With the news that even Cronenberg is not sacrosanct anymore, I began to wonder about the obsession with remakes. Why is it that films are viewed as so precious that the remake is presumed inferior before it even starts shooting? Is it some visceral connection we establish in the darkened cocoon of a movie house? Or is it some quietly regarded respect to the original team that put the picture together? Why is it that we feel so protective over an art form that, let’s be honest, our only contributions are discourse and fractions of reimbursement?
In other media, remaking something isn’t necessarily a bad thing. How many authors have mined the same basic myth or legend to create something new? Does Richard Matheson’s Hell House suffer because he wrote it as a response and reimagining of Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House? Let’s not even get into the film adaptations of both novels.
The same story, a group of paranormal investigators and scientists are paid to prove whether or not there are actual ghostly happenings at a notorious mansion, is told in radically different ways. The overall plot and characters are the same. The difference is two very different visions of how the story can be told.
There is a long history of writers working off each other’s material. In Shakespeare’s time, actually writing an original play was a rarity. You were expected to take an existing story (or even an existing drama) and tell it again with new words and staging. Poets routinely respond to one another in new versions of the same story, changing the perspective to one the latter poet considers truer to their vision of the world. Stranger still is when writers like Mark Twain would rework the same story over and over going for new angles that felt more complete or rewarding than the original version. This is an accepted conceit.
In theater, remakes in major markets are referred to as revivals. Sometimes, the vision is brand new for an older show. Other times, it’s a total recreation of the original production. These new productions are not automatically discounted for being revivals. They’re judged in the context of the original production (really to establish history more than anything else) and what drives the new interpretation (of the script and music, not the original production). It’s not the easiest balance to achieve, but it is by far a more accepted conceit than a remake of a film.
Music is nothing if not driven by remakes. The cover song concept is a right of passage for any musician. Take something old and make it new again. Rework the context of a classic song into something that showcases a specific artistic vision. I didn’t hear too many complaints when Johnny Cash remade “Hurt” by Nine Inch Nails. Music is another medium where the remake is standard.
Yet in film, almost any remake is viewed as an affront to the original production. It’s a cash grab or a fool’s errand to tackle an old property. They’re discounted from the start and critiqued with a laser focus to see if they are worthy or not.
It seems there’s no way to predict how critics and fans react. The Coen Brothers remade True Grit focusing on the young girl who drives the plot with her quest to get vengeance for her father’s murder. They were praised for their fresh vision and realistic interpretation. The differences from the original were not the plot or even the characters. Mattie Ross is still an annoying child who views herself to highly and Rooster Cogburn is still a one-eyed drunk with no mercy. The differences come from tone and style.
Gus Van Sant went in a very different direction for his remake of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho. The 1998 version is basically a shot for shot remake in color. The few tweaks he made–set dressing, costuming, edits during the murders–somehow made the film too familiar and dull.
Yet, in staying so true to the original production, this remake is considered terrible. The flaw is this remake existing at all. Does that reflect poorly on the original? Are we too familiar with the story to be surprised by the turns anymore?
I’m not arguing Van Sant’s interpretation is a good film. I’m just stating that the changes are so superficial as to cause you to question the modern critical response to the original film. Are we giving the remake a fair chance or are we allowing the status of the original to cloud our judgment?
There are times where a remake seems like a clear attempt to earn money. The recent slasher craze–Nightmare on Elm Street, Friday the 13th, My Bloody Valentine, and even Halloween–had great first weekends at the box office on name alone. The reviews (and second weekends) were not kind. The general trend seems to be a focus on the violence rather than an attempt to reinvent the mythology of the killers or address the well composed mystery and backstory of the originals.
The one exception of that grouping is My Bloody Valentine. It actually received better reviews than the original. It felt more streamlined and dangerous than the original and hinged its reputation on the 3D technology rather than a radical change to the story.
Could some of the other remakes have relied on some new gimmick to remove themselves from the shadow of the original? I doubt it. Psycho ’98 in 3D would still be the crazy idea of a shot for shot color remake of the original film.
Even that’s not a rule set in stone. Shot for shot remakes aren’t always derided. While I prefer the unhinged brutality of the original Funny Games (especially the setting), the US remake is an acceptable substitute if you can’t make it through that story twice. The beats are the same, the dialogue barely changed in translation, and the cruel (almost Artaud sadistic/theatre of cruelty in concept and execution) nature of the story comes across in both versions. The original question of “Why remake Funny Games?” became “Why not give the US version a shot?” upon release.
The same happened with Let Me In, the remake of the critically acclaimed and not released in America Let the Right One In. Critics actually noted where the story was expanded and improved on in the US version, though fans were reluctant to mark the improvements. The film wasn’t a huge hit, but by now it’s surely recouped its budget.
So why are we so quick to dismiss the concept of a remake on paper? I will freely admit to be firmly anti-remake for years. I openly laugh at the Suspiria rumors that have dogged us for years and fear it at the same time. That’s coming from someone who hates Suspiria. My question for years was “why fix what isn’t broken?” Now I start to wonder what other people could do with this material.
It comes down to this. A new version of an older film does not eliminate the existence of the older film. It could actually raise the public profile of one of your favorites–like the rise of Black Christmas when the remake was announced, or all the DVD releases of the Ringu series when The Ring did great at the US box office–and cause critics and regular film goers alike to reevaluate the original properties. Is that such a bad thing?
If you have a strong vision for a remake and the resources to do it, why not give it a try? The key there is vision. You have to have a concept. A concept is not “better visuals/more action/all star cast.” A concept is telling True Grit as a naturalistic western or focusing on the relationships between the characters of an action packed thriller like Infernal Affairs and resetting it in a smaller city like in The Departed. A concept could be shifting the focus to a minor character, reestablishing the story in a new time period for a more poignant thematic punch, or even slowing down the pace to put a greater focus on atmosphere. If the idea is strong enough, the film can stand out from the original in a way that makes it feel important.
The one caveat to this discussion is the instant remake of a foreign film. Let the Right One In falls in this category. Every few years, we get a foreign language film that does great at the US box office when given promotion and a wide release. Yet, this somehow isn’t enough to convince distributors to take a chance on foreign language films for a US release. They’d rather spend the money remaking a great film than releasing the original without an English language soundtrack. That’s a mistake.
But maybe some new director could do something great with Videodrome. We just don’t know. Sure, they’re announcing the direction as some sci-fi/action epic with big explosions and an all star ca…
You know what. I just can’t with that example. Forget I mentioned it.
Carrie has potential. Julianne Moore and Chloe Moretz could be great as mother and daughter White. The story is still relevant now and we’ve already accepted that the successful Carrie adaptations have a pretty Carrie rather than King’s vision of an acne scarred chubby girl with bad hair. There’s potential to do something new if they embrace the modern setting beyond superficial choices. I mean, the team behind Chronicle did it without even licensing King’s story and they had superhero abilities thrown in and shakycam.
So what do you think? Are remakes, as a rule, a bad choice? Or is film going to reach the point–like art, music, theater, and literature–that a remake is an accepted part of the medium? Sound off below. Love to hear from you.