Tuned In: 'Bonnie & Clyde' an infamous pair of criminals

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The story of Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow has been told many times, most famously in the 1967 Arthur Penn film "Bonnie & Clyde" starring Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway as the infamous bank robbers.

The tale gets told again in the two-part, four-hour miniseries "Bonnie & Clyde" (9 tonight and Monday night), which airs on three networks, A&E, Lifetime and History at the same time.

British actress Holliday Grainger ("The Borgias") plays Bonnie, who is depicted as a fame-obsessed sociopath, and Emile Hirsch ("Into the Wild") takes on the role of Clyde, who has more remorse about the duo's killing spree.

The cast also includes Holly Hunter as Bonnie's mom, William Hurt as a lawman brought in to bring down the pair, Lane Garrison ("Prison Break") as Clyde's brother, Buck; and Sarah Hyland ("Modern Family"), as Buck's naive wife.

The story begins with Clyde narrating his youth as a chicken thief and his lament that, "Maybe if I hadn't met Bonnie Parker, I'd only be known for stealing chickens."

Let's leave the film's accuracy to historians -- a quick glimpse at historical synopses suggests there have been embellishments, most notably the notion of Clyde's "sixth sense" that allows him and Bonnie to avoid capture for so long -- but it was the history that got Mr. Hirsch on board to play Clyde Barrow, who narrates most of the film.

"It's a really exciting historical period, the Depression and the 1930s, and they're iconic characters where everybody knows their name but few people actually know the history," Mr. Hirsch said in a phone interview last month. He points out that younger viewers may not even know much about the story and may be unfamiliar with the 1967 movie. "They know the names but don't know the story."

Mr. Hirsch said this new "Bonnie & Clyde," which was written by John Rice and Joe Batteer ("Windtalkers") and directed by Oscar nominee Bruce Beresford ("Driving Miss Daisy"), takes some liberties.

"His vision is something, when you read about how many times he got away and made these daring escapes over and over again, it was almost like he had a vision," Mr. Hirsch said. "It was a bit of creative license borne out of just looking at these stories and wondering, how did he get away with it? It's almost like he knew it was coming."

Their escapes are particularly notable compared to today.

"Now the NSA will get you as you're texting, 'Bonnie, come meet me for the robbery,' " Mr. Hirsch said with a chuckle. "The amount of crime these guys committed, it's unfathomable. They robbed hundreds of places, they stole dozens of cars and they were on the run for years. Today if someone is on the run for a week, it's almost like we can't believe it. This was literally years. It was a different era."

Mr. Hirsch came to this production with some knowledge of Bonnie and Clyde as star-crossed lovers but not much else. He waited to watch the 1967 film until after production on this new version of the story was complete.

"I did not want to be influenced by any other version," he said. "This one relied on historical materials and I saw and read and looked at pictures to come up with my own interpretation. When I finally watched the Warren Beatty version, his Clyde had more fun and smiled; it was good I avoided it. They're very different Bonnie and Clydes. This one is more straightforward and dramatically a bit darker. It's almost like comparing [director Christopher] Nolan's 'Dark Knight' to Joel Schumacher's 'Batman.' I love the original because it's a very different tone. This one is not like a screwball comedy, which at times I think the Arthur Penn version was sort of going for."

Mr. Hirsch was surprised by the impact prison had on Clyde and influenced the rest of his life.

"He was sexually assaulted in prison," he said, a scene that's included in the new miniseries, "and the effect that had on him turned him into a violent, angry person that really put him down a dark path. Before that he was a pretty moderate, nice guy but prison really ruined him."

As for Bonnie, the new "Bonnie & Clyde" portrays her as a latter-day Kardashian.

"Bonnie's obsession and fascination with fame and movie stars and big personalities, it's totally relevant to our Twittering, Instagramming, Facebooking generation of narcissists," Mr. Hirsch said. "I think it's kind of perfect."

Rob Owen writes this Sunday TV column for Scripps Howard News Service. Contact him at: rowen@post-gazette.com or 412-263-2582. Read the Tuned In Journal blog at post-gazette.com/tv. Follow RobOwenTV on Twitter or Facebook.

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