One of the most emotive and bitterly fought subjects for any film fan is the remake . Often dismissed by the ‘purists’ as the lazy option, and only good for the studio’s bank balance, remakes have fuelled plenty of debate and discussion over the years. I have certainly had my fair share of rants about them in the past, and very defiantly bored a great many people on the subject.
Recent remakes of Let the Right One in & Girl With a Dragon Tattoo (two films I adore) threatened to send me ‘off on one’ yet again. However, either as a result of some late developing maturity or because I am all ranted out, it got me thinking that, as with most things, it simply isn’t that simple.
To start with, the remake is hardly a new phenomenon, and is certainly not exclusive to cinema. The classic stories have been retold in movies, theatre and the arts in general, more times than I can be bothered to Google.
In film, Dracula, Robin Hood & Three Musketeers are just three stories that seem to be remade for every generation. Yes they take advantage of modern technology and techniques, and each Director will endeavor to ‘leave their mark’ on the retelling, but essentially the basic framework and story will remain. It has to, as the familiarity of the these stories is precisely what makes them so attractive to us, the paying audience. You don’t really need to establish that Count Dracula is a Vampire or that Robin Hood is a medieval hoodie with a conscience. As long as a Three Musketeers movie has a healthy amount of thigh slapping, swash buckling adventure, I, you, and anyone else with an interest in that sort of thing, will be relatively happy.
Then there are the remakes of lesser known films, movies that have been lost to time. Often these were originally low budget productions with ambition well beyond their means, but with great stories that remain relevant decades later. Films like The Thing & The Fly; you know, the big THE movies of the 50s, where, at best ‘ok’ and certainly never considered mainstream masterpieces, even at the time.
The 80′s remakes of both The Fly & The Thing are a vast improvement on the originals, however, while I am a huge fan of these remakes, both are arguably starting to show their age and while I don’t think further remakes are necessary, it would be wrong and more than a little snobby, to suggest they cannot be improved upon.
Sometimes the original just isn’t very good. True Grit (1968) for example, is a bit rubbish. Yes, I know John Wayne won a Oscar, but then Titanic won hundreds! I have nothing against John Wayne, he has made some great movies (The Seekers, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon etc) but his Oscar for True Grit feels more a case of ‘better give him one before he dies’ rather than a true reflection of the movie or his performance in it . In reality, he churned out a lot of movies in his long career, as actors of his generation did, many of which were very average, and True Grit was one of them.
Given the very average standard of the original, The Coen Brothers were absolutely justified in remaking it. The new version is everything the original wasn’t and the 2011 incarnation of True Grit represents one of the best movies I have seen in the last 10 years.
Unfortunately, the Coen’s also thought it was a good idea to remake the Lady Killers, it wasn’t. The result was, I think, predictably poor, as they not only faced the challenge of improving on an already excellent film, but also had to cast actors who could match the performance of Peter Sellers, Alex Guinness, Herbert Lom and the wonderful Katie Johnson. These were exceptional talents, perfectly cast and at the top of their game, which made attempting a remake all but impossible. As talented as the Coen’s & Tom Hanks are, they simply didn’t have a chance.
Which brings me onto the meat of the issue. Remaking popular and much loved movies. Tricky one this, as it seems to be a no win scenario. Do ok and it is hardly a surprise, it was a solid story. Mess it up and you have shat all over a much loved classic.
To be honest, I don’t see the point, well I do, money, which is fine if you are a studio executive, but I question the motivation of the creative team. Why would any Director or Actor, especially one established in the industry, and with the bank balance that comes with that, want to attempt to improve upon an established classic.
I struggle to imagine what Gus Van Sant thought he had to gain from attempting to remake Psycho let alone attempting the impossible with Vince Vaughn in the lead role. All it ended up was a black mark on their CV.
That is not to say that is totally impossible.
The best example of someone making it work is Peter Jackson’s retelling of King Kong. I am a massive fan of the original, yes it’s getting on a bit, but it still looks great and hasn’t lost any of it’s impact. Few movies have been more influential on the film makers that followed. Despite that, and my predilection to get all geeky and precious about such things, I can honestly say that I think the 2005 remake is better; much better, and not just in terms of the special FX, which are integral to both versions, but in terms of character and emotion. I choke up just thinking about the scene on the frozen lake. Proper film making that!
Finally, and in a ham-fisted attempt to bring all this full circle, there are the Hollywood remakes of ‘foreign’ movies like the aforementioned Let the Right One In and Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. Again, as I mentioned before, this is nothing new, with Hollywood often going as far as using the same Director and Actor to try and ensure some level of credibility and success.
Replacement Killers (pretty much a remake of The Killers) sees Chow Yun Fat again in the lead role and while John Woo only acts as Executive Producer, it still very much feels like a John Woo movie.
If you go back a little further, into the 60’s & 70’s you will find the previous plot pilfering of the Kurosawa movies Hidden Fortress & Seven Samurai, the stories of which were lifted and dropped into a different setting (far far away) in Star Wars (A New Hope) and The Magnificent Seven. A great many Kurosawa movies have had their bones picked and ‘influenced’ future movies; Yojimbo has directly influenced loads, right up to Last Man Standing, which was basically a remake right?
My concern isn’t that movies & stories are being remade at all, but that they are being remade badly or without a true understanding of what made the original so great. I fear that the older, ‘foreign’ or less mainstream originals will be forgotten and never get the recognition they may, or may not, deserve.
Let me know what you think, are remakes ever justified, can they work or are they only multiplex fodder?