Thursday, May 26, 2011

Reader question - When are remakes justified?

A Twitter-submitted question from @Swiss_Fox:

When do you think a remake is appropriate? What conditions/qualities need to be present/met in the original? In the remake?

My personal feeling is that there are few good reasons to remake a good movie. Would anything be gained by remaking Star Wars? ET? Back to the Future? If the original is already timeless, remaking it is a losing game.

In the case where the original film was based on other source material, then there might be room for reinterpretation - particularly in cases where the original adaptation took some liberties with the source material. Thus, I could see someone justifying a remake of To Kill a Mockingbird... but would it be wise to remake Gone With the Wind? I've long thought that you could get an interesting movie out of re-adapting The Wizard of Oz so that it's more faithful to the book. However, the problem there is that the original is SO iconic that the filmmakers would probably be facing an uphill battle.

I think there's more justification for remaking a film that might have had an interesting idea, but unsuccessful execution the first time around. If there's something new to be said with the material - a different tone, a reexamination of how the old themes play in a new, modern context - it also gives more justification for the remake.

Most of the time, though, the studio finds remakes attractive because they're pre-sold... so remaking a bomb would run counter to that desire. Having said that, I'd love to remake I Know What You Did Last Summer the way it was meant to be.

Just my opinion. How do you guys feel?


  1. Don't forget cases where the original dropped the ball. The original Ocean's Eleven was an excuse for a bunch of buddies to hang out in Vegas. The remake had a bunch of buddies hanging out in Vegas and actually making an outstanding movie.

    For the most part, I agree with you, though. I hold Sydney Pollack in high regard, but I have zero idea what he thought would be accomplished by remaking the damn near perfect Sabrina.

  2. Argh you're in my head re I Know What You Did Last Summer - I would love to actually adapt that book. Okay, it might not be a classic of literature, but there was definitely a germ of something interesting there... the exact something that they inexplicably stripped from the movie.

    I remember thinking that the remake of Stepford Wives could have been interesting if they'd flipped the gender and made it a comment on the men-are-obsolete strand of post-feminism. When I saw the trailer for the upcoming remake of Straw Dogs, it occurred to me there could be more to say about the dynamic between men and women in the current generation that a remake could explore. Based on that trailer though, it doesn't appear that they have bothered (though to be fair, they may be marketing it as a generic horror and the actual film might be more interesting... I have cautious faith in Rod Lurie).

  3. The problem with adapting I Know What You Did Last Summer straight from the book is that there's no way to pull off the big twist about the stalker in the same way the book manages it. In that sense, I get why they had to make some big changes. Turning it into a standard slasher wouldn't have been my first suggestion, though. I'd have made it more of a thriller/morality play about this group of friends trying to figure out who discovered their darkest secret.

    I think The Stepford Wives remake was screwed from the moment they couldn't decide on a tone and then later reshoots rendered the story incomprehensible. The only positive change made was that the husbands didn't actually have to kill their wives. (Putting their brains in robot bodies isn't exactly a great writing decision either - I'd have just had the husbands brainwash the wives.)

    Making the husbands the victim could have been an interesting idea too... but I fear it could have been easily mishandled.

  4. And thanks for that painful reminder on the ending of The Stepford Wives. I thought I had cleaned that from my memory years ago.

  5. @ Amos - I have to argue the point on "Sabrina." I love the original, and nobody could do the role better than Audrey Hepburn. But the script's character development was better in the re-make. It was (most of) the casting that hurt it--Greg Kinnear and the support characters were well cast. Harrison Ford was wooden beyond what was needed for his character, and Julia Ormond was pretty, but lifeless. What I would have loved is if the original cast had somehow been able to work from the re-make's script.

    And I still love the original. I just don't hold with the notion that re-making great films is bad on the face of it. If you have elements that can promise a strong, fresh, and/or better result, you can find that part of the overall audience who (for whatever reason) will not see the original.

    Movies aren't Holy Writ. They just sit on the shelf awaiting viewers anyway after the initial release. New actors can and do bring things not seen in earlier films. Consider the Branagh "Henry V" versus the Olivier version.

    Of course it's always been done with plays. As cinema continues to grow out of its early golden age, re-makes will become more accepted for films, too.

    Some re-makes that I have issues with include that ridiculously indulgent attempt at "Psycho," that atrocious re-make of "The Haunting," and the noble effort John Carpenter did with "The Thing."

    "Psycho" needs no explanation, I feel.

    But the Carpenter film was a great example of a valid re-make: the technology and production qualities had improved enough to really warrant it. My problem with the film was that I stopped caring after we could not depend on any character not being "the thing." I like the idea on paper, but it undercut itself with my empathy with the characters, in practice. That aside, I found the film strong.

    Another awful re-make: "The Haunting." There's a case where the freedom gained by money and technology hurt it. Federico Fellini nailed it when he said:

    “I don't believe in total freedom for the artist. Left on his own, free to do anything he likes, the artist ends up doing nothing at all. If there's one thing that's dangerous for an artist, it's precisely this question of total freedom, waiting for inspiration and all the rest of it.”

  6. Remaking WOZ to be closer to the book - or really, the book series - would have another problem. Little 5 year old Dorthy is extremely racist. She's always judging people by their looks and calling them things like "horrible." Anyone who's different from her is bad as far as she's concerned.

    I hate most remakes. I frankly feel that Charlie & The Chocolate Factory is better than Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory. However, I feel very strongly that the studios should take BAD movies and remake them into GOOD movies. Because there's movies that have a good seed of an idea, but were badly done.

    Take Plan 9 From Outter Space. Disregard all the bad writing and acting and look at the heart of the film. Here you have aliens who are so afraid of humanity's violent tendencies that they try to frighten us into submission using our own fears.

    Take that idea, give it to someone with writing talent. Hand it to a director like George Romero who's good at all that zombie crap. You could end up with a film that would be both meaningful and award winning. Show a scene where the aliens are watching things like Night Of The Living Dead, Evil Dead, etc, when they conceive of the plan because they're so afraid that we will not only destroy ourselves, but everyone in the milkyway.

    In the hands of someone other then another Ed Wood, it could be a great film.

    It's Alive - again, and awful, awful movie. Yet there's something there. Obviously while they don't come out and say it, the film was no doubt inspired by that drug they used to give pregnant women back then. (I can't remember the name. It begins with a T and babies born to women who took it often had extremely deformed or flat out no limbs.) So take that idea about a baby mutated - by experimental drugs, environmental pollution, or a combination of both, leave out a lot of the cheesy lines and nonsensical parts, get a better director, again, it could be a great film. Maybe in the hands of someone like Sam Raimi.

    (Can you tell I like horror movies? Blame mom. She used to force me to watch Elvira: Mistress Of The Dark with her.)

    Again, I can't remember who said it or even the exact quote, but some big studio executive did say at one time, "Don't remake good movies and make them bad. Remake bad movies and make them good."

    That being said - NO MONSTER SQUAD REMAKE! The movie is perfect 80's cheese just the way it is. A cult classic. Rubber bats, dumb plot, bad acting, and the line that inspires joy in the hearts of anyone who hears it - "Wolfman's got nards!"

  7. I think "Cabaret" is one of the best films ever. It's always been overshadowed by that other Great film that came out the same year, "The Godfather", but it's still a great film, and won 8 academy awards that year (the most without winning Best Picture, I believe). And even more iconic is Liza Minelli's performance in the film. BUT... It'd be very interesting to do a remake of it.

    In 1999 I was fortunate to see the Broadway revival of it at Studio 54 directed by both Sam Mendes and Rob Marshall (neither had directed any feature films yet). Alan Cumming had unfortunately left the production by that point, but in his place was this new actor, Michael C. Hall (pre-Six Feet Under!). Anyway, anyone who's seen that production will tell that it was one of the very best theatre experiences ever. The thing that caught my eye most was how different it was from the film. Now, the film made a lot of changes from the stage musical and the original play that inspired it, by focusing the whole story around Sally Bowles. But the plays are Ensemblic. In fact, in the original Broadway production of Cabaret, the role of Sally Bowles was considered a "Featured Role" (akin to Supporting role film wise). Not to mention the character in the plays is not really supposed to be a good singer (hence why the best gig she can get is a seedy Cabaret act in 1930s Nazi Berlin). Many of the secondary characters are much more fleshed out, including the Emcee who is more than just there for the musical numbers (as is the case in the film). And, the final scene is absolutely breathtaking. I don't recall another ending to a play that I remember more distinctly.

    My point is, it could easily be remade (though i think it'd do better if say someone like HBO made it), and really got into the stories of all the characters, who are as equally interesting as Sally Bowles and the Emcee.

    But the original film is still effing fantastic!

  8. In regards to making the husbands the victims in a Stepford Wives remake - NO! Just - NO! If you remake it, you remake it set in the same era but closer to the book. With the same ambiguous ending. (Is she a robot or did they somehow brainwash her?)

    I'm a stickler for keeping movie adaptations as close to the book as possible. Which is why I hate Hannibal. It's nothing like the book, they even changed the airplane scene! Unless it's something that is physically impossible, you do NOT tamper with the writer's vision. This is why I absolutely refuse to see Speilberg's War Of The Worlds or the I Am Ledgend with Will Smith.

    I'm sure someone will get on me about this so let me explain.

    While I always say I'm not a writer - and indeed, I think what I write is absolute dreck - some people for some stupid reason think I have talent. (Some people think I look like Marilyn Monroe too. They're just as wrong.) A comic book company that never got past the development stage hired me as a writer. I figured "What the heck, if it goes anywhere - well, I can always use the money and maybe it could be a really weird spring board into music for me."

    At one point they hired this editor who was an absolute tyrant. Since I'm from California I set my stories there. (New York has enough super heroes.) He didn't like that. He changed the setting to New York, he made my good guy a smoker and the bad guy a non-smoker. (It was the other way around.) My fat character became thin and my lesbian was made straight "Because teenage boys want heroines they can fantasize about." He also called me several names when I said he was ruining the whole point of the stories.

    He got fired, I stayed on, but the company never went anywhere and I lost touch with everyone.

    Still, it's left me with a bad taste in my mouth for changing an author's original work. (And because he made my lesbian character straight I also hate slash fiction. Sorry, I don't think it's right to mess with the author's original creation in that matter. If he or she makes a character gay, then they stay gay. If that character is straight, they stay straight. Period. Dumbledore will not make out with McGonagall and Gambit will never sleep with Wolverine.)

    So no. No husbands as the victims. Leave the setting the 1970s. Keep it as close to the book as possible. Or don't bother to make (or remake it) at all!