In defence of the Hollywood remake

Charlton_Heston_in_The_Ten_Commandments_film_trailerThere’s a somewhat misleading belief that Hollywood has run out of ideas. It hasn’t. What it has run out of is money and balls. According to one Hollywood director we spoke to, “There are lots of great scripts knocking about, but few studios want to take risks on them. They know a remake, sequel, comic-book adaptation or some s*** based on a kids’ toy already has an existing core audience.” Tellingly, he asked to remain anonymous because, “Hey, one day I may get offered one of those reboots and they pay big.”

Caution is understandable. Even the sequels and remakes are struggling to get approval. It was recently reported that the next James Bond film has been delayed indefinitely because MGM studios is $3.7 billion in debt. Some find this hard to believe given that the last two Bond films have made a total of $1.2 billion worldwide, but the studio’s uncertain future means that even films that are dead certs to make money are on hold.

Their remake of RoboCop has been also shelved and Peter Jackson’s adaptation of The Hobbit has been pushed back. MGM’s sole release so far this year has been the sophomoric comedy Hot Tub Time Machine.

But while it seems that yet another summer season is lacking originality, adopting a blanket distrust of remakes is foolish — they are not intrinsically bad things. In fact, some of the best films of all time were second or third attempts at a story. Looking at the top 30 films of all time (as ranked by cinema goers on IMDB), fewer than half of them are from original screenplays.

So while there appears to be a lot of wretched and needless remakes cluttering up the cinemas this summer (Nightmare On Elm Street, we’re especially looking at you) it’s not indicative of Hollywood having run out of ideas, it’s just studios playing it safe and giving the public what it wants. Was it ever really any different?

FIVE RULES FOR A SUCCESSFUL REWORK

1. TECHNOLOGY
If the original film was a decent idea that was executed poorly (perhaps due to budgetary or technological constraints) then taking the good idea and making it work is fine. Ben Hur (1957) won 11 Academy Awards, but it’s worth remembering that was a second remake, having previously been shot in 1907 as a 15-minute short and then again in 1925 as the most expensive silent film ever (losing MGM a lot of money in the process). The same epic story with sound and Technicolor was always going to be the better version and a worthwhile endeavour. Having said that, a remake of Ben Hur is out this year as a TV two-parter (starring Ray Winstone) and no matter how good it is, people will react unfavourably because the ’50s version is such a well-loved classic. It would have been different if…

2. FEW PEOPLE REMEMBER THE PREVIOUS VERSIONS
Other remakes work because, even though the original was decent enough, their popularity hasn’t endured. So a well-made update brings the story to an audience that probably never saw any earlier incarnations. Bedtime Story (1964) — starring Marlon Brando and David Niven as lothario conmen on the French Riviera — was a decent film. But because few remember it well, the 1989 remake (titled Dirty Rotten Scoundrels and featuring Michael Caine and Steve Martin in the lead roles) was a huge success. The ’80s version, however, may not have been the success it was had the filmmakers gone with their original choice for the lead roles: Mick Jagger and David Bowie. Which brings us to…

3. CASTING
If you’re going to re-do a film, the casting has to be at least as good as the original. This is because if you’re hearing what is essentially the same story again, it can’t be told less convincingly. The much-loved Billy Wilder film The Front Page (1974) with Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau worked, despite being a remake of the near peerless His Girl Friday (1940) — which itself was a remake. The quality pairing of Lemmon and Matthau was the main reason they were able to re-create the comedic spark that Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell had. Lemmon played the part that Russell made her own 34 years previously and even kept the same character name of Hildy Johnson. Because both of these versions were excellent, they stand up far better than the later incarnation set at a TV studio: Switching Channels (1988). Had the very sterile and ’80s-looking Switching Channels been the original it would have been ripe for a re-working because…

4. IT HAS AGED BADLY
Many films encapsulate the era in which they were filmed, which is fine, but a great film transcends this and becomes timeless. The mid-’50s version of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, for example, has dated badly. Fifty-five years on it feels schlocky and looks like a filler B-Movie. There have been several versions of this story — the original source being a serialisation in Colliers Magazine — but the 1978 take with Donald Sutherland and Jeff Goldblum is by far the best. Less hysterical than the ’56 version, and with a far superior ending, they got this one near perfect and it became one of those films where there’s no point remaking it again. Another reason for its enduring legacy is that it is played more as a psychological thriller and therefore stands the test of time better than most Sci-Fi films. Of course, someone did remake it in 1993 and again in 2007. Both of those versions were pretty terrible, not least because they withered in the shadow of the Philip Kaufman ’70s version. That’s the complete opposite of the very best reason to remake a film, which is…

5. BECAUSE THE ORIGINAL WASN’T VERY GOOD
Films fail for a multitude of reasons: casting issues, funding, too many script changes, location problems and so on. But if the idea for the original story was good enough to get the go-ahead in the first place, it might be worth a second try with a new director and cast. When Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and the rest of the at Pack were brought together under director Lewis Milestone to film a Vegas heist movie in 1960, it sounded like it should be a surefire hit. But thanks to the cast goofing off and phoning in their performances, the end product was largely underwhelming. Reshot by Steven Soderbergh in 2001, under the same name of Ocean’s Eleven, and with a stellar cast, it was a worthy hit that spawned two sequels and raked in over a billion dollars.

 

FIVE OTHER REMAKES THAT SURPASSED THE ORIGINALS

12 MONKEYS (1995)
12-monkeysTerry Gilliam’s postapocalyptic time-travel story, featuring excellent performances from Bruce Willis and Brad Pitt, was a remake of La Jetée. The original was only a short film, with no character dialogue aside from a voiceover narrating, but the essential idea was very good. In the hands of Gilliam it became a great film.

THE THING (1982)
the-thing-1200-1200-675-675-crop-000000Kurt Russell and his team stranded in an Antarctic research station following the killing of Norwegian scientists. Soon they discover what killed them. In the hands of master horror director John Carpenter, this remake of a 1951 spooky tale (itself based on a novella) becomes a fraught and tense thriller with bursts of gory horror. A prequel is currently being shot.

THE BOURNE IDENTITY (2002)
bourne-identity-1200-1200-675-675-crop-000000Matt Damon’s first outing as Jason Bourne was actually the second try at the film. A Matt Damon’s first outing as Jason Bourne was actually the second try at the film. A made-for television film version was released in 1988 starring Richard Chamberlain. Although the television version included the interesting Carlos the Jackal sub-plot featured in the novel, the latest version was a far superior film that went on to become a very good trilogy.

BREWSTER’S MILLIONS (1985)
brewstersRecent talk that a new version of this Richard Prior classic might see the light of day has angered some fans of the mid-’80s comedy. But the Reagan-era parable was actually the seventh version of this story to be adapted from the 1902 novel. This is the best one.

THE TEN COMMANDMENTS (1956)
Charlton_Heston_in_The_Ten_Commandments_film_trailerCecil B. DeMille’s biblical epic was a superior remake of his own film of the same name from 1923. The silent original switched to a modern day setting halfway through with an allegorical tale about two brothers. The ’50s version, however, was a tour de force for DeMille (in his last directorial role) and when adjusted for inflation, only five films have made more in the history of cinema.

For Esquire magazine – click here for PDF part 1 / here for part 2

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