Sophie's Choice (DVD/ Blu-ray Comparison)

So, I've been hemming and hawing to myself over whether to double-dip for Shout's blu-ray release of Sophie's Choice, but I never pulled the trigger. Then one day, I went to watch my DVD and whoops, it's not even anamorphic. So okay, definitely time to upgrade. It's got a big, new special feature and the price has come down anyway, so why not?
I feel dumb telling you guys that Sophie's Choice is a good movie, because it's an American classic. But on the other hand, looking at it from an outside and modern perspective, it kinda gives the vibe of a dusty, dull, creaky kind of thing students are forced to watch for school. You watch the trailer with Peter Macnicol talking in that heavy Southern accent and Meryl Streep moping around a brown period apartment wearing flower print sun dresses, and your mind instantly turns to pretentious local theater and you think, why would I sit down to watch that if I'm not being forced to, right?
But it's actually holds up as a really powerful, engaging movie. It's a little stiff in the beginning, admittedly. We've got a narrator telling us how we're watching him as a young man with dreams of becoming a writer moving into this quaint Southern town, and ho-hum, here we go. The weight of the first half really falls on Kevin Kline to bring this film alive, but wow is he up to the task! It was his first film, but he and Streep are amazing together and really hold the the film together. Macnicol's great, too, as the film's heart; but you really need the other two's energy. And by the time you start getting into the World War II stuff, the drama is riveting. Even if you know, without having seen the film, what Sophie's famous choice is, that doesn't really matter. It's not like The Crying Game or something where it's a critical spoiler; scenes like where she has to steal a radio from a little girl's room are just great cinema that will work on you regardless of what expectations or prejudices you bring in with you.
1998 ITC/ Artisan DVD top; 2014 Shout Factory DVD mid; 2014 Shout Factory blu bottom.
Alright, Shout Factory's release is a combo pack, that's why we've got three comparison sets here. Their DVD is naturally a standard def copy of their blu-ray and looks roughly identical but more compressed than the HD transfer, just like you'd expect. The real comparison is between the original, 1998 DVD (the only release we've had up 'till now) and the new blu. And boy, is it a big jump.

Again, the original DVD is non-anamorphic. But compared to the blu, it's also muddy, faded, dark and well, hey, at least it's not interlaced. What else could you expect? This is a 90s DVD. But it's more of a pleasant surprise to see that Shout has found more picture on all four sides. You could partly ascribe that to Shout's release being an unmatted 1.78:1 compared to the more correct AR of 1.85 (the DVD is actually more in the middle, at an unusual 1.81:1), but there's even more new picture on the sides, too. Just judged on its own, it's not an amazing blu-ray. It looks a little soft and is probably taken from an older master. I'm sure a fresh 4k scan could've been even more impressive if Shout had budgeted more for this title. But it's still a good, respectable blu-ray. And compared to our only previous option, it's an excellent jump up.
These subs are burnt in.
Audio wise, the blu-ray steps up from the DVD's Dolby 2.0 stereo with a DTS-HD track. The old DVD had optional Spanish subtitles, which Shout discarded, but they replaced those with potentially more valuable English subtitles. The German dialogue, meanwhile, has burnt in English subtitles on both versions no matter what setting you choose.
Things get interesting when you come to the extras. Both discs come with a very strong audio commentary by director Alan J. Pakula. Pakula has a lot to say, which makes for a very rewarding listen. Then the DVD has one more heavy hitter up its sleeve, an almost hour-long 'making of' documentary. This is a lot more than your usual promo featurette heavy with clips from the film and brief soundbites of all the actors saying how wonderful each other was to work with. This doc talks to the author of the novel, the composer (one of Sophie's Choice five Oscar nominations was for its score) and even interviews several actual Auschwitz survivors. It really goes above and beyond the call for a DVD extra. And besides that, there's the film's trailer, notes, and an insert with chapter stops.

The blu-ray doesn't have the documentary, though, which is a big loss. It has the commentary and the trailer, but instead of the doc, it has something new: a 46-minute round table discussion with Meryl Streep, Kevin Kline, Alan J. Pakula's widow Hannah Pakula, Pakula's assistant Don Laventhal and author William Styron's widow; Rose Styron. This is a really good talk, a little redundant if you've seen the other extras, but with some fresh perspectives, too. And there's a different tone to these proceedings, as they take place so many years later, and after Styron and Pakula have passed, unlike the old DVD extras. So it's nice to pick this up, but such a shame we have to lose the documentary to get it. It's really frustrating that we have to choose between them, like... well, I can't think of an apt comparison at the moment, but you know, a really hard decision where you have to choose between two things you want to keep and find equally essential.
So yes, it's worth the upgrade. Even if the DVD was anamorphic, I'd recommend double-dipping, but I especially do since it isn't. But, if you're getting this film for the first time, I'd say don't stop there. It's worth tracking down the old DVD (which can be picked up quite cheap as of this writing) for the documentary as well. Between the two, then, you've got a really strong edition. And is there still room to grow? Sure, Criterion or somebody could beef up the transfer and pack all the extras together, plus maybe some new interviews. But I wouldn't expect anything like that for a very long time. And really, this existing combo works out pretty well.

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