Stop Hating Remakes -You Love Them
Remakes are like fast-food joints, it's super trendy to hate on them, yet somehow they keep turning a handsome profit. Despite what many may say, most people love remakes. In most cases it's really just a very specific kind of remake people hate, or sometimes it's simply the marketing they're responding to. But before we can tackle the common critiques of remakes or a possible dearth of original movies, we have to define what the hell a remake actually is. A "remake" in a broad sense is just making something that was made once before, but there are categories of remakes to consider. Any remake can and will often be a blend of these different categories:
THE CLONE: When a movie is remade almost exactly like the original movie. Beat for beat, shot for shot, the entire effort is a coasting homage, at best bringing nothing but love for the original to the table. When people fuss and fit over remakes, it often seems their rhetoric is geared towards this type, even though this is one of the more rare kind of remakes. It's also the kind of remake that seems to yield the most consistently underwhelming results. If the movie wasn't great to begin with, why redo the exact same movie? If it's a clone of a beloved classic, all it will do is remind people the entire time that they would be better off watching the original. Looking at the writing credits section of any remake can tell you a lot about what kind of remake it is. For clone remakes you'll notice only the same screenwriters for the original movie appear. Because literally nothing new was added. A couple of notable examples would be Gus Van Sant's 1998 Psycho or John Moore's 2006 The Omen. These are the one kind of remakes I will typically avoid and admit are a bit of a waste for the industry.
THE REIMAGINING: When a movie is remade using only the basic premise and core elements from the original movie. This term started making the rounds in the early 2000's, when the boom of 70's/80's horror remakes started. It was marketing speak that emerged from press junkets to let the audience know they weren't about to watch a clone-style remake. While the new wave of horror remakes were quite popular at the box office, they were also met with a healthy amount of backlash from fans and critics alike, with a double edged sword of complaints that they lacked originality, but then also weren't faithful enough. Threading the needle between being original and faithful at the same time was daunting, so using this "reimagining" term helped navigate those rough marketing waters. This term helped filmmakers free themselves from those opposing constraints. Sorta like saying "Hey, you can't judge this against the original, it's it's own thing, but if you liked or hated the original, please give me your money, thanks!". Great examples of this subcategory are Brian De Palma's 1983 Scarface remake or Zack Snyder's 2004 Dawn of the Dead remake. Both done amazingly well.
THE RE-ADAPTATION: When a movie is remade, but instead of an adaption of the original movie, it's a new adaption of the source material. Every movie is adapted from some kind of source material, be it an original screenplay, a novella, a graphic novel, interpretive dance, you name it. Which is how this remake type can simultaneously be wildly different yet extremely faithful. Often times, what you'll hear is a filmmaker saw the original movie as a child and it had a formative impact on them; later as an adult filmmaker, they found themselves having more passion for the book/story it was based on. This kind of remake certainly seems to lend itself to more passionate film-making, even if the results don't always show it. Two of the greatest remakes of all time fall into this category, David Cronenberg's 1986 The Fly remake and John Carpenter's 1981 The Thing remake.
THE REBOOT: When a movie is remade for the purpose of restarting a series, franchise or cinematic universe. Think Chris Nolan's Batman Begins, or Marc Webb's Amazing Spider-man. You'll really only hear this around huge branded franchises that no one can stand to let die a natural death, because you can't just leave money sitting on the table. There are of course plenty of remakes with sequels that turn into a new series, but this designation is for movies with that plan baked in from the get-go. The good news is they're typically dramatic re-imaginings and/or readaptations, the bad news is the impatience to re-establish the brand often trumps strong story choices. So how you might feel about a reboot could hinge on how excited you are for that new vision. Of course if you hate them, you just have to wait for the next reboot.
THE REQUEL: A sequel that is also a remake to some degree. There are many shades of these and sometimes they're just reboot attempts. For example, Sam Raimi's Evil Dead II, which is both a compressed remake of the first film as well as a sequel to it, all in one movie. You then have the sequels that are meant to establish a new timeline with the same basic stories and characters, such as movies like 2006's Casino Royale or 2006's Superman Returns. In many instances these are essentially reboots that manage to maintain a timeline and/or character continuity with the originals. Trying to satisfy the desire for a sequel, while realizing the series needs to take a different direction from the last sequel (or in some cases prequel). Many consider Star Wars: Force Awakens to also be a requel.
THE REVISIT: When a movie is remade by the same person who made the original. Classic examples of this revolve around emerging changes in film formats. Cecil B. Demille remaking his 1923 silent film The Ten Commandments into the now infamous 1956 The Ten Commandments. Yasujiro Ozu remaking his 1934 black-and-white A Story of Floating Weeds into the 1959 in-color Floating Weeds. As was the case with Hitchcock's 1934 and 1956 versions of The Man Who Knew Too Much. Then you have when a filmmaker remakes the film for an audience in a different country/region, usually in a different language to appeal to a wider audience. Michael Haneke did this with his Austrian film Funny Games, remaking it for American audiences in 2007. Or Takashi Shimizu remaking his Japanese film Ju-On: The Grudge, into 2004's The Grudge for American audiences.
THE WORST ARGUMENTS AGAINST REMAKES
THEY'RE ONLY IN REMAKING IT FOR THE MONEY: Sure, and so is the case for every other movie. While some indie/art-house films that are 100% self financed might be done strictly for artistic reasons, nothing financed by a studio ever is. Sometimes a movie is financed with an expected loss because it's a "prestige project", but it's still a business choice meant to positively impact the studios bottom line down the road. The film industry is an industry, profit is always the main driver of content creation. In fact, if you made a list of the most beloved horror classics, all of them were made because horror movies are cheap and easy. Not to make a statement, or for artistic purposes. That's not to say artistry isn't important to filmmaking, or that films aren't made with artistic integrity, just that with little exception, movies are made primarily to turn a profit. That's how studios stay in business, that's why certain filmmakers get hired and rehired. Many of the great horror directors started out doing horror only because they're cheap and profitable. They only stayed in the genre because they were victims of their own success within that genre.
THEY'RE RUINING MY CHILDHOOD: Well I guess it's time to grow the fuck up then? Seriously, if you're an adult, it's a good time to let go of your childhood, especially if you're feeling this intense level of discomfort. Not letting go of your childhood is a serious problem for my generation. I say this as someone completely guilty of re-consuming my entire childhood and forcing it on my offspring. Is it because we're the first generation that wasn't forced to fully grow up? Simon Pegg has some thoughts on that here. It started by just going on Ebay, or to garage sales and re-buying everything from our childhood. But now it's gotten so bad that all of our childhood brands and properties can be readily found at any major retailer. Literal child things from the 70's/80's/90's being remade, and then sold to adults in stores. References and mashups of things we loved as kids are now being worked into new tv shows and movies at an alarming rate, just to satiate this retrobative, self indulgent orgy. It's a bizarre cultural paradox, being the main driving economic force for things being remade, as well as the greatest source of butthurt about them.
Nothing quite sums up this ironic mix of blind self inflicting rage than this video to the right. These guys, oozing in thick smugness as they snark against remakes, while ironically sitting proudly in front of a trophy case full of remade retro/vintage toys and mashup products. Completely oblivious to their own starring role in the very reason why companies keep selling our own childhood back to us. Don't be like these guys. Seriously, these guys are the worst.
THAT REMAKE DOESN'T NEED TO HAPPEN: No movie needs to happen. Sure certain stories may seem more ripe than others for a retelling, but "need" has nothing to do with it. You might as well just scream, "WORDS WORDS WORDS". Because you're not really saying anything here.
THEY'RE OUT OF IDEAS (The myth of originality and it's worth): "They've run out of ideas, would it kill them to do something original?!" Original things are not inherently good. A story idea is a lot like a scientific hypothesis, the more original it is, the more likely that it's a hot mess of terrible nonsense. It's far better to take an existing story idea that works and tweak it, than to start with something completely original. At least if your goal is to make something enjoyable for other humans. This becomes more and more true as time goes on. The bar for something to be both original and enjoyable is constantly raising.
The vast majority of any movie, story, music or any work of art you love, is based off/borrowed from/inspired by/adapted from something someone else made. Not only that, but how it was made was based on methods, mediums, tools and techniques created, troubleshooted and perfected by others before them. Originality in most cases is an evolution, not an revolution. There can be notable exceptions, but they tend to prove this rule. I'm not saying that experiencing originality in art isn't a tremendously satisfying experience. It is. But that satisfaction is reliant more on the success of the work and less the inherent enjoyment of something original. For every satisfying original work, there are a million original works that were terrible. It's not that we shouldn't praise originality, just stop pretending it's mutually inclusive with quality. Not to mention we're talking about movies here, which are things with hundreds of people and thousands of moving parts. There are plenty of areas for originality to shine through in a movie besides the basic story premise, and still yield some pretty satisfying results.
Truthfully, we love familiar stories, we just fetishize originality. Everyone loves the new show Stranger Things, which is essentially a patchwork of familiar story elements. But becuase it wasn't marketed as a remake of anything, so people are celebrating all of the borrowed elements like it's trip into their own childhood. One of the films that's a huge part of most childhoods is the 1939 film The Wizard of Oz. Which was actually the seventh film adaptation of that story. Yes, it's a remake. Tired of them remaking horror classics? Classics like the 1931 Frankenstein? That's the Fourth film adaption of that story. I can't begin to count how many since.
HOW TO TELL IF A REMAKE WILL BE A TURD
The best way to tell if a remake is a steaming pile of cinematic feces or a bonafide classic, is to see it for yourself and decide. Barring that, there are some patterns to look for once you take a step back and look at all of the successes and failures. Three remake factors in particular seem to be common hallmarks for whether a remake will be good or bad:
- ADHERENCE TO THE ORIGINAL: This I call the Vince Vaughn factor. When they did the shot-for-shot Psycho remake, the only new thing offered to the audience was a film in color and less than iconic depictions of iconic characters. That's a herculean task for the best actor to take on and too much to expect from poor Vince Vaughn. The less a remake adheres to the original film, the better it tends to be.
- HOW WELL THE ORIGINAL HOLDS UP: Movies that don't hold up well today are ripe for remakes. When movies still hold up well, their remakes struggle to compete for the same cultural space. Thus making it an uphill battle that can make an average film seem terrible when contrasting it to the original.
- HOW COMPETENT THE FILMMAKERS ARE: Not all screenwriters, directors and production studios are created equal. You shouldn't write off new talent, but you can often get a decent idea of what caliber of movie you might be expecting by looking at prior credits of the people making it. Both good and bad surprises happen all the time from people we expected good or bad things from, but it's more often than not a solid indicator.
The factors that can play in to whether a remake works or not, exist on a spectrum that is largely subjective. Let's take a look at a two prominent remakes and see how these remake factors may have played a part in them.
THE THING: This remake is the best case scenario. The 1951 The Thing From Another World is a groundbreaking genre classic in it's own right. However, it didn't quite hold up by the time John Carpenter set out to make his own version, 1981's The Thing. Instead of cloning the aging classic, he went back to the 1938 source novella, John W. Campbell's Who Goes There? The original 1951 adaption bore little resemblance to that novella, but Carpenter's film stuck close to it. An amazing, established director, stellar cast and crew and award winning special effects that hold up today seal the deal. This remake isn't just better than an already revered original, it's arguably one of the best genre films of all time. A similar remake factor cocktail of success can be seen in David Cronenberg's 1986 remake of The Fly. Carpenter himself would go on to do a remake of Village of the Damned, with far inferior results. Before having three of his own originals remade by others, Halloween, Assault On Precinct 13 and The Fog. A remake of his Big Trouble In Little China was just announced, with another possible Halloween reboot/revisit/re-imagining/requel on the horizon.
GHOSTBUSTERS: Not since Gamergate had there been something which could reliably conjure misogynistic internet trolls like the mention of this gender-swapped remake could. Sure, remakes get a bum rap from fans of the original, but this one clearly had set off a different kind of firestorm, under the cloak of remake-hate. The sad irony is in the end, it was reverence to the original and meticulous fan-service which ultimately sank the film. When this film did it's own thing, with it's own tone as a reimagining, it was great. It had a very competent cast and crew as well. But, sadly the effort was stifled at every turn by cameos and references to the original that always brought the film to a screeching halt. Instead of focusing on it's own main story, it fell back too often on the corpse of what it was remaking. The original still holds up well today as well, which made it extra problematic even for audiences new to the franchise. Proof that if you want to work in references and cameos from another film, make sure they fit organically and aren't dependent on seeing that other film. While not a total train-wreck, it was certainly a missed opportunity.
I think we can agree no one wants to see a crappy version of something you've seen before. But unbridled hatred to remakes is just silly hipster crap. Whether it's called a remake or not, most every movie or tv show we see is in fact a remake of one or more things that came before it. Even the best things are made to turn a profit and originality can often best be expressed by using tried-and-true elements as a spring board. Even when results are truly terrible, the publicity brings a new audience to the original and source material. Which often means a better release or repackaging of the original and/or revenue and publicity for those involved in making the original. There are many movies I want to see remade, just to increase the chances that the original gets a proper blu-ray release. If after all of this, you're still hellbent on hating remakes, at least put your money where your disdain is. Stop re-buying your childhood and start supporting original works. If you can't do that at the megaplex, do it with VOD services, or start attending film festivals. Although I'm willing to bet that the vast majority of original films you find to support, are in many ways just remakes in their own right. In the mean time I'll be eagerly awaiting this remake of a remake...