunderball, You Only Live Twice, Diamonds are Forever, Never Say Never Again), David Niven (Casino Royale, 1967 version) George Lazenby (On Her Majesty’s Secret Service), Roger Moore (Live and Let Die, The Man with the Golden Gun, The Spy Who Loved Me, Moonraker, For Your Eyes Only, Octopussy, A View to a Kill), Timothy Dalton (The Living Daylights, License to Kill), Pierce Brosnan (Goldeneye, Tomorrow Never Dies, The World is Not Enough, Die Another Day), Daniel Craig (Casino Royale, 2006 version, Quantum of Solace) WHO PLAYED IT BETTER: Any time the question of the best Bond pops up, we always get a little confused — wasn’t this decided years ago? Make no mistake, Roger Moore had his moments, Brosnan managed to transcend the mostly-terrible scripts he was stuck with, and Craig has certainly redefined the role and made it his own. But seriously, there are people who don’t think Connery was the best Bond? If you’ll pardon the Seinfeldism, who are these people?

ROLE: Phillip Marlowe WHO PLAYED IT: George Sanders (The Falcon Takes Over), Lloyd Nolan (Time to Kill), Dick Powell (Murder My Sweet), Humphrey Bogart (The Big Sleep), Robert Montgomery (The Lady in the Lake), George Montgomery (The Brasher Doubloon), James Garner (Marlowe), Elliot Gould (The Long Goodbye), Robert Mitchum (Farewell My Lovely, The Big Sleep) WHO PLAYED IT BETTER: Although there are some interesting variations on Raymond Chandler’s immortal private eye (Gould’s hipster, Mitchum’s aging tough guy, Robert Montgomery’s first-person-camera version) when you think of Marlowe, you think of Bogie — so much so that we were a little surprised to realize that he only played the character once. But when you play it as well as he did, once is enough. (Plus, you could say he reprised the character in Steve Martin’s uproarious Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid, which stitched Martin into classic noir films, including The Big Sleep.)

ROLE: Marshall Rooster Cogburn WHO PLAYED IT: John Wayne (True Grit, 1969 version), Jeff Bridges (True Grit, 2010 version) WHO PLAYED IT BETTER: This one is a tough call. What actor, no matter how skilled, wants to be compared to Wayne, a true American legend in the role that won him his only Oscar? But “the Dude” is more than up to the task of stepping in for “the Duke,” disappearing into a characterization more broadly comic but equally memorable. At the end of the day, though, it’s Wayne’s character all the way; it’s an accumulation of everything that’s great about him as an actor — the bravado, the toughness, the humor, and the hidden warmth brought to vivid life.

ROLE: Jack Ryan WHO PLAYED IT: Alec Baldwin (The Hunt for Red October), Harrison Ford (Patriot Games, A Clear and Present Danger), Ben Affleck (The Sum of All Fears) WHO PLAYED IT BETTER: The conventional wisdom holds that Alec Baldwin made the biggest blunder of his career when he chose not to return to the role of CIA agent Jack Ryan, which he originated in the film adaptation of Tom Clancy’s The Hunt for Red October. However, Baldwin says it was less a case of a decision than that he was pushed out to make room for Harrison Ford, who had “greater strength at the box office.” As good as Baldwin was in the role — and it’s a fine performance — nobody does the stern-jawed man-of-action as well as Ford, who filled the role with skill and ease in Patriot Games and the best film of the series, A Clear and Present Danger.

ROLE: Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde WHO PLAYED IT: John Barrymore (Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, 1920 version), (Frederic March (Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, 1931 version), Spencer Tracy (Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, 1941 version), Mark Blankfield (Jekyll and Hyde… Together Again), Anthony Perkins (Edge of Sanity), John Malkovich (Mary Reilly). WHO PLAYED IT BETTER: Stanley Kramer’s film adaptation of Inherit the Wind wasn’t just a battle of religion vs. science — it was also a battle of Dr. Jekylls and Mr. Hydes, with March and Tracy facing off in Wind’s key roles. Both men had played Robert Louis Stevenson’s torn protagonist in film adaptations a decade apart. However, Tracy’s take is mostly forgotten these days, while March won a much-deserved Academy Award for Best Actor for his work in the 1931 film.

ROLE: Dr. Hannibal Lecter WHO PLAYED IT: Brian Cox (Manhunter), Anthony Hopkins (The Silence of the Lambs, Hannibal, Red Dragon), Gaspard Ulliel (Hannibal Rising) WHO PLAYED IT BETTER: Because Hopkins become so identifiable with the role of psychotic psychiatrist and serial killer Hannibal Lecter (aka “Hannibal the Cannibal”), there has been a bit of a contrarian backlash over the past few years, with some insisting that Brian Cox, who first played the role in Michael Mann’s Red Dragon adaptation Manhunter, was in fact the superior Lecter (or, as it’s spelled in that film, “Lecktor”). Let’s be clear here: Cox is an exceptional actor, and his subtle performance in Manhunter is downright chilling. But the reason we all know the name of Lecter is because of Hopkins’s brilliant interpretation in Silence, a spine-tingling mixture of menace, intelligence, and smugness. Though his work was broader (and thus less effective) in the sequels, that original, Oscar-winning turn remains one of the great screen personifications of pure evil.

ROLE: Albus Dumbledore WHO PLAYED IT: Richard Harris (Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets), Michael Gambon (Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Parts 1 & 2) WHO PLAYED IT BETTER: Your author is not alone in the opinion that the first two Harry Potter films are borderline insufferable, so clunkily executed by director Christ Columbus as to nearly derail the entire series — which recovered quickly with Azkaban and never looked back. But those inaugural efforts do have one advantage over the later, better films: the presence of the great Richard Harris as Hogwarts headmaster Albus Dumbledore. This it not to demean the work of Gambon, who capably stepped into he role after Harris’s death in 2002, but Harris’s incredible charisma and indelible presence defined the character on-screen.

ROLE: Dave Robicheaux WHO PLAYED IT: Alec Baldwin (Heaven’s Prisoners), Tommy Lee Jones (In the Electric Mist) WHO PLAYED IT BETTER: Jame Lee Burke’s swampy, addictive New Orleans detective novels have been twice adapted for the screen — and both occasions, the results were, for the most part, unfortunately ignored by the general movie-going public. Heaven’s Prisoners starred Alec Baldwin as the retired police detective; it was a box-office flop when it was released in 1996, and is mostly remembered these days as that movie where Teri Hatcher got naked. Over a decade later, director Bertrand Tavernier took a crack at the character with In the Electric Mist, a criminally underrated potboiler with Tommy Lee Jones in the leading role. It’s set five years later, and those have apparently been a pretty rough five years for Robicheaux if he’s gone from looking like Baldwin to looking like Jones. But Jones’s weathered persona is just right for the role — whether he’s shooting up a trailer or beating up a bus station pimp, he never raises his voice. He doesn’t have to. There is power and experience in his mere presence, in his ravaged face, in his sad eyes. It’s a smashing piece of work.

ROLE: Vito Corleone WHO PLAYED IT: Marlon Brando (The Godfather), Robert DeNiro (The Godfather Part II) WHO PLAYED IT BETTER: This may be a bit of an apples-and-shoelaces comparison (I refuse the phrase “apples and oranges,” because you can compare them — they’re both fruits, for heaven’s sake), since DeNiro is playing a very different Vito Corleone in Coppola’s 1974 sequel to The Godfather — a younger, leaner, hungrier Vito, the embryonic version of the man he would become in the form of Brando. And both actors won the Academy Award for their interpretations (a first), making it even harder to make a judgment call. Frankly, we think we’re gonna have to leave this one as a draw — who wants to choose between those two performances?

ROLE: Willy Wonka WHO PLAYED IT: Gene Wilder (Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory), Johnny Depp (Charlie and the Chocolate Factory) WHO PLAYED IT BETTER: Oh, come on. We don’t have to tell you this one.