Thursday, May 19, 2011

The Danger of Remakes

Filmmakers who decide to make remakes seem to do so at their peril.  They walk a very fine line - too close to the source material and they are deemed derivative; if they stray too far, they risk the ire of the original's fans.  Here are some common problems:

Some Movies Shouldn't be Remade
Some films are so iconic and rooted in our culture that it would be a crime to remake them.  (Can you imagine Citizen Kane or The Godfather being remade?)  Occasionally, the subject matter makes the film almost impossible to recreate (Freaks).

There are also films that are so unique that they can't be replicated. An excellent example of this is Wes Craven's first film, The Last House on the Left.  Based on a Swedish ballad (which also spawned the Ingmar Bergman film The Virgin Spring), made in 1972, and shot in a grainy, realistic fashion, the movie was Craven's commentary on the Vietnam war.  It is a raw and incredibly violent film and it culls a visceral reaction from the viewer.  Rob Zombie, a horror flick director and gorehound, said, "It feels like you're watching a snuff film."  Clearly, it's not a movie for people who get grossed out easily, but according to the filmmakers, the gore had a purpose.  This was not the case with the 2009 remake.  Although Craven produced the new version, it had neither the sucker punch effect of the original, nor the gritty, realistic feel.  It was just another slick, big budget slasher flick with a story line that vaguely resembled the original film.  The biggest mistake:  Remaking the film in the first place.  The Last House on the Left is a seminal horror film and it's virtually impossible to recapture the essence of the original movie.  The filmmakers would have been better off creating a completely new storyline and just making a standard horror flick.

Some Remakes are Just Bad

The best example of this is Frank Oz's disastrous version of The Stepford Wives.  The original film, made in 1975 and adapted from Ira Levin's short novel of the same name, has become a sci-fi classic.  Oz intended to make an updated version of the film to appeal to modern audiences, and by his own admission, got carried away by the big budget and star-studded cast.  Several changes were made throughout production and the story was transformed from a subtle domestic sci-fi thriller to an overly stylized farce with ridiculous gaping plot holes.  The biggest mistake:  Producers disliked the 1975 film's original dystopic ending, despite it being chiefly responsible for the flick's creepy atmosphere and lasting effect on audiences.  As a result, the 2004 version's muddled happy ending made Oz's film all the more laughable.

Few Remakes Add Anything Substantial to the Story

Even when remakes are decently made, they very rarely add anything of value to the pre-existing story.  This is especially true of shot-for-shot remakes, which I have never understood.  Do we really need to see Psycho done exactly like Hitchcock did it, but in color and with Anne Heche and Vince Vaughn? (The answer is "No".)  

Take A Nightmare On Elm Street, for example.  I thought Jackie Earle Haley did a good job as Freddy, but there wasn't anything that made the film stand out from the original version.  In fact, all the remake made me want to do was go back and watch the original.  The filmmakers of the 2010 version told the media they wanted to make a "darker" version of the franchise.  The biggest mistake:  They focused more on Freddy's back story as a child molester to give him a clearer motive for killing the teenagers, which to me, seems unnecessary, given that Freddy Krueger is a dream figure.  I'd argue that the film didn't need to be remade in the first place, but their best opportunity for making the newer version stand out wasn't motive, it was bigger and better kills.

Everyone Has a Different Opinion

Movie watching is, at its core, subjective.  Films are intended to evoke an emotional reaction and it can be difficult to be objective about something you connect with.  This usually translates into an overwhelming preference for the original film.  

On the other hand, just because the original is a classic, it doesn't necessarily mean that everyone likes it better.  I'll use myself as an example in this instance.  I would venture to say that most people, particularly in my age range, prefer Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory (1971) to the more recent Tim Burton revamp Charlie & the Chocolate Factory (2005).  Not me.  Other than the bizarre Willy Wonka back story, I like Burton's version better.  

You're probably thinking, "Isn't Charlie & the Chocolate Factory the epitome of the slick, big-budget remakes you were just complaining about?"  It absolutely is, but my preference isn't based on an objective opinion; it's rooted in my feeling about the book both films were based on.  Roald Dahl was one of my favorite authors as a kid, so my first exposure to the story was his book and, when I was younger, I was very adamant that film adaptations of books should be exactly like the source material.  While I liked Gene Wilder's performance as Willy Wonka, I wasn't a big fan of the movie itself because it wasn't enough like the book.  

In contrast, watching Charlie & the Chocolate Factory as an adult brought back vivid memories of reading the book in the back seat of the car as my parents ran errands and laughing at the hilariously twisted Oompa Loompa songs.  I was ecstatic that I could pick out lines of dialogue and song in the film that came directly from the text, despite not having read the book for over fifteen years.

The more recent version does have its problem.  Burton's directing and visual style tend to overshadow his actual films; the viewer is keenly aware that it is a "Tim Burton Film" while watching one of his movies (especially his more recent films).  The Willy Wonka in the 2005 version, while funny, is a creation of Burton and Depp and hardly resembles Dahl's character.  (Wilder's performance is actually closer.)  None of that matters to me, though.  The core of the film and the way it makes me feel is closer to Dahl's book than the 1971 version, and therefore, I like it better.  Objectivity often takes a back seat when emotions are involved.

Good Remakes are the Exception, Not the Rule

Two of my favorite sci-fi films are remakes - Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978) and The Thing (1982).  Invasion of the Body Snatchers was based on the 1956 movie of the same name, and has been remade twice since - once in 1993 as Body Snatchers, and again in 2007 as The Invasion (starring Nicole Kidman and Daniel Craig).  The 1978 version was very well received after its release and remains the most popular of the Invasion films.  The Thing was a remake of The Thing From Another World (1951), which was adapted from John W. Campbell, Jr.'s novella "Who Goes There?"  During it's initial release, The Thing was not a success, but has become known as a sci-fi classic and has achieved cult status.  A prequel, also called The Thing, was made in 2010 and is scheduled to be released in October 2011, after its April 2011 release date was pushed back for reshoots (not a good sign).

These two films are both excellent examples of good remakes.  I am not a film expert by any means, but here are my ideas on what can make a quality remake:

1.  The film is well-cast.
As we've learned from Frank Oz, you can stuff all the big-name actors you want in your movie, if they're not right for the parts, it's going to suck.  Both Invasion of the Body Snatchers and The Thing have excellent casts and each cast member is extremely effective in his or her role.

2.  The film has something that sets it apart from the original.
W. D. Richter's screenplay for Invasion of the Body Snatchers used the source material to create an allegory for the social construct of the "Me Generation" that was so prevalent during the early 70s.  He added another layer to the original story that made it especially relevant to the time in which it was released.  With The Thing, it was Rob Bottin's amazing special effects that made the remake stand out from the original.  (The Norris Thing has become an iconic image in sci-fi cinema.)

3.  The filmmakers have their own clear, unique vision.
While I think it's important to acknowledge the source material, it's equally important to set your film apart from it's predecessor.  There's no point in remaking a film if it's just going to be a rehash of the original.  

Invasion of the Body Snatchers is both paranoia-inducing and disturbingly realistic.  Little things in the film let you know that things are getting steadily worse and one of the most effective is the subtle substitution of mechanical noises for natural ones as the invasion progresses.  This, and the decision to go with a dystopic ending (rather than the original's more optimistic one) makes this film remain effective.

Taking the setting of The Thing back to the uber-isolated Antarctica of the original novella was a brilliant move and John Carpenter's directing style is tailor-made for the kind of suspense building needed to make this story come alive.  Mexican director Guillermo Del Toro says of Carpenter's work on The Thing, "The way Carpenter shoots it is so smart . . . he's extremely spare with his camera.  He just makes it almost a mathematical type of montage, where you're feeling relatively secure and then, BAM!"

Remakes will continue to be made, to varying degrees of success.  They seem to have become more prevalent in recent years, probably because the popularity of the original films ensures an audience and that means more money and less risk for producers.

One upcoming remake that looks like it could be promising (despite having many of Hollywood's remake cliches) is Craig Gillespie's Fright Night, starring Anton Yelchin, Toni Colette, David Tennant (of "Doctor Who" fame), and Colin Farrell.  The original Fright Night was made in 1985 and is a well-loved horror-comedy classic. 

What do you think of remakes?  What are some of your favorites?  Which ones do you not enjoy?


  1. I couldn't agree more. I can't say I like Last House on the Left - and I've never bought a word of that Vietnam claim - but I can see it's a massively important film, especially as a product of its time. To remake it is pointless.
    The silliest of all the new remakes I've seen is The Omen. I mean, really! What's the point in that?

  2. I'm suspicious of the Vietnam claim as well. I have a feeling that the film was purely for shock value, especially after hearing the story of how Friday the 13th was conceived (Sean Cunningham came up with the title and bought advertising to test the market before he even had a script.) The Omen remake was completely pointless and not even Mia Farrow can compete with Billie Whitelaw's Mrs. Baylock!


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