At first glance it appears to be a casting choice with the potential to derail Johnny Depp's otherwise stellar movie career.
Depp, known for his edgy roles and wacky on-screen personas, has been cast to play Tonto, the Native American sidekick to the Lone Ranger, in a forthcoming Hollywood version of the 1950s TV show.
Depp's Tonto, however, will be rather different from the original ally who stuck by his cowboy friend through thick and thin. Instead, his character looks set to be at the heart of the film and have the dominant role in its narrative.
Director Gore Verbinski is taking inspiration for the central relationship not from the dusty reels of the TV show, but from literary classic Don Quixote. In the new version, the Lone Ranger turns out to be a misguided fool and Tonto the voice of sanity, akin to Quixote's companion, Sancho Panza.
"The only version of The Lone Ranger I'm interested in doing is Don Quixote told from Sancho Panza's point of view," Verbinski told the Los Angeles Times's "Hero Complex" film blog last week. Suddenly it becomes a lot easier to see why Depp would take the role. "I was honest early on with Johnny that Tonto is the part. We're not going to do it [straight]; everyone knows that story. I don't want to tell that story," the director said.
That news should have Hollywood folk eager to see the result. Depp is known for giving his own personal twist to roles, most famously with Captain Jack Sparrow, the character who rapidly became the star attraction of the Pirates of the Caribbean films despite not originally being the main role. Depp's performance not only brought critical and popular acclaim but – more importantly for movie executives – made hundreds of millions of dollars in profits.
Many will be hoping that by appearing in the Lone Ranger he can repeat the trick – not least because the Lone Ranger concept would seem ideal for sequels and merchandising. Indeed, Verbinski said he wanted a bit of Jack Sparrow's unstable and ethically challenged character to cross over into Tonto, moving him even further away from his traditional on-screen portrayal.
"I want the version [of the story] from the untrustworthy narrator who might be a little crazy. But somehow the question is: is he crazy or is the world crazy?" saide Verbinski.
The project is not without risks. The Lone Ranger is a much loved part of American popular culture, which began as a radio series in the 1930s and then morphed into TV in 1949, running through to 1957. The Lone Ranger's famous cry of "Hi-ho, Silver! Away!" and the William Tell Overture theme music entered into the popular imagination of millions. The series is still rerun on American television channels.
Some celebrity experts believe tinkering with such a beloved series could be risky. "There are going to be Lone Ranger purists and then you come along and take the Lone Ranger concept to the next level and you might really annoy them. It might be best to leave that material alone," said Gayl Murphy, a California-based celebrity interviewer and media expert.
There is also potential controversy in the role of Tonto itself. The original character, with his pidgin English, has long been seen by many Native Americans as an insult. Later versions of the character – in comic strips and the 1981 film Legend of the Lone Ranger – gave Tonto more depth, making him an equal partner of the Lone Ranger. However, it still might irritate some that Tonto will be played by a white actor, mirroring the controversial practice of many early films that put Native Americans characters on screen but did not use Native American actors to play them.
But no doubt The Lone Ranger can adapt itself for a more modern world, just as dozens of other concepts have before it.
Hollywood has made a practice of mining the past, giving old favourites a thorough makeover and retrofitting them for modern sensibilities. "Don't forget Batman originally belonged to a different era, too. Now there have been about five different Batmans, each one with its unique twists," Murphy said.
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